The Pittsburgh Steelers have had a pipeline at the wide receiver position almost for as long as Head Coach Mike Tomlin has been here. Outside of a pretty significant misstep with Limas Sweed in the second round of 2008, the Steelers’ drafts over the past decade have yielded better value at the position than anybody else in the league, having drafted four different Pro Bowlers in that span.
The most recent among them is the young JuJu Smith-Schuster, who despite having already completed two full NFL seasons is just 22 years old. During the year, he became just the third player in team history to catch at least 100 passes, and the second to top 1400 receiving yards, in a single season.
It is with that performance in mind that the conversation about the future of the wide receiver position in Pittsburgh is being framed as the organization is being forced to contemplate moving on from its most individually accomplished player at the position in its history in Antonio Brown.
Having made the Pro Bowl seven times and the All-Pro list five times during his first nine seasons, Brown was even in strong consideration for the league MVP award in 2017 before a high ankle sprain caused him to miss the last two and a half games.
Smith-Schuster has shown that he can put up similar numbers to Brown, but the question is if he can also put up those numbers without the luxury of having Brown opposite him, which means tougher coverage assignments.
Smith-Schuster recently appeared on Undisputed with Skip Bayless and Shannon Sharpe, in which Sharpe asked him if he was ready for that role, should it come about in the event that the Steelers elect to trade Brown.
“As a kid growing up, I always wanted to be the No. 1 guy. Now I have the opportunity to be the No. 1 guy — if it does come … I’m definitely going to embrace it and take that role.”
— UNDISPUTED (@undisputed) January 30, 2019
“Most definitely. I think as kid growing up, I always wanted to be the number one guy”, he said. “Now I have the opportunity to be the number one guy—if it does come, obviously I prefer AB stay on the team and be on the other side. You think about the numbers that we put up, both over 100 catches, over 1000 yards, first time to do it in Steelers franchise [history], I think it’s unbelievable. But like you said, if the opportunity should arise, I’m definitely going to embrace it and take that role”.
It won’t be much up to him whether or not he gets the opportunity to embrace that role. Really, it will be primarily up to Brown. His actions, or inactions, over the course of the next month and a half will be the primary determiner of whether or not the Steelers choose to trade him.
At this point we have heard from everybody but Brown about what he really thinks. Some have said that a part of him wants the Steelers to see how they would suffer without him. If that part of him exists and results in his forcing a trade, then Smith-Schuster will be tasked with leading the team’s response.