Whether or not Antonio Brown will play for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2019 is going to go a long way toward shaping their season, but it will not determine whether or not they can be successful. Or at least it will not decided whether or not they have a legitimate number one wide receiver, according to Pro Football Focus, who believe the Steelers already have another one on the roster.
That would obviously be JuJu Smith-Schuster, the 22-year-old former second-round pick who made the Pro Bowl this year in his second season. He led the team with 111 receptions for 1426 yards, which rank second and first, respectively, in team history outside of Brown. Even with Brown, those numbers rank fourth and fifth.
Even if Brown is not here to play opposite him, PFF believes that Smith-Schuster is readymade to slide into that number one receiver role, citing a handful of key statistics that they believe speak well in his favor concerning his ability to be the Steelers’ top receiving threat.
According to their numbers, he gained 660 yards after the catch in 2018, which was the most by any wide receiver in the NFL, and the most at the position since 2015. He also gained 384 yards on ‘deep’ passes, defined as those passes which are thrown 20 or more yards through the air, which ranked ninth among receivers.
One other metric that impressed PFF was his ability to make contested catches. Though they don’t define a contested catch here in this article, they credit him as having 21 such receptions during the year, which was more than anybody else except for DeAndre Hopkins, which…I mean, have you seen DeAndre Hopkins? No shame in being second to him in contested catches.
“Whether it be in the slot or out wide, JuJu has impressed in his first two seasons”, Ben Linsey summarizes of the young star. “He has shown the playmaking ability, hands, and versatility required of a number one wide receiver all while maintaining his infectious energy and likable demeanor. That combination is what led to him receiving the team MVP award voted on by his teammates”.
While the author acknowledges that “Brown certainly made life easier on JuJu by demanding constant double teams and multiple eyes on him every week”, he added that “that doesn’t mean that JuJu isn’t ready to command and beat those double teams himself”.
Through two seasons in the NFL, Smith-Schuster already has 169 career receptions for 2343 yards and 14 touchdowns. He has made every type of catch you could ask for, whether it’s go routes, possession downs, scramble drills, contested situations, circus catches, or anything else you could think of. Even a hook and ladder play.
But we won’t know what this team will look like without Brown unless or until we actually see it happen. Maybe he can be the number one threat, but would the Steelers still be a championship-caliber team?