It’s hard to see the current state of the Pittsburgh Steelers right now and not wonder if they are at a crossroads. Arguably the biggest face of their franchise, nine-year veteran wide receiver Antonio Brown seemingly doesn’t know what he wants, and the Steelers don’t know whether or not they can keep him in the locker room.
One wonders how much the divide between Brown and the Steelers has resulted because of the wedge of JuJu Smith-Schuster, the young, talented, energetic, yet humble wide receiver who has exploded onto the scene during his first two seasons in the NFL, reaching the Pro Bowl in 2018—because Brown backed out.
While Brown is hanging out with James Harrison and smoking cigars with Chad Ochocinco, seemingly talking off the cuff and alluding to this and that while still not making any contact with the team, the 22-year-old Smith-Schuster is on social media talking about how much he loves the game.
“My love for this game is what’s carried me to the point I’m at today, and it’s the same reason I’ll never stop working towards doing more!”, he wrote in a Twitter post. Admittedly it was an advertisement, but it’s not as though he hasn’t been saying similar things since he was drafted.
— JuJu Smith-Schuster (@TeamJuJu) January 11, 2019
It seems to me that the Steelers and their fans are prepared to embrace Smith-Schuster as their next great superstar and face of the franchise, and it’s easy to see why, but that process may also include shoving Brown off to another team.
In his second season, Smith-Schuster was able to put up very similar numbers to Brown, which has people thinking that the Steelers are equipped to move on from a piece that they may have previously believed was indispensable. They may find out in hindsight that he was indeed indispensable, but we seem to be in a place in which we are willing to find out if that’s true.
Brown caught 104 passes for 1297 yards and 15 touchdowns during the 2018 season. Smith-Schuster caught 111 passes for 1426 yards and seven touchdowns. Both of them are Pro Bowlers this year, and were just the sixth pair in NFL history to catch 100 passes for over 1000 yards for the same team in the same season.
If Smith-Schuster is here on his own in 2019, that will only give him even more targets and more opportunities to thrive. It will be up to him to step up into that number one role without Brown there to draw additional coverage, of course.
Will we have to find an answer to the question of whether or not Smith-Schuster can step into that role in 2019, or will Brown still be here? I’m still hoping for the latter, but there is work to be done on both sides simply to allow that to be a possibility.