The Pittsburgh Steelers will have a top wide receiver in 2019 no matter what happens (within reason) over the course of the next month. The only thing to be determined is whether that will continue to be 10th-year veteran Antonio Brown or his young sidekick, third-year JuJu Smith-Schuster, who has over 160 catches for north of 2300 yards and 14 touchdowns in his first two seasons.
Smith-Schuster has been very effective in working off of the attention Brown receives from opposing defenses, there is no doubt about that, but the questions that observers are asking is if he is capable of continuing to be successful on his own.
ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler tackled that topic recently. While a poll of scouts and coaches affirmed the obvious that Brown was “the guy” in Pittsburgh—or in other words, the player that opposing defenses scouted to stop—Fowler argues that the level of his production strongly indicates that he can transition into that top target.
Among the marks that he cites is the fact that he is only one of three players in NFL history to have posted a 100-catch, 1400-yard season in his first two years in the league. The other two to do it? Isaac Bruce and Larry Fitzgerald. Both of them will in all likelihood end up in the Hall of Fame when all is said and done. Smith-Schuster also surpassed Fitzgerald as the youngest player to catch 100 passes in a season, and as the youngest player to gain 1500 yards. I’m virtually certain he was the youngest to 2000 as well, and can continue to be the youngest to every milestone if he keeps his pace.
Another category in which he finds himself in the company of Hall of Famers or likely to be Hall of Famers is in his rise in production from year one to year two. He caught 58 passes as a rookie and then 111 last year. Only Marvin Harrison and Andre Johnson saw bigger jumps among players who had at least 50 receptions. Harrison is already in the Hall of Fame, and Johnson stands a good chance of joining him.
And of course one of the most underrated qualities of Smith-Schuster’s game as been his ability to break off the big play. his three touchdowns of 75 or more yards is behind only Tyreek Hill’s five over the past two years. Only 15 players have had more in their entire careers going back to 1994, none more than seven (Terrell Owens and DeSean Jackson)
Smith-Schuster has certainly accomplished a lot and put up good numbers in his first two seasons, but even if Brown doesn’t return, he will still be tasked with facing a different challenge in 2019, in that he will be playing on the outside more often, most likely. That will especially be the case if he is the team’s top target.