It’s far more likely than not at this point that the Pittsburgh Steelers will be moving ahead into the 2019 season without wide receiver Antonio Brown. Both sides have pretty much come out and said that they agree a trade is in their mutual best interests and that the process of making that happen is now getting underway.
So that leaves the Steelers to figure out what the wide receiver room will look like—and how it will perform—going forward without a perennial first-team All-Pro occupying so much attention on nearly every snap he’s on the field.
Last season, in 15 games—for reasons we know all too well—Brown still caught 104 passes for 1297 yards and a league-leading 15 touchdown receptions. Nobody else on the Steelers has caught 10 or more touchdown passes in a season in recent years since Jerricho Cotchery in an outlier season in 2013.
The Steelers do know that they have JuJu Smith-Schuster. They do know that he put up some really strong numbers in his second season, catching 111 passes for 1426 yards and seven touchdowns. He is the youngest player to record 2000 receiving yards, and the youngest to 150 receptions as well. He’s accomplished a lot.
But who is he without Brown? We don’t know. Smith-Schuster doesn’t know. The Steelers don’t know. There’s only one way to find out.
“We have a significant other receiver on this team in JuJu [Smith-Schuster] and there’s no getting around that. Together they’re great. What JuJu would be without an Antonio Brown, we don’t know”, Colbert told reporters yesterday, per a transcript provided by Will Graves of the Associated Press. “We won’t know until we move forward, just like we didn’t know what Antonio would be when he was just a backup special teams practice guy. So yes, of course there are things that maybe he wants to do better than or more than and he thinks he can do it maybe in a different environment. Only time will tell if it’s the right move”.
There’s only ever one way to find out of a receiver can be the number one. Mike Wallace was given that test in his second year as he became the team’s primary target, catching 60 passes for 1257 yards and 10 touchdowns that year. In 2013, it was Brown’s turn to learn if he could be the number one guy when Wallace left in free agency.
And so it seems that 2019 will be the year that Smith-Schuster and the Steelers find out if the former second-round pick can be the top dog at the age of 22. It’s a gamble, but it’s also the hand they have been dealt this season. And it will be as much on the rest of the receivers to step up as well.