Wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster was already a critically important member of the Pittsburgh Steelers in his second season, recording 111 receptions for 1426 yards and seven touchdowns, earning Pro Bowl recognition in the process as the number two passing option behind Antonio Brown.
But as we all know at this point, he’s not behind Brown anymore, who was traded to the Oakland Raiders after his mustache mysteriously turned blonde. It’s his time to be the number one guy in Pittsburgh, and with that comes a lot of responsibility that he didn’t have on his plate in his first two seasons.
That’s a lot to ask of a 22-year-old, even if he was the fastest 22-year-old to ever record 150 receptions or 2000 receiving yards in his career. But he has consistently shown himself to be mature beyond his years on the field and in the locker room to date. That doesn’t mean the team, and Head Coach Mike Tomlin, don’t expect more from him in his third season.
“I just want to see him grow and mature as a player, as a person. He’s done a good job of that between year one and year two”, Tomlin said of his star receiver while at the annual league meeting yesterday. “He was more highly conditioned, more ready for the fight. I thought it revealed itself through more consistency of play. I thought it revealed itself in a higher level of play”.
As a rookie, Smith-Schuster caught 58 passes for 917 yards and seven touchdowns, so while that was good numbers for his first season, his second year also represented a significant jump. He also went from seeing 76 targets to 166 targets, so there you go.
“He went into the offseason healthy, so that’s a good thing. And I think that’s a recipe for him continuing to move along that path”, Tomlin said. Smith-Schuster played in all 16 games in 2018 and also participated in the Pro Bowl afterwards, indicating his good health.
The Steelers head coach then went on to talk about the significance in the early-career progress of players, going from year one to year two and then from year two to year three. The team had three second-year players turn into Pro Bowlers in 2018.
“I think it’s reasonable to additionally talk about those guys becoming perennial all-star contributors”, he said of that group, which also includes running back James Conner and outside linebacker T.J. Watt. “I think that’s a realistic discussion. I know that those are some of the ways that we intend to challenge those guys”.
For as much pressure as there is one Smith-Schuster, there might be equal or even greater pressure on Watt and Conner, especially Watt, who is being seen as the salvation of the outside linebacker position after the better part of a decade of underwhelming play.