For a player who is already so much in the spotlight, by his own choice and even his own doing, it’s really hard to state the case that he is in anybody’s shadow, but when you’re JuJu Smith-Schuster and you’re playing across from Antonio Brown, there isn’t a much larger shadow to be cast.
Still, he managed to take some big steps out of that shadow last year when he led the Pittsburgh Steelers with 111 receptions for 1426 yards, as well as seven touchdowns. Brown still had a strong season with 104 catches for 1297 yards and a league-leading 15 touchdowns, a career high.
Now that Brown is with the Oakland Raiders, however, the only shadow remaining is the one of the past. The 22-year-old has an immense opportunity to set himself up in 2019 for the long-term future depending upon how the year goes.
And it’s an opportunity he might not even have had if it were not for the rise he has already seen up to this point in his career. Because as time goes on, it is seemingly increasingly obvious that Smith-Schuster’s ascension had a lot to do with Brown’s exit strategy.
It wasn’t just that he was voted the team’s most valuable player, though the 31-year-old made it very clear that the guy who’s nine years younger than him winning an honor he already had four times did bother him.
It wasn’t even just the fact that Smith-Schuster was beginning to get a lot of targets, and put up a lot of numbers. It was those things, combined with the fact that he was getting the love, both from the fans and from his teammates and coaches, that he had come to expect as exclusive to his territory.
Brown had been ‘the man’ in Pittsburgh since Mike Wallace left in free agency after the 2012 season, and that coincided with his crazy ascension into the stratosphere with the statistics that he would put up over the next six years.
In that time, he put up 686 catches for 9145 yards and 67 touchdowns, averaging 114 catches for 1524 yards and over 11 touchdowns per season. Averaging. He never dipped below the thresholds of 101, 1284, and nine, respectively, in those statistics during that run. And in the years he put up those specific numbers, he failed to play in all 16 games, sometimes due to playoff circumstances, sometimes due to injury.
Now that Smith-Schuster is putting up similar numbers and has Ben Roethlisberger talking him up—and with no guaranteed money left on his contract, at age 31—Brown sensed the danger. The young man was even encroaching on his endorsement deals, appearing in a pizza ad.
And so Brown will play his last years in Oakland—at least until the next catastrophe happens—while Smith-Schuster is just entering his prime in Pittsburgh. if the choice were by necessity one over the other, the Steelers are now better set up in that arrangement.