Just two years into his career—and his 20s—young wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster is already among the leaders of the team, especially among the skill positions. He has now already been here as long or longer than most of them, and has been a high-performing player by league-wide standards, being recognized as a Pro Bowler in 2018.
His on-field skills will be crucial this season without the services of players like Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell, but so will his off-field demeanor and his ability to manage, work with, and lead teammates, including those who are older than him—which is most.
The past two seasons have been some of the most dramatic in recent team history, and his presence has not been an insignificant escalator in that. It’s not his fault by any means, but his success and popularity was a component of what set Brown off for sure. As exemplified by Brown’s behavior toward Smith-Schuster in recent months.
After seeing all of that, however, the locker room looks and feels so much different this offseason, as Smith-Schuster told reporters following an OTA session yesterday. “The chemistry is on point”, Will Graves of the Associated Press quoted him as saying.
“Everyone is on the same page. Everyone is communicating. There’s really no — how do you say? — drama in our locker room”.
There’s that word, drama. And you can be sure that Smith-Schuster knew what he was invoking when he choice it, with multiple meanings behind it, referring both to his former teammates and to the media as well, whom many in the locker room believe created much of the drama, or at the very least blew it out of proportion.
“There’s so much motivation for everyone”, the 22-year-old went on to say. “You think about last year, having AB and Le’Veon and this year not having those two guys, two great players. I think for this year we’ve got guys like Moncrief, James Conner, it’s his time now. It’s always been his time. We always want to rock with what we got in the locker room, so at the end of the day, whoever is in that huddle, 11 man, that’s what we’re going to rock with”.
Of course they didn’t actually have Bell last year, since he elected to never report after failing to sign his franchise tender, sitting out the entire season before signing with the New York Jets and now sitting out their offseason activities because he professes to know what’s best for himself.
But Smith-Schuster is one of the lynchpins in what is an increasingly younger nucleus at the skill positions, including wide receivers James Washington, Ryan Switzer, and Diontae Johnson, as well as running backs James Conner, Jaylen Samuels, and Benny Snell. This is a pretty fresh and young group ready to tell its own story and not be defined by the antics of their predecessors.