Entering his third season in the NFL, Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster is not just ascending into the number one role at wide receiver, but also into the leadership role. Outside of Eli Rogers, he is now the longest-tenured wide receiver on the team, and the third-most experienced overall at the position.
While Antonio Brown wasn’t exactly a leader in the most stereotypical sense—he was primarily a leader by example, if that—his departure, along with the absences of other veterans like Darrius Heyward-Bey and Justin Hunter leave a vacuum of experience and leadership that he has to fill.
“For me, it’s only my third year coming in. We’ve got a vet guy, guys that played more years in the league”, he qualified before explaining why he is stepping up, and how. “Just being more vocal, speaking up in the group. Everyone in the room is a leader. Everyone, if they want to say something, they’re able to say anything they want. But like I said, just being a leader by making plays on the field and speaking up to the guys”.
Being a leader isn’t necessarily just about being the person that everybody turns to. It’s also about empowering everybody around you, so from that perspective, I like what Smith-Schuster said about everybody in the room being capable of stepping up and sharing their input and taking ownership of their room.
He continued to talk about the importance of the whole over the individual, and not just at the wide receiver position but throughout the position groups. It will take all hands on deck, ultimately, to patch up the gaping hole in the offense left by Brown’s departure, but Smith-Schuster likes the tools they have on-hand to work on that, including the group’s versatility.
“And that’s what’s great about our room is that we got guys who can play everywhere, not just one position”, he said. “We’re not centering off of one person because you know, everybody can make their plays: tight ends, running backs, receivers”.
Brown was targeted nearly 170 times in 15 games, catching over 100 passes for roughly 1300 yards with a league-leading 15 touchdowns. That’s not going to be easy to replace, by any means, and is almost certainly not going to be accomplished by one single option.
Smith-Schuster has a significant challenge on his plate to step up his game both on the field and in the locker room at the same time. Though he put up big numbers last season, he can always do more. “Never satisfied”, as he said himself. After all, he only has 14 touchdown receptions in his career, fewer than what Brown had in 2018 on his own.