The Pittsburgh Steelers were obviously happy with their day-one and day-two picks in the 2017 NFL Draft. They didn’t expect to get a trio of Pro Bowlers out of them, however, let alone a pair of offensive skill position players that would allow them to succeed the losses of All-Pro studs Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell just two years later.
Of the two offensive players, second-round JuJu Smith-Schuster was of course the first two break out, catching 58 passes for 917 yards and seven touchdowns in 14 games as a rookie. Third-round running back James Conner spent most of the 2017 season on the bench behind Bell, but wound up on injured reserve toward the end of the year with a torn MCL.
Both of them had big years in 2018, however, which partly allowed the team to move on from Brown and Bell. Smith-Schuster caught 111 passes for 1426 yards and seven touchdowns, while Conner rushed for close to 1000 and added another nearly 500 receiving with a combined 13 touchdowns. Both, as mentioned, went to the Pro Bowl.
But Conner’s role will stay the same this year. If anything, in fact, weight will be taken off his shoulders with Jaylen Samuels and Benny Snell, Jr. getting some work. Smith-Schuster, in contrast, will be the focal point of the offense, particularly the passing game, with Brown no longer here.
For many, the 22-year-old’s ability to shift from the number two target to the number one is the central question of the offseason for the Steelers, not just for 2019 but for their near-term viability, because if Smith-Schuster can’t be that number one guy, then there is a problem. Or so they say.
Mike Florio asked Conner recently about whether or not he thought his draft classmate was up to the task. Not only did he say that he believes he’s more than capable of doing it, he also pushed back on the narrative itself, saying that “yes”, he can do it, but also that “he’s gonna have a lot of help.
Scrolling down the list of names at wide receiver, the third-year running back offered that the Steelers have “a lot of talented guys. So nobody has to do it by themselves. But, man, we’ve seen JuJu. It seems like every other week he’s going for 97, 99 yards, these big plays, and just being productive week after week, so he’s more than capable, and he’s gonna have a lot of help. I’m excited for him”.
Of course, it’s one thing to have a lot of wide receivers and another to turn them into a competent, competitive group. The Steelers had wide receivers in 2016, yet it seemed for long stretches that it was just the Antonio Brown show. Can players like Donte Moncrief, James Washington, and Diontae Johnson really give the supporting help that this offense, and maybe Smith-Schuster, needs to truly thrive?