The Pittsburgh Steelers already know what they have in JuJu Smith-Schuster. They knew it pretty on in his career, when he was still just 20 years old, in fact. That’s why the team was willing to make him their number one receiver this offseason, albeit under significant coercion, the side effect of sending Antonio Brown to the Oakland Raiders.
He not only plays at a high level, he also plays a lot, and that fact earned him a spot on Pro Football Focus’ list of the offensive ironmen of the 2018 season. The standard for entry consists of players who graded out with a score of 80.0 or better in the site’s grading system while also playing at least 80 percent of their team’s snaps.
Smith-Schuster was the only Steelers player to make the list, and that includes the consideration that Brown was a Steeler last year. While the list was mostly offensive linemen, there were five wide receivers, and Brown was not one of them (the other four were DeAndre Hopkins, Adam Thielen, Robert Woods, and Davante Adams). Hopkins, incredibly, played all but 10 snaps last season.
As for Smith-Schuster, he didn’t spend a lot of time on the sideline either, logging 959 snaps out of a possible 1116. That equates to an on-field percentage of just under 86. Really, the only times he was not on the field were in one- and zero-receiver sets, typically in short-yardage and goal-line situations. Thomas Frank Carr wrote of the wide receiver:
Smith-Schuster was a versatile weapon for the Steelers last season after proving that he was more than reliable in his rookie year. Smith-Schuster saw his targets double from 2017 to 2018 and ended the season ranked fourth in total targets with 161. He also led the NFL with 92 slot targets and was second in slot yards with 814. As a result, he was on the field for 259 more plays this year than in 2017.
In 2019, he likely will log a similar usage percentage to Hopkins as the clear, consensus number one target in an offense in which he already over 23 percent of the total passing targets. If the Steelers actually throw the football a bit less, it would be pretty easy to see him get nearly a third of the total targets.
Last season, Smith-Schuster turned those 161 targets into 111 receptions for 1426 yards and seven touchdowns. Outside of Brown, the only other player in franchise history to better either of those numbers was Hines Ward’s 112 receptions in 2002.