Though Peyton Manning had an awful lot to do with it, the Indianapolis Colts of the 2000s had the luxury of having not just one Pro Bowl wide receiver, but two. The elder of the two, Marvin Harrison, is already in the Hall of Fame. The other, Reggie Wayne, may well join him soon enough.
For much of his career, though, Wayne, a first-round pick in 2001, had the luxury of having Harrison working right there next to him, absorbing a lot of the attention he would otherwise be getting. Wayne did not have to make the transition into that number one role until relatively late in his career, in the 2009 season, after Harrison retired.
For the Pittsburgh Steelers’ JuJu Smith-Schuster, that transition comes much earlier. That was Wayne’s age-31 season, his ninth year in the league. Smith-Schuster is going into just his third season, and will turn only 23 years old late in the year.
And he is already being asked to take over for Antonio Brown as the number one guy, who, as you might recall, also had to enter that number one role early in his career, in Year Four, after Mike Wallace departed in free agency.
Wayne talked a very little bit about that yesterday on the NFL Network, regarding how Smith-Schuster is shifting from the number two role to the number one, arguing that it’s a more significant difference than many on the outside might not realize. When you have an Antonio Brown or a Marvin Harrison absorbing a lot of the defense’s attention, it’s a lot easier to work than when you’re paired with a Donte Moncrief or a Pierre Garcon.
“It’s gonna be a lot of tension on him”, Wayne said of Smith-Schuster as he enters this new phase. “it really is. It’s a big difference going from number two to number one. I’ve been in them shoes before. You’ll like being number two a lot more even though number one gets paid the big bucks”.
Not that he struggled statistically in his own first season as the number on—and, again, at the age of 31. Wayne recorded 100 receptions, the second-most in his career at that time, for 1264 yards (third-most), and 10 touchdowns (tied for the second-most). The following year, he caught 111 passes for 1355 yards, though he would never record more than six touchdowns in a season again.
In his six seasons as the Colts’ number one receiver, which including the post-Manning era, of course, Wayne caught 494 passes for 6216 yards and 29 touchdowns. He also missed nine games in 2013. In his eight seasons as the number two guy, he caught 576 passes for 8129 yards and 53 touchdowns. He did average more receptions and receiving yards per 16 games after becoming the number one. But I’m sure those yards didn’t come any easier.