Having a talented player opposite you frequently has the effect of helping to turn an excellent player into a dominant one…or even a dominant one into somebody who is at times seemingly unstoppable. That is what the Pittsburgh Steelers felt as though they had in their back pocket last year when they had JuJu Smith-Schuster lining up across their superstar wide receiver, Antonio Brown.
Now with Brown out in Oakland, it’s up to Smith-Schuster to ascend into that number one role while doing his best to replicate his former teammate’s success. All while the Steelers try to figure who with whom he is going to be paired in 2019.
Not to say that they don’t have options. They do. But they’re all so new that they are just beginning to sift through the possibilities. They signed veteran Donte Moncrief in free agency, and he has been running as the number two since the spring, but also in the mix is 2018 second-round pick James Washington and rookie Diontae Johnson.
“JuJu’s never played in the league without Antonio Brown on the other side, so it will be a different dynamic for him”, Steelers General Manager Kevin Colbert told Mark Madden during an interview yesterday. “He’s the obvious number one receiver just because there is no number one in front of him any longer, and he has to prove that he can carry that load”.
But he was quick to add that that is only one half of the equation. While Brown was the superstar of the group, the Batman, he had his Robins. There was Mike Wallace (although Brown was the Robin in this case), then Emmanuel Sanders, Markus Wheaton, Martavis Bryant, very briefly Sammie Coates, and then finally Smith-Schuster.
“And as we talk, the rest of them have to sort themselves out and we have to figure out who they are, and I think figuring out who that group is will help define who JuJu is and vice versa”, Colbert said. Where Smith-Schuster fits in the offense does depend on who else is playing with him, especially since he is capable of playing at any of the wide receiver positions.
Last season, he was among the slot players out of the slot in the NFL, but it depends upon who is playing with him this year how much time he will see in the slot. It’s possible that it remains his primary position, but that will have to be sorted out. But regardless of where he lines up, his opponents are going to know where he is at all times, likely with two players eying him.
“I mean, it’s a new role for him. We’ll see where it goes”, Colbert said as the 22-year-old embarks upon his future as the top receiver of a championship contender. “But it’s a bigger role. He’s met our expectations in the first two years. I think there’s still another level for him to achieve, but again, he’s got to prove that, and that’ll be beneficial for him and beneficial for us”.