Even though he’s a few months younger, JuJu Smith-Schuster knows where Diontae Johnson’s head is at right now as a rookie, because he was there in that same headspace two years ago. As the 62nd-overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft for the Pittsburgh Steelers, there were big expectations for Smith-Schuster. Now Johnson, coming in as the 66th-overall pick this year, is having similar expectations placed on him.
Smith-Schuster was able to flourish under those circumstances, putting up 917 yards as a rookie on 58 receptions with seven touchdowns. The former was a team rookie record, and the others were close as well. But he also had some circumstances play in his favor, like Martavis Bryant going off the rails and opening the door for him to enter the starting lineup. And he had Antonio Brown drawing double coverage on the other side.
Last season, James Washington, the 60th-overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, had both Brown and Smith-Schuster to work beside, but he had a much different rookie experience, struggling quite a bit for most of the year. He finished with just 16 receptions on 38 targets with a little over 200 yards and one touchdown. The Steelers are hoping Johnson can fall somewhere in between these two extremes this year, and both of them had some advice for the fresh face out of the MAC.
“Just know your assignments, know your plays, know where you’re supposed to be at the right time”, Smith-Schuster said when asked what advice he would give to Johnson. “When I was here, I had a great receiver like AB to take those double coverages and I was able to make a name for myself under him, and I think that Diontae kind of has the same thing with Moncrief, me, even [Washington], he’s going into his second year. Two guys, three guys who’re going to make a name for themselves”.
As for Washington, he’s not so far ahead of where Johnson is now and is, as Smith-Schuster said, still looking to make a name for himself. But he still has that rookie season under his belt and has gained a lot of perspective in that time, so he had some advice for the Toledo product when asked as well.
“Just stay positive and don’t let things get you down”, he said, calling upon his own experiences. “You’ve just got to stay positive and trust in yourself”. Washington had issues doing either of those things through the majority of the year a season ago, and credited Ben Roethlisberger talking to him and encouraging him as part of his late-season turnaround.
Ultimately, of course, everybody responds differently to different stimuli, and benefits from different types of training and discipline. There isn’t going to be any one approach that works equally well for everybody, so Johnson is also going to have to figure out as he goes through the year what works for him.
The one thing he’ll definitely have in common with Smith-Schuster and Washington is that his first task will be figuring out how to get on the field. Neither played much in their first game, nor were even targeted.