Other than Ben Roethlisberger and his elbow—and what he’s done with that elbow over the years in private—I’m not sure that there has been a bigger story for the Pittsburgh Steelers this offseason short of the fact that their two headlining skill position players are entering crucial seasons in 2020.
Both dealt with serious injury issues last season that affected the bulk of their playing time, in fact combining to miss 10 starts between them. It’s really hard, frankly, to say whose season was more disappointing, but I suppose it doesn’t particularly matter. It’s also hard to say who has more at stake in terms of their next contract.
Smith-Schuster, though, was poised to be anointed The Next Great Steelers Wide Receiver, stepping out of Antonio Brown’s shadow. In 2018, he already put up the most receiving yards in a single season that any Steelers receiver other than Brown had ever done. The same could be said of his 111 receptions, short of the only other non-Brown 100-plus-catch season when Hines Ward had 112.
Who knew that, in the same year, he would lose Brown as the team’s primary threat, then his wide receivers coach to a sudden death in training camp, then suffer a toe injury in the opener, and in the middle of the next game, lose his quarterback? And then on top of that, deal with a concussion and a knee injury that would cost him four games and hobble him in the games after which he returned?
That’s why Adam Schein believes he’s one of the players under the most pressure in 2020, listing him at number four on his list of nine players. “Last year was a hot mess for JuJu”, he wrote, pretty succinctly. He was limited to just 42 catches for 552 yards and three scores.
“The Steelers need JuJu to get his mojo back in 2020”, declared Schein. “While Pittsburgh’s defense is ready for prime time, the offense has a number of questions, starting with Big Ben’s health. And given the underwhelming options in the backfield, the 38-year-old quarterback is going to have to air it out.
“Thus, he needs a legit go-to receiver. Still just 23 years old, Smith-Schuster has to be that guy — not just for the Steelers to be successful in 2020, but for JuJu to get paid in 2021. Yes, this is a contract year for the former second-round pick. If he flounders in consecutive seasons, he’s a goner in Pittsburgh and he’ll face a chilly reception on the open market”.
Assuming he has a solid season, Smith-Schuster will cash in during free agency without a doubt. The question is how much, and with whom. The Steelers are in the discussion, but with talent in the pipeline and a number of defensive players to pay in the near future, it’s not a lock, so there’s also pressure to show Pittsburgh he’s a talent they can’t let get away.