The Pittsburgh Steelers have used high draft picks on the wide receiver position once a year for the past four years, most recently with Chase Claypool in April. The first, and still the second-youngest, was JuJu Smith-Schuster, taken 62nd-overall in the second round of the 2017 NFL Draft.
Entering the final year of his rookie contract, Smith-Schuster is also coming off an incredibly disappointing season in which injuries and instability resulted in him producing just 42 receptions for 552 yards and three touchdowns. During his first two seasons, he averaged 85 receptions for 1172 yards and seven touchdowns, so it was a significant drop-off.
In each of those three seasons, he had a different position coach, beginning with Richard Mann his rookie year. Darryl Drake in his breakout, Pro Bowl sophomore season was extremely influential on him, both personally and professionally. He passed away suddenly in training camp last year, and Ray Sherman was asked to step in as the interim position coach.
This offseason, the Steelers brough in Ike Hilliard, who is coming off a fairly long tenure with Washington, and also previously worked with the Buffalo Bills. He hasn’t coached Smith-Schuster before, but he knows what’s expected of the 23-year-old.
“JuJu, hopefully he’s gonna bounce back this year from his injuries from last year”, Hilliard told reporters earlier today in his first comments to the media since he was hired back in the Winter. “He looks great. He’s worked incredibly hard, so we’re looking forward to having JuJu for a healthy 16-plus”.
The wide receiver missed four games in the second half of last season due to a knee injury; on the same play, he also suffered a concussion. He also suffered a toe injury at the end of the opener that lingered throughout the year, among other ailments. But the biggest factor was likely Ben Roethlisberger’s injury.
“JuJu and I have talked, JuJu understands”, Hilliard told reporters. “At the end of the day it’s our job as players and coaches to perform and he understands that. He’s going to be great this year. He’s going to do everything in his power to stay healthy, number one. And outside of availability being the best ability, the rest of that stuff will take care of itself”.
The Steelers felt comfortable in Smith-Schuster’s ability to ascend into the number one target role last year, after they were forced to part with Antonio Brown. He’d caught 111 passes for 1426 yards the previous season, and had shown the ability to make plays against elite defenders like Jalen Ramsey.
“We all know that JuJu’s a play-maker. We all know that he’s going to be a guy that we want to get the ball to to jump-start our offense in a big way”, said Hilliard, who has of course been exposed to the young receiver’s highlight reel. “He is looking forward to being JuJu”.
The hope is that there will be a stronger supporting cast around him this year, with James Washington and Diontae Johnson having made significant progress last year. Claypool coming in, and with Eric Ebron being brought in at the tight end position, gives defenders a lot more to worry about than they had at the start of last season.