The man has played three seasons in the NFL. He has caught over 200 passes for nearly 3000 receiving yards. He has been to the Pro Bowl. He is the most veteran player at his position on the team, his numbers outpacing all of the other wide receivers on the roster combined. And he’s still 23 years old.
That is the interesting dynamic in place for JuJu Smith-Schuster on the Pittsburgh Steelers, a team that only just this year finally acquired a receiver who is actually younger than him in the rookie second-round pick, Chase Claypool (both James Washington and Diontae Johnson, drafted after Smith-Schuster, are older).
Since he came in as a rookie in 2017, the California native has kept things light off the field, but all business on it—except when he’s celebrating touchdowns, of course. He has created a persona, an extension of his genuine personality, of lightheartedness, so that when he was asked earlier in the week what he brings to the wide receiver meeting room, he downplayed his role.
“Man, just having fun”, he said of his contributions. “I am definitely the guy that is trying to make everyone laugh and enjoy their job. Making the best out of it. I think there are days where we are tired or we are down and feel like we just don’t want to do it, but I am the guy that comes in and says, “let’s go, man. Let’s have fun today, make the most out of it’. Like I said, we are always lit.
Clearly more than a cheerleader, Aditi Kinkhabwala was looking for a more serious answer, so she asked head coach Mike Tomlin about the role that Smith-Schuster plays as the lead wide receiver and the most accomplished in the room, despite being so young.
“I think he brings more experience than the rest and that experience provides a platform for expertise, wisdom, guidance, among other things”, he said after practice on Wednesday. “I’m just talking about intangible qualities that his journey separates him from the rest of them. His talents are his talents. They speak for themselves”.
“He’s got a unique skill set”, he went on in talking about his on-field work. “He’s very sturdy. He’s got strong hands. He’s a very combat catch-guy. But I’m more concerned about the intangible things that his journey to this point brings. He’s a young guy, but he has a wealth of experience. He’s been to the Pro Bowl and things of that nature that the other younger guys in the room can lean on and glean information from”.
Coming off a challenging third season in 2019 in which he was limited due to injury, and the whole offense suffered with the loss of Ben Roethlisberger, the young wide receiver knows he needs a big season this year to re-establish himself—which is especially important in a contract year. He will be an unrestricted free agent in March, after which point he may be in another jersey.