The Pittsburgh Steelers have perhaps the youngest group of wide receivers they’ve brought in to start a season in—I don’t even know how long. Even when they had the ‘Young Money Crew’, they still had Hines Ward, or ‘Old Money’, around in the wings. When he retired, he was replaced by Jerricho Cotchery. And then Antonio Brown developed into the old veteran, along with Darrius Heyward-Bey.
Even last season, they brought in Donte Moncrief and Johnny Holton as two players who were slightly older.
This year, their core of wide receivers will consist entirely of players who are 25 and under, with Ryan Switzer being the only wide receiver likely to make the team who is actually 25. Chase Claypool is now the young pup at 22, but even with that taken into consideration, JuJu Smith-Schuster heads into his fourth season as the second-youngest player at the position projected to make the team in a group of six—and is by far the most experienced.
But he’s also coming off of a tumultuous year in which he struggled on the field amid injuries both to himself and others. He took a lot of heat from fans, getting backlash while promoting his brand on social media as he recovered from injury, anger fueled also by the fact that he was not producing on the field as fans had come to expect.
After practice today, head coach Mike Tomlin talked about the journey that Smith-Schuster finds himself on, calling it “just the natural maturation of a player who’s extremely talented and had a lot of early success and at times faced some of the natural adversity that the game of football presents, be it injury or injury to those around you, or the attention that comes with being a quality player”.
“JuJu is very experienced, but he still is a relatively young guy”, he added. “He was 20 when we drafted him. So, it’s my job to assist him in natural growth and maturation, and that’s an element of the job that I embrace, whether it’s him or any other young player”.
After posting 58 catches for 917 yards as a rookie and then 111 catches for 1426 yards for his follow-up and making the Pro Bowl, Smith-Schuster set the bar very high for himself. Heading into 2020 already minus Brown, he was done no favors by his own injury, and then losing Ben Roethlisberger on top of everything else.
While he doesn’t really talk about it, I have no doubt that it was a rough season for him mentally to go through. As Tomlin said, he’s a “jovial guy”, but he didn’t have much to be jovial about. And he wasn’t used to getting blowback from fans, either.
It’s time in 2020 to show that he’s put that all behind him and learned from it and is ready to show not just the Steelers but the NFL that he is one of the top receivers in the game—just in time for him to hit the open market in March.