JuJu Smith-Schuster went from being the favorite player—or at least favorite young player—for many Pittsburgh Steelers fans to a guy that many are now hoping has played his last game in the city wearing the black and gold uniform, as he has now completed the final game of his rookie contract and embarks on free agency.
During his four seasons with the team since being drafted with the 62nd pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, he has registered 308 career receptions for 3726 yards and 26 touchdowns. He caught 97 passes for 831 yards and a career-high nine touchdowns during the 2020 season.
His role within the offense also transformed this year, becoming even more of a possession receiver. His average depth of target dropped all the way to just 5.5 yards, among the shallowest in the entire NFL among wide receivers, with just 4.4 yards before the catch on average.
But that is part of why he was so important to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger this season in the way that he has changed the manner in which he throws the ball, leading him to be targeted 128 times, the second-most of his career only to the year in which Roethlisberger attempted 675 passes, among the most attempts in a single season in NFL history.
Both players took a few moments after last night’s tough loss to reflect on their experiences together. Roethlisberger was asked after the game what he said to Smith-Schuster in their moment together on the bench shortly after the game.
“I told him how proud I was of him, and how much I enjoyed being his teammate and being his quarterback”, he said. “I don’t know what the future holds. He doesn’t know. I’ll always support him. I’ll always be proud of him”.
“I think he embodies what it is to be a Pittsburgh Steeler”, he added. “He’s tough. He shows grit. I mean, you saw some of the plays that he made tonight. They were black and gold through and through. I think…I hope I can speak for the fans when I say that we don’t want him going anywhere. He’s Steelers and he’s fun and I’m just thankful for his efforts”.
The last remark really says a lot. Even Roethlisberger understands that a lot of people have turned on Smith-Schuster over the course of the past few months, to the point where he can’t even be sure that he can say with accuracy that fans would want him back.