The Pittsburgh Steelers should want to bring back JuJu Smith-Schuster. If the cap and finances allow it, the team probably will. But Smith-Schuster won’t be cheap. And if he puts pen to paper to remain a Steeler, the way Pittsburgh uses him will have to change.
That’s not to say what Smith-Schuster did in 2020 wasn’t valuable. It was. He was the Steelers’ go-to guy in any high-leverage moment. Third down, red zone, whenever Ben Roethlisberger scrambled, Smith-Schuster was often the intended receiver. He came up with clutch catches, fought for extra yards, and bounced back from an injury-plagued 2019 season.
But if you just looked at his stats, you’d think Smith-Schuster was a tight end. Or heck, a running back. Smith-Schuster had one of the weirdest stat lines of any receiver in history: 97 catches for 831 yards, an average of 8.57 yards per catch, with nine touchdowns.
Consider this. In NFL history, there have been 257 instances of a player catching at least 90 passes in a season. Smith-Schuster’s 831 yards are eighth fewest. And they’re the second fewest of any wide receiver, only edging out Golden Tate’s 2015 season who he caught 90 balls for 813 yards. His 8.57 average is the 6th lowest and the lowest of any wide receiver in football history, breaking Jarvis Landry’s previous record of 8.81.
The names surrounding Smith-Schuster are running backs. Players like Matt Forte, Brian Westbrook, and Steven Jackson. Talented pass catchers, no doubt, but guys who ran a RB route tree. Screens, angles, and checkdowns.
Check out some of the box scores JuJu ended up with in 2020.
Week 2 – 7 catches, 48 yards
Week 5 – 4 catches, 28 yards
Week 11 – 4 catches, 19 yards
Week 12 – 8 catches, 37 yards
Week 13 – 7 catches, 28 yards
At almost no point this season was Smith-Schuster used as a vertical, downfield threat. His longest catch of the year went for 31 yards, a TD against Dallas in Week 9. To put that in perspective, that’s the second lowest “long” of any WR with 90+ catches in history, only losing out to Keenan Allen, who funny enough, set the record this season.
Here’s a list of the top seven.
If you’re wondering what player had the shortest “long” in NFL history with 90+ catches, it was TE Tony Gonzalez. Catching 93 passes in 2012, his longest gain went for just 25 yards. Offseason stats of the weird for you.
One name on that list that probably caught your eye was Hines Ward. Different eras but they’re cut from a similar cloth. Tough, physical slot receivers. In 2001, Ward, fresh off a contract extension, caught 94 passes for 1003 yards and four touchdowns, an average of just over ten yards per grab. The Steelers realized Ward needed to be a more downfield threat and his average spiked to nearly 12 yards the next season, not falling back to ten until five years later (yes, QB changes from Kordell Stewart to Tommy Maddox/Ben Roethlisberger also helped).
The Steelers need to take the same approach. You can make a case JuJu Smith-Schuster is worth the $16 million per year he’s projected to get. But it’s next to impossible to justify that high cost for a guy to average under nine yards per catch even *if* those catches are valuable.
Some of this isn’t Smith-Schuster’s fault. He’s certainly capable of being a playmaker. Remember, he’s the dude with a pair of 97 yard TDs on his resume. And don’t make the mistake for thinking slot usage is impacting his numbers. His slot percentage has stayed about the same the past three years.
2020 – 56.3%
2019 – 62.8%
2018 – 59.3%
In 2019, he averaged 13 yards a grab. In 2018, it was just under 13. Big plays can come from any alignment.
One difference was he Steelers’ system. It relied on short passes, no one had a quicker release than Roethlisberger, that hit Smith-Schuster on plenty of RPOs and designed slants to win in short-yardage. Plays that aren’t really designed for a lot of YAC. And that kept his YPC low.
But if Smith-Schuster re-signs, the Steelers and specifically new OC Matt Canada, will have to find ways to get Smith-Schuster more downfield chances. Whether that’s lining him up on the outside a little more, running more vertical routes, designing concepts to win in the middle of the field, Smith-Schuster can’t make top ten money with a running back route tree. That simply isn’t strong enough return on investment.
The closest comp to Smith-Schuster in style and pay is the Rams’ Cooper Kupp. Even in a down 2020 year, Kupp still averaged over 10.6 yards per catch despite lackluster QB play. With strong-armed Matthew Stafford now in town, his average is likely to bounce back much closer to his career mark of 12.4. All the other handsomely paid receivers make plays downfield. And Smith-Schuster has the skillset to do it. Not a Tyreek Hill level, of course, but something much closer to what he did in his first three seasons.
None of this is designed to place blame on anyone specific. Certainly not on Smith-Schuster. He functioned the way the offense needed him to function. That’s fine. But if Pittsburgh brings him back without changing his role in the offense, they’ll regret doing the deal.