The Pittsburgh Steelers have become known over the past decade-plus as being one of the most competent in the league in drafting wide receiver talent, producing a long line of performers that includes Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders, Martavis Bryant, Diontae Johnson, and most recently, Chase Claypool, who is coming off of a strong rookie season.
JuJu Smith-Schuster, yet another name in that list, has been among the most productive over the course of his rookie contract with the team. But if you’ll notice, only one of those players above actually signed a second contract with the team (the latter two of course are not eligible to do so yet). Will he be the next one?
He is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent in March, but he is coming off of a couple of curious seasons, with 2019 marred by injury, and Ben Roethlisberger’s unavailability, while his usage this past season made it difficult for him to be efficient, even if he finished with 97 receptions and a career-high nine touchdowns.
So where does he put himself when comparing to other receivers round the league? During an interview earlier this month with Bart Scott and Alan Hahn, he gave a surprisingly modest answer to that question. “I’m probably like the number 32 receiver in the NFL right now”, he said.
Smith-Schuster ranked ninth in receptions in the NFL last year, which was seventh among wide receivers, and his nine receiving touchdowns tied him for 10th (eighth at his position). But with just 831 receiving yards, he did rank 38th in the league, or 36th among receivers. He did rank about 15th at his position in catch rate.
He is only two seasons removed from making the Pro Bowl, during a year in which he caught 110 passes for 1426 yards, while scoring seven touchdowns, but his past two seasons, as mentioned above, have seen his perception as a top receiver take a hit.
Coming off of the 2018 season, Smith-Schuster was being viewed as one of the next great young wide receivers, and at 24 years old, he is still young with plenty of upside, but based upon his answer to the question, he also understands what the numbers say.
“I just know that there’s a lot of great receivers out there”, he said, “and I’m still trying to be one of them, so you’ve got to keep pushing”.
We are, of course, in a wide receiver renaissance right now, with many great young players coming into the league in recent years, from A.J. Brown and D.K. Metcalf to Justin Jefferson and CeeDee Lamb, and the aforementioned Claypool.
In other words, one thing Smith-Schuster is certainly right about is that there is plenty of competition when it comes to ranking wide receivers. Where does he rank? Higher or lower than 32? Or right about there? And where will he rank after the 2021 season—wherever he is?