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2021 Offseason Questions: Who Plays In Slot If JuJu Smith-Schuster Is Gone?

The Pittsburgh Steelers’ 2020 season is now in the books, and it ended in spectacular fashion—though the wrong kind of spectacular—in a dismal postseason defeat at the hands of the Cleveland Browns, sending them into an early offseason mode after going 12-4 in the regular season and winning the AFC North for the first time in three years.

After setting a franchise record by opening the year on an 11-game winning streak, they followed that up by losing three games in a row, going 1-4 in the final five games, with only a 17-point comeback staving off a five-game slide. But all the issues they had in the regular season showed up in the postseason that resulted in their early exit.

The only thing facing them now as they head into 2021 is more questions, and right now, they lack answers. What will Ben Roethlisberger do, and what will they do with him? What will the salary cap look like? How many free agents are they going to lose? Who could they possibly afford to retain? Who might they part ways with—not just on the roster, but also on the coaching staff?

These are the sorts of questions among many others that we have been exploring on a daily basis and will continue to do so. Football has become a year-round pastime and there is always a question to be asked, though there is rarely a concrete answer, as I’ve learned in my years of doing this.

Question: Who will be the slot receiver in 2021 if JuJu Smith-Schuster is gone?

I don’t know that there is anybody in the NFL who has spent more time, or a larger percentage of his time, in the slot than JuJu Smith-Schuster has over the course of the past three seasons, during which he has logged 1627 snaps on the inside, even when factoring in the time that he missed in 2019.

Never was that more prevalent than in 2020, when he logged just a hair under 800 of his 1009 total offensive snaps from the slot position. That leaves very few slot snaps to be played for anybody else, so if he were to leave in free agency, that is a major consideration for the Steelers.

No other wide receiver on the current 53-man roster is best suited to play in the slot. James Washington, Diontae Johnson, and Chase Claypool all primarily profile as outside receivers who would excel most in that role. There is Ray-Ray McCloud, but you are not going to put him on the field ahead of the other three.

If I were to take a guess, I would expect Washington of the three to move into the slot the most. He is the most veteran receiver, and he played nearly a fifth of his snaps last season from the slot, close to 100 snaps there in all. Johnson saw 100 snaps there, but over a much larger sample size. Claypool also saw 164 snaps in the slot, but his snaps inside reduced over the course of the year.

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