This has not been a good offseason for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Coming off of yet another disappointing year marked by an embarrassingly premature playoff exit, the team knew going in that there would be a bloodletting on the roster, and there was little that they could do about it.
Essential edge rusher Bud Dupree and four-year starting slot corner Mike Hilton were among their first losses, but also joined by the more surprising departures of nose tackle Tyson Alualu and starting lineman Matt Feiler.
Alejandro Villanueva and James Conner are two more predictable potential departures. They have also seen Maurkice Pouncey and Vance McDonald retire. They released Vince Williams and Steven Nelson, two more starters. But at least they kept JuJu Smith-Schuster for one year, according to Pro Football Focus, the lone bright spot for the team this offseason.
Smith-Schuster isn’t the WR1 that some thought he would become following Antonio Brown’s departure two offseasons ago, but he has developed into a player who can reliably win over the middle of the field with his toughness and after-the-catch ability. He’s been one of the more prolific slot receivers in the NFL since 2017. JuJu ranks among the top five slot receivers in the league in receptions, yards and touchdowns in his four years in the NFL.
One wonders if the Steelers will allow Smith-Schuster a wider variety of assignments going forward as the wide receiver group behind him begins to mature and gain a better footing of the offense and of the various wide receiver roles therein.
For most of his career, he has been pigeonholed into the slot primarily due simply to the fact that there haven’t been great alternatives, but he has had success when he does play outside. Doing something different, however, will be pivotal not only for Smith-Schuster, but for the team.
The Steelers’ offense will need a reimagining under offensive coordinator Matt Canada to get the most out of Smith-Schuster and the rest of the receivers on this roster in 2021. After posting an average depth of target of at least nine yards in each of the 2017, 2018 and 2019 seasons, JuJu’s 6.6 mark in 2020 was one of the lowest in the NFL.
Time will tell as to whether or not this will make any difference. Are the Steelers just clinging, holding onto something for too long that it would be best to let go of? Ben Roethlisberger is in his last season, and their defense just lost half of their starters. If this is a one-and-done year for Smith-Schuster, is it worth it?