Not unjustifiably, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ JuJu Smith-Schuster is probably one of the most hotly-debated wide receiver in the NFL these days, even if you take into consideration only football-related matters. It’s hard to avoid when you have two-year splits like he does going from big plays to a big possession receiver.
It became obvious this offseason that a lot of teams are still debating just who the 24-year-old is as well, as he had a hard time finding the sort of robust contract he no doubt expected to find a year ago. But while he knows he needs to produce more, he also knows he’s better than his numbers may look.
“I don’t think I need to prove it to myself. I know I’m a number one receiver,” he told Michael Irvin recently on his podcast. “I just never had the opportunity, and I think this year is gonna be that one year that I show people, hey, he’s not just playing slot, he’s playing outside, too, and he’s playing with an elite quarterback, and that’s that. And that’s what they’ll see this year”.
That was one of several references that Smith-Schuster made throughout the course of the interview to having a more varied role than he has been afforded in recent years, during which he has pretty much been limited to working out of the slot — and being among the most productive slot receivers in the NFL while doing it.
While he told Irvin that he doesn’t have a problem with playing inside, saying, “I feel like in the slot you could do more,” he also couldn’t deny that he loves playing on the outside as well, and the opportunities afforded when you’re on the boundary. “Outside, deep balls. That’s what I like, going out there, 80-yard, 97-yard touchdowns,” he said, of which he of course has two.
In truth, Smith-Schuster has spent his entire career playing primarily outside, though he did log more snaps there during his rookie season than in later years. The percentage of his snaps coming out of the slot has only gone up.
He averaged 15.8 yards per reception during his rookie year on 58 receptions for 917 yards, boosted by one of his 97-yard touchdowns. Even during his high-volume follow-up, which featured 111 receptions for 1,426 yards, he flirted with 13 yards per catch. His 8.6 yards per reception last season is a major outlier, as even in 2019 he averaged 13.1.
I can’t help but wonder what was said during the negotiating process in bringing him back, and whether or not the team gave him any assurances of a more dynamic role in the offense this season and more opportunities to make plays. The Steelers had among the least-explosive offenses in the NFL a year ago, and we’ve seen Smith-Schuster offer explosiveness in the past.