Every year is a big year for somebody around the league. In fact, that’s universally true for probably dozens of players, in some form or fashion. Whether it’s playing for a new contract, for a starting role, simply trying to keep their job, or finishing their careers with a championship.
NFL Network analyst Adam Schein recently put together a list of nine players for whom he views the 2021 season as a make-or-break year. Three of those players are quarterbacks. Another three are wide receivers. And one of those three is Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, about whom he writes:
Turns out aspiring TikTok stardom just doesn’t command a whole lot of interest on the open market. JuJu was great as Antonio Brown’s wingman. But after AB’s departure, his performance didn’t produce multi-year money to his liking, which is why he found his way back to Pittsburgh on a one-year, $8 million deal.
When JuJu’s mind is right — and his priorities are in order — the guy is tough and fun to watch. Even next to Brown, you don’t clear 1,400 yards just by showing up. This guy’s skilled — and he’s still just 24! Time to prove last year’s meager yards-per-catch figure (8.6) was just a bump in the road.
While I would take issue with his characterization here, I understand many — maybe most here — will not. I doubt that his time on social media in any way lessened his ability to do his job beyond the field. And really, that’s just giving him an excuse if you see something lacking in his performance.
It is important that he mentions this key point. Antonio Brown or not, you don’t put up numbers like he did in 2018 without having talent. Brown has played next to a lot of receivers. None of them put up numbers like that while they were teammates. Smith-Schuster earned those targets because he was open, he caught the ball, and he produced after the catch.
But there is no debate that this is a make-or-break year for Smith-Schuster — well, sort of. If we keep in mind the perspective that he is still 24 years old, we can’t assume that the 2022 offseason will be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to receive a free agency windfall.
He did, however, settle for a one-year, $8 million contract with Pittsburgh, which he chose in part because he knows that he has a lot to prove to the NFL, and to those who decide who is getting all the money. So I’m certain he would agree with his inclusion on this list. As do I. You can’t look at his first two years and compare it to the last two and say you don’t want to see something more in 2021 for a guy with seemingly so much potential.