The world was JuJu Smith-Schuster’s oyster by the end of the 2018 season as a young man of 22 years. He was coming off of a breakout sophomore season in which he reached the Pro Bowl on the strength of a 111-catch, 1,426-yard season, and he basically just inherited the top wide receiver position on one of the premiere franchises after Antonio Brown forced the Pittsburgh Steelers to trade him.
It’s fair to say that, for many, many reasons, his career trajectory has taken a detour. Through schematic changes in his usage, personal injuries, significant upheaval at quarterback, and also some of his own failings, his numbers haven’t been what they should have been.
No doubt that’s part of the reason he is back in Pittsburgh on a one-year, $8 million deal, rather than signing a long-term deal with five times that amount guaranteed at signing. He caught 97 passes last year with a career-high nine touchdowns, but he was so inefficient that he produced just 831 yards.
A wide receiver hitting 1,000 yards is such a basic landmark that, in a way, it’s almost hard to be taken seriously if you fail to reach it, especially four years into your career. He hasn’t come within 150 yards in either of his past two seasons, but CBS Sports predicts that he will get back there in 2021.
The outlet earlier this month put together some projection numbers for the top wide receivers in the league. For Smith-Schuster, he’s expected to catch 92 passes for 1,009 yards and 7-8 touchdowns. While that might still not be hitting the efficiency numbers he is likely hoping for, it’s a marked improvement.
He did actually average 13.1 yards per reception during the 2019 season, though that was on just 42 receptions for 552 yards. He missed a full quarter of the year with a knee injury that continued to bother him this past year, and Ben Roethlisberger missed all but six quarters of that season, so Smith-Schuster was working with quarterbacks whom he’d never caught a pass from before.
Last year, however, despite catching 97 passes, he didn’t come close to 1,000 yards. As mentioned, he only had 831, translating to 8.6 yards per reception. We got on Jesse James’ case a few years ago for putting up a similar YPC figure, but really, Smith-Schuster spent a lot of time running something close to a tight end’s route tree.
There’s no room for excuses moving forward, however, and teams won’t be interested in them in 2022 when he’s looking for his big deal. He needs to produce in order to get the figures that he’s after, or else he’s going to keep taking discounts to stay put until his career is over.