If we learned one single thing from Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster during his Wednesday media session, it’s that the former second round draft pick out of USC really wants to play more on the outside in 2021. In fact, he made no bones about it when asked on Wednesday what his primary goal for the 2021 season is.
“Playing more outside,” Smith-Schuster said. “It’s as simple as that.”
That short reply, along with a few other comments made on Wednesday by Smith-Schuster about his future beyond the 2021 season, are sure to be dissected these next few days. Why? Because it sure looks like Smith-Schuster wants to play outside more in 2021 to help his stats, which in turn would likely help him land a much more lucrative and long-term deal in 2022.
As part of my own dissection of Smith-Schuster’s Wednesday comments, let’s first examine why he would want to play outside more in 2021 to help his stats.
For starters, Smith-Schuster didn’t cash in big in free agency this offseason despite registering 97 receptions for 831 yards and nine touchdowns in 2020. That was most likely because his average yards per catch in 2020 was a career-low 8.6 yards. Why was that average so low? For starters, Smith-Schuster not only predominantly played in the slot in the Steelers’ offense in 2021, but his average depth of target was also just 5.5 yards. His average depth of reception was even a tad lower at 5.0 yards past the line of scrimmage, as well. To his credit, Smith-Schuster was very good after the catch in 2020, and it’s a good thing he was. Had he not been, his average yards per reception would have been even lower.
So basically, Smith-Schuster knows that if he can play outside more in 2021, he will likely get targets deeper down the field. In doing so, he can improve his chances of making more splash plays. He probably theorizes that another year of 83.2% of his total targets coming with him in the slot isn’t going to result in him getting back to an average yards per catch of around 13, which is what his career average was prior to the 2020 season.
While I’m all for Smith-Schuster possibly playing more on the outside in 2021, and especially more than he did in 2020, the fact remains that he’s still the team’s best slot option right now. I kind of got a chuckle when he mentioned on Wednesday who he thinks might be the next man up to play in the slot in 2021 when and if he plays outside this season.
“But I think the second person to play behind me is Ray-Ray McCloud,” Smith-Schuster said. “You know, he’s a guy that you just really haven’t seen him really as a slot receiver be explosive and in practice, he makes plays. As far as like, obviously he’s really good on special teams, but you’ll probably see more of him playing slot this year, obviously, and more inside. And he’s the guy who would fit the position second-best.”
While we very well could see McCloud get a few more offensive snaps in 2021 than he had in 2020, which was 165 in total, particularly in the slot, we’re still talking about a player who has only registered 25 career NFL receptions to date. On top of that, 15 of those 25 receptions that McCloud has registered so far in the NFL came behind the line of scrimmage. Just one of the other 10 came more than five yards past the line of scrimmage. In short, there’s no reason to believe that McCloud will see a considerable number of offensive snaps in 2021 barring injuries.
Here’s something else to consider when it comes to McCloud. Unless the Steelers decide to run a lot of four wide receiver personnel groupings in 2021, him being on the field would result in one of Smith-Schuster, Chase Claypool or Diontae Johnson being on the sideline.
Look, I certainly understand where Smith-Schuster is coming from, especially on the heels of what happened to him this offseason as an unrestricted free agent. After all, this is a business, and he wants to do what he can to maximize his value in 2021 so that he can potentially land a more lucrative deal in 2022. That said, he better stay used to playing a lot in the slot in 2021, especially in key situations such as third downs. Last season, in fact, Smith-Schuster had 28 receptions on third and fourth downs out of the slot, and 22 of those resulted in conversions. To Smith-Schuster’s credit, I think he generally understands all of that based on one of his responses on Wednesday.
“But as far as like third down plays and all of that, like, I mean, I still don’t mind playing inside and outside,” Smith-Schuster said. “You know, we have in our formations, how we have it set up is that we move around. Whether I’m F, X, like we’re always moving around to different positions. So, you can’t really tell if I’m the number three receiver as a slot, but then again, I’m playing outside. So, it all varies.”
Personally, I think one thing that might help Smith-Schuster more in 2021 when he does play in the slot is for offensive coordinator Matt Canada to allow him to go vertical a lot more. In 2020, his route charts looked more like one you might see from a running back. Several more of those slot fades might just be the ticket for Smith-Schuster in 2021. Personally, I’d like to see more of those in general out of any player that plays in the slot.
It’s still relatively early in the offseason. Because of that, Smith-Schuster is sure to have a few more media sessions before the team’s Week 1 road game against the Buffalo Bills. And assuming that’s the case, expect him to be asked more questions about the comments he made on Wednesday about wanting to play outside more in 2021. In the meantime, however, expect Smith-Schuster to endure quite a bit of criticism for what he did say on Wednesday, because on the surface and in full context, it did sound like his main motive to play more on the outside in 2021 is based primarily on him wanting to have more respectable stats, which in turn would likely help his 2022 free agency cause considerably.