JuJu Smith-Schuster is adamant he’ll play more as an outside receiver this season. If so, the question becomes – who replaces him in the slot? Can’t move one guy without moving someone else. Smith-Schuster isn’t quite sure who that guy will be, but believes Ray-Ray McCloud could see an expanded role as the team’s slot receiver this season.
He spoke to reporters Thursday about McCloud’s abilities.
“I think the second person to play behind me is Ray-Ray McCloud,” Smith-Schuster said. “He’s a guy that you guys really haven’t seen him really, a slot receiver be explosive. In practice he makes plays. Obviously he’s really good on special teams, but you’ll probably see more of him playing slot this year. He’s the guy who would fit the position second-best.”
McCloud was signed on August 21st last year, a late camp add with a difficult path to making the team. But he made an immediate impression, once returning a kickoff for a touchdown in practice, and beat out Ryan Switzer to become the Steelers’ starting kick returner. He soon overtook Diontae Johnson for punt return duties, too. The Steelers used him as a bit-piece of their gadget offense. His biggest play came on a windback run in Week 5 against the Eagles, a 58-yard gain. But he was phased out of the Steelers’ offense down the stretch. From Weeks 12-17, only once did he log double-digit snaps on offense, playing 12 in the season finale against Cleveland.
As Dave Bryan has pointed out, he had a laughably low depth of target as the team’s jet sweep/RPO/screen game guy. A more full-time role in the slot would expand his route tree and put him in a position we haven’t seen much of yet.
The Steelers’ wide receiver group was a versatile one last season. It’s likely there would be multiple players shift to the slot. McCloud and Chase Claypool are the top two candidates, but the Steelers went away from its static positions – the X, Z, and F (slot) roles – they had typically lined up in for the bulk of the Antonio Brown era.
Potentially the biggest loss of Smith-Schuster to McCloud are those critical third down receptions. Smith-Schuster is the most trusted receiver on the team. His size allows him to make tough grabs over the middle. But he said he would still likely play the slot in those key moments.
“I’m for sure the security blanket or wherever I’m out on the field at the end of the day. But I do play inside on third down. I pretty much got it down pat…As far as like third down plays and all that, I still don’t mind playing inside and outside.”
Of course, having McCloud on the field means one of the other receivers won’t be on it unless the Steelers are putting out four receivers. If Smith-Schuster is on the outside, it could cap the amount of snaps Chase Claypool plays and make it even more difficult for James Washington to see the field.