It’s said a draft class can’t be fully graded until at least three years after the picks are made. That’s why after submitting grades for every Pittsburgh Steelers pick made in 2021, I went back three years and graded every selection from the 2018 class. But why stop there? Why not continue to go back through past Steelers’ classes with even more time to prove picks good/bad, and see how well each turned out? That look back continues today with the team’s second-round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, USC wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster.
This exercise will follow the same six viewpoints (listed below) for examining a pick that re-grading the 2018 class did. Each of the first five viewpoints gets examined and assigned a letter grade, before taking that analysis and combining it into a final letter grade. Those five viewpoints comprise much of what goes into the draft grades consumed by so many every year after the draft.
Steelers’ Career: What did the player contribute to the team that drafted him?
NFL Career: Did the player make the pick look better in hindsight after leaving Pittsburgh?
Pick Value: Did the player outperform his draft slot? Did he fail to live up to the pick used on him?
Positional Value: Was the player the best player remaining at his specific position in the draft?
Other Options: Did any players go during the next round that were better selections?
Overall Grade: A final mark to denote whether the selection was an overall positive one, or one better spent elsewhere.
Each factor in a retrospective doesn’t apply evenly to every pick made; consider the grades weighted. For example, to return a high grade in pick value, a first-round pick should have a long and impactful career, while a later-round pick needs only a couple seasons as a back-up or modest contributor to be worth the selection used on him.
Some factors are universal, though. Whether picked first overall or 259th, there will always be other options on the board to compare the player to, and steals and reaches can come from any place in the draft.
Round 2, Pick 30: JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR, USC
STEELERS & NFL CAREER: A
His output may not have kept up with a strong rookie year and ridiculous second season, but Smith-Schuster in four seasons has established himself and retained the status of the one of the game’s brightest young stars at the position. And even after four years he is still one of the youngest stars — JuJu played most of his rookie season at the age of 20 and became a free agent at 24.
Appearing in 58 regular season games and starting 46, Smith-Schuster has 308 receptions, 3,726 yards, and 26 touchdowns. Much of that production came as a rookie with a line of 58 receptions, 917 yards, and seven touchdowns, and in a follow-up season where he caught 111 passes for 1,426 yards and another seven touchdowns, winning the team’s MVP award. Getting back to playing with Ben Roethlisberger after the 2019 season, JuJu caught 97 passes for 831 yards and nine touchdowns.
It’s not four straight 1,000-yard seasons, and a down line of 42 catches, 552 yards, and three touchdowns is a low point even if Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges were the quarterbacks for that season. But look at Smith-Schuster’s career for the Steelers through four years, and you see a star and foundational piece of Pittsburgh’s offense moving forward (or another team if he hits free agency next offseason).
And in a bit of coincidental timing this morning, this tweet from Marcus Mosher helps explain this grade: JuJu is 10th all-time in receiving yards before turning 24. Of the top 10, only one had fewer touches than JuJu did.
PICK VALUE: A+
Any receiver that gets picked in the first two rounds is expected to contribute as at least a starter for his franchise. But to go three picks before the end of the round and put up a season of 100 catches and over 1,000 yards, and come just shy of reaching each of those marks a second time, is outstanding value with the 62nd pick. Factor in JuJu’s age and that he is just now getting older than the majority of incoming draft picks, and this pick is rare value that isn’t found often. Smith-Schuster has definitely outplayed the pick used on him.
POSITIONAL VALUE: A+
Now this is interesting. Smith-Schuster brought back excellent value with the 62nd pick, but he has some legitimate competition for the best receiver taken 62nd or later in the 2017 draft. Seven picks after him, Cooper Kupp went to the L.A. Rams. Twenty-two picks later, Chris Godwin went to Tampa Bay. Thirty-four picks later, Kenny Golladay came off the board to Detroit.
That’s a No. 1 receiver (Kupp), someone paid like one this offseason (Golladay) to join a new team, and two who have No. 1 talent (JuJu, Godwin) but play in talented but crowded receiver groups for their teams. Can you claim any of those three is a better pick than Smith-Schuster? I don’t see that argument for Kupp, Golladay is getting there, and Godwin is closest. But JuJu leads all receivers from this draft class in receptions, yards, and touchdowns, and should be the pick again if given the option between these four at this point in their careers.
OTHER OPTIONS: A
Competition doesn’t get any easier when you go from looking at the rest of the receivers in the class to the next 32 players drafted. It might actually get even tougher. Kupp and Godwin both went within the next round of picks. So did Alvin Kamara, one of the best running backs in football. As did Kareem Hunt, who led the league in rushing as a rookie and now forms half the best backfield tandem in the NFL in Cleveland. Taylor Moton switched from guard to tackle and is an anchor on the O-Line for Carolina.
Even defense had its standouts in the next 32 picks. Larry Ogunjobi excelled at defensive tackle for the Browns before jumping to rival Cincinnati this offseason. Shaquill Griffin became an excellent outside cornerback and just got paid handsomely by the Jaguars as a free agent. One pick after him, John Johnson went to the Rams as a safety. He just earned a big-time contract to star for the Browns.
The middle portion of Day 2 in this draft contained an incredible amount of talent. Smith-Schuster is among the best of it. But the absolute best? It all depends on team needs at the time. But in a vacuum, I think there’s a definite argument to make for drafting Kamara over Smith-Schuster, and smaller ones to make for Moton and Griffin, as well. But Pittsburgh got one of the best players left at the pick, so the grade isn’t far off of top marks.
OVERALL GRADE: A
It’s not the absolute perfect, no-doubter A+ that yesterday’s retrospective of T.J. Watt was. But there is similarly very little to find fault with in the Steelers’ selection of Smith-Schuster 62nd overall. JuJu has become a star in the game and is only now beginning to out-age incoming rookies, meaning he has a decade left to play if he continues to excel.
By the numbers he is the top receiver from this class, and analyzing on-field performance keeps him in one of the top spots. Overall, it’s hard to look at his four years in the NFL thus far and say he isn’t locked in to the first round of any re-draft. To get one of the game’s best young receivers 62nd overall is another of the Steelers’ biggest steals in the last decade of drafting. Even if this season looks likely to be his last in a city and community he has become a major part of, this pick was the second consecutive home run for Kevin Colbert in the 2017 class.