A Perfect Pair in the Steel City: Juju Smith-Schuster and the Steelers
Juju Smith-Schuster could not have asked for a better landing spot. The Pittsburgh Steelers selected the 20-year-old wideout with the No. 62 overall pick after a very productive three season run at the University of Southern California. That’s right; the California native will not even be 21-years-old by the time the season starts. Talk about upside.
Smith-Schuster will be put in a position to succeed right away if he’s able to carve out a role on one of the most prolific offenses in all of football. Pittsburgh has a Super Bowl winning quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger, a head coach that has been at the helm of the team for almost a decade, and possibly the best running back and wide receiver duo in the league with Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown. There are plenty of knowledgeable and talented players and coaches that the rookie can learn from.
The scouting report for the California native reads similarly to productive NFL receivers such as Brandon Marshall, Anquan Boldin and Mohamed Sanu. While expecting him to play at a comparable level to these players right away is a bit unrealistic, Smith-Schuster is of a similar mold as he’s a tall, stout receiver who uses his physicality and height to dominate lesser defenders. The newest Steelers wideout is not afraid of contact and can mix it up with defensive backs and is deceptively hard to tackle. Catching contested balls and running routes over the middle are two things that he excels at that are almost impossible to teach. He always fights intensely for extra yardage after the catch and is shifty enough to make a few defenders miss when he doesn’t run over them. He’s also excelled in catching deep throws and jump balls and can climb the ladder and hang onto the rock.[the_ad id=”66786″]There are a few areas of his game that need work, as is the case with most rookies drafted after the first handful of picks. Pro Football Focus concluded that he lacks top-end speed and acceleration which will hinder his ability to get separation against corners at the next level. He’s also been dinged for his drop rate at USC, which was 15 passes on 228 catchable balls. NFL.com believes that he has trouble finding a “second gear” to run under deep throws, which was echoed in assessments at PFF. While acceleration and speed are things that cannot be improved upon, dropped passes are a mental aspect of the game that can be improved with hard work. Smith-Schuster would also do well to refine and polish his route tree, which would help ease the pain of his inability to get separation with just pure speed.
Despite the recent trend of USC receivers being underwhelming after making the step up to the NFL *cough* Nelson Agholor *cough*, Smith-Schuster’s track record at the University of Southern California bodes well for his NFL career. The Long Beach native was a five-star recruit out of High School and was trusted immediately by Coach Steve Sarkisian, who had him start 12 out of 13 games in his rookie campaign. Sarkisian has always been a talented offensive coach, so much so that he was hired as the Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator this offseason. In his three years in Los Angeles, the 6’2” wideout caught 213 passes for 3,092 yards and 25 touchdowns. His breakout campaign came in 2015, where he caught 89 passes for 1,454 yards and ten touchdowns. The talented pass catcher saw his numbers take a slight hit last year, but this was mostly due to him being banged up at times during the season.
One of the things that is so exciting about Smith-Schuster ending up in Pittsburgh is the role he will likely fill in the team’s offense. Despite seemingly being behind Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant, who is returning from a year-long suspension, Smith-Schuster’s skill set is unique enough that he should be able to have a consistent role with the team in the very near future. Antonio Brown will likely continue to draw double — and sometimes triple — coverage due to his ability to run precise routes and accelerate at the right time to beat defenders with ease. That should leave plenty of opportunities for Smith-Schuster to work against opponent’s number two or three corners, which tend to be much more favorable matchups. If and when the Steelers decide to go to three wide receiver sets, Martavis Bryant’s presence will also help free up Smith-Schuster. Bryant is a different receiver from both Brown and the rookie from USC, as he’s a pure home-run hitter type who lives outside the numbers and gets open deep with exceptional straight line speed. Opposing defenses will constantly have to be alert and gameplan for Bryant as he can change the game in one play. This should leave the physical Smith-Schuster with plenty of opportunities to get open over the middle early in his career.[the_ad id=”63198″]The Steelers depth chart outside of the three aforementioned wide receivers is nothing to write home about. Sammie Coates, Darrius Heyward-Bey, and Cobi Hamilton are the three other receivers that played significant time for Pittsburgh last season. The reason why they don’t seem particularly threatening to Smith-Schuster’s potential value is the fact that the three of them combined to catch 44 passes for 783 yards and six touchdowns. These numbers are uninspiring especially when you consider the fact that there were plenty of targets to go around due to Martavis Bryant’s full season suspension and Le’Veon Bell’s four-game suspension.
It’s hard to gauge whether or not a rookie wideout will have a great freshman campaign, but given the track record of Smith-Schuster and the fact that his skill set is unique from the other receivers on the team, he should be able to be a productive player for the Steelers for some quite some time.
Rankings & Other Great Reads
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