Quite possibly the biggest question of the 2019 Pittsburgh Steelers season will come down whether JuJu Smith-Schuster is able to stand in for the enormous shoes that Antonio Brown left when he was traded out of Pittsburgh. There are strong cases to be made on both sides. On one hand, Smith-Schuster out-produced Brown last season. On the other, fans are quick to point out that coverage always shifted to Brown, who is considered the top wide receiver in the NFL.
Still, with or without Brown, the team was slowly shifting to Smith-Schuster as the face of their offense anyway. Without Brown, it is going to come faster than expected, but it was likely to happen nonetheless. These are the three reasons why Smith-Schuster will only ascend without Brown.
One of the biggest strengths to drafting Smith-Schuster in the second round was his age. At age 20, he was the youngest player in the entire NFL draft. Age is an extremely important factor from baseball to basketball, but somehow gets underplayed in the NFL. That is mainly because the draft eligibility rules put every player in a similar bucket. However, every once in a while a player such as Smith-Schuster will pop up and play ahead of his age group.
It is one thing to beat your peers. It is another to do it at a younger age than them. Especially considering the physical and mental development that takes place between 18-22 years of age.
Considering Smith-Schuster’s age and production in the NFL, he is well ahead of his peers in the learning curve. Smith-Schuster is just five months older than first-round rookie Marquise Brown and is younger than second-round rookie Deebo Samuel. While it was rare for Smith-Schuster to get the coverage looks he did thanks to Antonio Brown, Smith-Schuster is rare in himself that he has been this productive at this age. Last year he held the Steelers in receiving with 111 catches and 1,426 yards.
Below is list of every NFL player in the history of the sport to record 1,400 yards in a season before turning 23 years old.
At age 22 Larry Fitzgerald was ascending over Anquan Boldin, and Randy Moss was taking stats away from Chris Carter. When those potential Hall of Famers moved on, the production only picked up from there. Of course, Josh Gordon has off of the field questions of his own, and Allen Robinson suffered an unfortunate ACL injury before rebounding his career last season.
Even rarer than Smith-Schuster producing that many yards was being as involved in the offense as he was. Below is the list of players in NFL history to catch 100 passes in a season before their 23rd birthday. It is not a long list.
Antonio Brown or not, Smith-Schuster is currently in uncharted territory that only some of the best to ever do it can resemble.
STICK TO THE SLOT
Something that kept Fitzgerald’s storied career lasting well beyond a sidekick in Boldin was his ability to move into the slot. It can be argued Fitzgerald helped change the game by introducing a full-time “big slot” player. This player is physically bigger than slot cornerbacks. He is not the best route runner, but with a free release is able to use his size, smarts, and spacing to create with and without the ball in his hands.
This foundation from Fitzgerald opened the door for Smith-Schuster to be what he is. Smith-Schuster fell into round two because he is not the sharpest route runner, and press coverage gave him fits. In the slot, he is bigger than his opponents, and cannot get jammed because he is lined up off of the ball. Smith-Schuster is able to use his smarts to find soft spots in the middle of the field, and use his size to break tackles after the catch.
Many claim that without Brown, defenses will double-team Smith-Schuster. However, double-teaming a player in the slot is easier said than done, and will likely have a team exposed on the deep outsides. So, without Brown, the question is less about how often will Smith-Schuster see bracketed coverage and more about how often can the Steelers exemplify his skill set by keeping him in the slot?
The Steelers did not make flashy moves this offseason, but they did act quickly to replace Brown both in the draft and free agency. In signing Donte Moncrief, the Steelers added a player who has played both the “X” and “Z” role as a receiver. He can line up in either spot, but he will always align on the outside. James Washington is a “Z” receiver with a limited route tree but the ability to stretch the field. To match that, they drafted Diontae Johnson in round three. Johnson primarily lined up as an “X” receiver, the same spot where Brown lined up, and Johnson is the player who stylistically matches Brown the most.
In a perfect world, the Steelers see Johnson step into Brown’s role as the “X”, Washington ascend in year two into the “Z” and JuJu Smith-Schuster can continue to make magic in the slot. However, if Washington does not take that step, or if the jump from MAC to NFL is too much for the rookie Johnson, Moncrief can play either outside spot. The moves were not headline-worthy, but they were made to keep Smith-Schuster in the slot where he is at his best.
PLAYING STLYE AND SKILLSET TO MATCH BIG BEN
We can argue the merits of Antonio Brown’s gripe with the Steelers another day, but it is clear that the chemistry between Ben Roethlisberger and Smith-Schuster was stronger than it was between Roethlisberger and Brown by the end of the 2018 season.
While Roethlisberger used to be known as the gun slinger who tested all areas of the field, he calmed down quite substantially last season, which helped lead to his extension this offseason. Last year Roethlisberger led the NFL in time between snap and throw. He was getting the ball out quick, and was getting it to Smith-Schuster, who took his free release in the slot, caught a quick pass from Roethlisberger and led all wide receivers in the NFL in yards after the catch.
That is going to be tough to defend regardless, but Roethlisberger and Smith-Schuster have also developed a chemistry for when the play breaks down, and Roethlisberger has to resort to his old ways. Smith-Schuster was the most targeted receiver on the Steelers when Roethlisberger was under pressure.
His ability to extend the play and remain on the same page with his quarterback at such a young age is uncanny.
In the play below, you see Smith-Schuster lined up on the right hash. He blocks on the edge, extends into the open field and cuts his route inside towards space to haul in the pass.
Smith-Schuster and Roethlisberger have been on the same page since his second career touchdown.
JuJu Smith-Schuster extends route pic.twitter.com/VDoP5PBaoM
— rph (@parkerhurleyNFL) September 5, 2018
In the quick game, Roethlisberger is looking for Smith-Schuster. When the play breaks down, Smith-Schuster breaks free and Roethlisberger has eyes on him.
Did Brown help the development of Smith-Schuster? Absolutely. However, Smith-Schuster is a budding star of his own, and the loss of Brown does not change his ability enough to predict any drastic drop off. Instead, his age, role and development into a go-to option for his quarterback should bring questions about what Smith-Schuster may ascend into in 2019.