When the New Orleans Saints signed wide receiver Michael Thomas to a five-year $100 million extension which featured $61 million in guarantees this week, it came off as a no brainer on both sides. The move was received well by fans and media alike. Thomas somehow slid into the second round to be picked up by a team with a Hall of Fame quarterback, saw instant success, and watched that success grow year-by-year.
Does that sound familiar?
Yes, a former second-round pick in Pittsburgh has to be looking at the numbers that Thomas got before the training camp of his fourth NFL season and knows that if he puts up similar numbers on the field in year three, the extension of JuJu Smith-Schuster could get just as pricey as the Saints’ deal with Thomas.
So what exactly does the Thomas extension mean for Smith-Schuster and the potential of his next deal?
Statistically speaking, Smith-Schuster might need to get a deal that will top Thomas’.
Through two NFL seasons, Smith-Schuster has 30 fewer receptions. However, it comes on 1.7 more yards per reception and 39 fewer total yards. Coming in with similar touchdown numbers, the two are about on par with each other as Thomas consistently catches more passes, but Smith-Schuster is more efficient with his catches.
However, Thomas proved in his third NFL season that he needed to be extended before his fourth. Smith-Schuster has a lot on the line this season and may start to get more of the target demand with Antonio Brown out of the picture. However, to keep up with Thomas through three seasons, Smith-Schuster would need 152 receptions. That seems unlikely considering a career-high for Brown was 136. However, he would need 1,444 yards and nine touchdowns to stay on pace with Thomas. Last season Smith-Schuster had 1,426 and seven touchdowns, so the slight uptick is within reach. Below is a look at their per-game numbers over three years.
It is also worth mentioning that Smith-Schuster will turn 23 this season while Thomas entered the NFL at age 23. Thomas is 26 years old now. Given the efficiency and age, a strong year three will have negotiations start at Thomas and work up from there.
2019 CONTRACT AMBITIONS
Thomas is the perfect comparison to look at not only in career arch but also application. In Thomas’ first season, it was questioned whether the coverage of Brandin Cooks opened up stats for him. Over the past two seasons, Thomas has carried a group that saw Ted Ginn as the next competent receiver in 2017, and Tre’Quan Smith as the number two last season.
The Saints have done an excellent job at getting Thomas looks in the slot, despite questionable outside matchups. It creates a pitch and catch scenario between Thomas and Drew Brees as Thomas works smaller slot cornerbacks. Smith-Schuster does his best work in the slot as well, featuring his size and run breaking capabilities. Smith-Schuster ran 59% of routes from the slot last season.
However, without a top outside option such as Brown, that number was expected to reduce. Still, the Saints were able to get Thomas in the slot 25% of the time, and he was able to lead the NFL in yards per route run in the slot. The Steelers will certainly want to study how the Saints kept an alpha receiver open without stud options behind him. If the Steelers can get Smith-Schuster into the slot enough to get favorable looks, and he can take a step forward on the outside, he will assuredly get a contract bigger than Thomas.
However, if the stress of losing Brown becomes too much for Smith-Schuster, and we learn that he may be reliant on slot targets, he may not be looking at the same type of money.
It is easier to win in the slot, which is why Thomas and Smith-Schuster dominate that area. However, Thomas also dominates all areas of the field and carried an offense.
Adam Thielen is a high-end athlete but has relied on seeing the majority of his snaps in the slot, running over 52% of his routes from there last season. Thielen is regarded as a great player but signed a four-year, $64 million deal in April.
Thielen does not have the pedigree and is 28 years old, but with $35 million in guarantees, there is an apparent drop-off. Jarvis Landry was 25 years old when he signed a five-year, $75 million deal with $34 million guaranteed. He played 61% of his snaps in the slot with Miami in 2017 and 65% in 2018 with Cleveland. There is a drop off for slot receivers.
We have seen Thomas soar over these deals. A standard season for Smith-Schuster has Thomas as his baseline. If the nay-sayers calling him a product of Brown are correct, the $16 million average annual salaries may be where the negotiations kick-off instead.
GETTING SOME HELP
The good news for Smith-Schuster is that no matter what he does in 2019, the market for his position is as healthy as it ever has been, and will only grow. To start, you see a new highest-paid player at his position every year and sometime, every month. The “highest-paid player at his position” is just a formality to kick off negotiations for the next deal. Kirk Cousins signed a deal to be the highest-paid quarterback in free agency before 2018. Since then, six quarterbacks have beaten his contract. Brown was the highest-paid receiver earlier this spring. Then Odell Beckham was. Now it is Thomas. The NFL continues to make money, and the salary cap continues to rise. This makes every new contract the biggest of all-time.
This is why the Thomas contract is more than likely a floor for Smith-Schuster. Between now and 2020 negotiations, Julio Jones, A.J. Green, Tyreek Hill, and Amari Cooper are due new deals. There is a chance that each of these players set a new bar for a player such as Smith-Schuster to get signed. With that in mind, the Steelers will not want to hesitate to let even more players sign before they get to Smith-Schuster.
There is no doubt that 2019 will have a dramatic impact on what type of money that Smith-Schuster is set to receive. However, there is also is no doubt that the Thomas extension helped Smith-Schuster in the negotiation rooms. Smith-Schuster will be pointing out his age, career arch, and slot usage compared to Thomas which could all point to Smith-Schuster getting over $100 million with close to $70 million in guarantees.
With Conner, Snell Each over 100 Yards, Running Game Crucial to Steelers 2-0 Start
The Steelers have charged out to a 2-0 start to the season thanks to the stellar defense and the return of star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, which has elevated an already talented group of receivers that also added Chase Claypool and Eric Ebron to the mix this offseason.
At least, that’s how the narrative has gone so far. And with good reason. The Steelers do have a stellar defense, and Roethlisberger has been a spark, with five touchdowns in two games and a completion percentage (68.5) and passer rating (107.1) that would both be career highs.
But the Steelers have also done a surprisingly strong job of running the football. Through two weeks, there have only been 10 running backs to rush for over 100 yards, and the Steelers have two, with Benny Snell clearing the century mark against the New York Giants and James Conner returning from injury to do so against the Denver Broncos.
They’re the only team with a 100-yard rusher in each of their first two games and have increased their percentage of run plays from 33% in 2018 to 42% this season. Roethlisberger said part of that is that the Steelers have been operating with a lead in the second half and looking to run some clock by running the ball.
“Yeah, I think it’s just the way the games have played out,” Roethlisberger said. “We don’t go into any game saying, OK, here’s our percentage of run/pass. We go into the game trying to win it. I’ve just been happy at the end of games, we’ve been able to utilize the four-minute offense both games. I think that’s something that we take pride in. Because when we say we have to run the ball, it doesn’t mean we have to run it more. We have to run it more effectively. And running it in the four-minute offense is effective running.”
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin also highlighted the success of the four-minute offense as the Steelers ran out the clock with the football in both victories.
“We have been able to close games out via the run,” he said. “We have been able to possess the ball in four-minute offense. We’ve had a lead in the latter part of the game and have been able to close the game out and maintain possession of the ball primarily via the run. I like that aspect of it. We are still working and growing in terms of being able to do all the things that we want to do, not only in that area of the game, but in all areas of the game. But I think it is a good start when you have your four-minute offense rolling and you are able to possess the ball via the run and preserve a lead at the end of a football game.”
Of course, there are many mouths to feed when it comes to the Steelers offense. Roethlisberger’s number of quality targets in the passing game, plus what looks like it could be a two-headed backfield between Conner and Snell is a lot of talent to go around and there’s only one football.
Roethlisberger said striking a balance is easy, though, at least when the team is 2-0.
“You look at the win loss column,” he said. “At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter who’s getting the ball. It doesn’t matter how many times we’re running or throwing it, it doesn’t matter who’s getting their stats, it’s just a matter of if the team is getting that one stat that’s most important. And that’s a win.”
Film Study: Conservative Game Plan Holds Steelers Back
The Steelers squeaked out a victory from the jaws of defeat on Sunday by defeating the Denver Broncos 26-21. It was a hard-fought battle as the Steelers allowed the Broncos to creep back into the game in the second half. Turnovers and penalties were two big reasons as to why the Steelers kept them in the game. However, the conservative offensive play calling was as well. Offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner has received due criticism before. Today, that criticism was once again well deserved.
Fichtner’s Questionable Calls Shackles Ben Roethlisberger
The biggest problem with Fichtner was his conservative play-calling once the Steelers got into unfavorable second down positions. On 2nd and long, the Steelers should be using the playmaking ability and arm of Ben Roethlisberger and the skillsets of their weapons to help get into manageable third-down situations.
On a 2nd and 18, these draw plays should not be in contention. One was in the very first quarter when the Steelers should be gunning for a quick start, not a first possession punt. It was after a fumble, but all Fichtner should be doing is trying to get the offense back on track. A run on second and long does not accomplish that. Then, with a two-score lead, this is a classic example of a team taking the foot off the gas pedal. Living in fear of turnover at this point is not a valid point to the contrary, especially when the passing game had been working especially well in the first half against a battered Broncos secondary. More potently, this is playing right into the Broncos strengths. Their front line, even without Von Miller, is strong and capable. It made no sense to go with a draw here on 2nd and long. Even attacking the Broncos underneath here would have worked to some degree. Anything is better than a run at this point.
On the ensuing play, the point is driven home. The Broncos have sold out for the deep pass at the sticks and all that is left is a dig at the line of scrimmage. As a result, the Steelers end up punting here. There was no guarantee that the Steelers would have scored points even if they did take the air. However, shackling Roethlisberger when he has shown the capability to beat the Broncos secondary with ease is a questionable call. If the Steelers do convert and end up scoring a touchdown or even a field goal, the entire outlook on the game is changed. Analytics have shown aggressiveness is how teams have the best probability to win games. In situations like this, that should be followed.
The Steelers’ screen game was perhaps the worst part of the game today. There was nothing going for them all day and yet Fichtner continued to call them. The screen game is nothing more than an extension of the running game. It, yet again, is something that puts Roethlisberger’s best strengths in a bind and handicaps drives. There were promising drives that showcased the quick passing game as a way to slice through the Broncos defense with ease. Even more so, Chase Claypool’s big play made it known that it was possible to push the ball down the field.
This screen play may highlight the worst of the day for the Steelers. The pre-snap look they get is just not favorable for this play. They are outmanned three to two in a blocking situation. More importantly, the Broncos are playing with even spacing and have a great angle to the boundary to make this play on JuJu Smith-Schuster. They are expecting a quick pass here and the safety at the top of the formation is ready to drive down if he sees any quick passing game concepts. That is exactly what happens and the Steelers are stopped short on a critical 3rd and 2. It is questionable why they did not check out of this anyways, but given the struggles of the screen game all day, Fichtner’s call of a screen in a pivotal point is puzzling.
Fichtner has to learn to let Roethlisberger cook and use his arm talent. The quick passing game is more than fine. Honestly, screens are not all bad, but they should not be calling as many as they did today when they were not working. If they are to be called, there has to be more pre-snap action to mess with the defense’s eyes. It was that conservative play-calling that lulled the Steelers offense and in part gave the Broncos a window to creep back into the game as a whole.
Steelers Rookie Kevin Dotson is Ready to Step Up in a Big Way
The Steelers will be throwing their rookie guard into the fire on Sunday. With injuries to both David DeCastro and Stefen Wisniewski, the Steelers are being forced to throw fourth-round rookie Kevin Dotson into the starting lineup. While his college tape looks good, and Steelers Now concluded he could have starting upside, this is early for him to be starting. Dotson missed a good portion of training camp with a knee injury. Not only that but with such limited time, is he really ready to play this early? The few reps he got versus the Giants may be able to tell the story.
There were two key plays that showed Dotson might just be ready right out of the gate here, even despite the “angst” that Mike Tomlin and Randy Fichtner have described at starting Dotson this week.
The first play was this rep against Dexter Lawrence. Now, Lawrence is an explosive athlete. Converting speed-to-power is something he does really well. With powerful hands to jolt pass protectors as well, he can be a real problem, especially for a young guy like Dotson. However, while Dotson initially gets hit slightly back, he does a great job of engaging his core strength and anchoring down. It is obvious how strong Dotson is on the football field, but it is not just in his arms. It is his legs and core that allows him great body control to stand his ground. Other than his dependable anchor on this play, Dotson has fantastic hand placement. His hands are placed inside of Lawrence’s shoulder pads and he is able to control the point of attack here as a result. It was all through winning the leverage of the rep where Dotson was able to get those hands under Lawerence’s pads. A true people-mover it is no surprise to see Dotson play with excellent leverage.
This is a fantastic pull by Dotson on this play to spring Benny Snell. He shows off some hip stiffness, but overall moves pretty well to reach the end here and seal it off. Dotson is the very definition of mauler that plays with violence and power. The end gets shocked by Dotson’s pull and can not get free of his grasps in time to make a play on Snell. This is textbook teach tape for pulls, and while it is not flashy, it is good stuff from Dotson.
Back in training camp after he had just come back and was facing some first team competition, Dotson made sure to let it known he was up to the task.
“I feel like I can make an impact no matter what happens,” Dotson said.
Now with a flurry of injuries, it will up to Dotson to handle Jurrell Casey against the Broncos as the Steelers try to improve to 2-0. If the limited tape says anything, Dotson might just be up to that task.