PITTSBURGH — Whether he’s ready or not, third-year Steelers receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster will enter the 2019 season as the team’s top receiving option following the trade of former All-Pro Antonio Brown to the Oakland Raiders this offseason.
One of the things that made the trade so palatable for the Steelers, which received just a third and sixth-round draft picks while having to eat a $21.1 million dead-weight salary cap hit, was the play of Smith-Schuster, who emerged in 2018 as the type of all-around receiving threat that the Steelers feel they can build around.
In fact, one could make a pretty good argument that Smith-Schsuter was already the team’s No. 1 receiver, despite Brown’s larger fame and greater run of success. Smith-Schuster caught 111 balls in 2018, while Brown caught 104.
On the first day of the Steelers OTAs on Tuesday, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger expressed his faith in Smith-Schuster’s ability to be the team’s top target, saying “I think he’s ready, but you have to ask him.”
Smith-Schuster said on Wednesday that he doesn’t think who the team’s No. 1 receiver is makes much difference, but that he’s ready for an increased role.
“It’s not about the No. 1 guy,” he said. “Yes, you have No. 1 quarterback, running back, but at the end of the day, it’s a collective game. The only way you move the ball is if all 11 make plays and do their job. That’s what it’s going to take to win the Super Bowl.”
One of the jobs of a team’s top receiver is to deal with an increased amount of attention from opposing defenses. One of the reasons Smith-Schuster was able to thrive in 2018 was that many teams double-covered Brown, leaving the rest of the field with less help.
“No doubt,” Smith-Schuster said. “We felt it last year, playing against the Patriots. They doubled me and AB. It was nothing new. This year, it’s just going to be the same thing from the beginning, the same coverage and doubling. We’ve got guys like (Donte) Moncrief, James (Washington), we drafted a new wide receiver, Diontae (Johnson). I’m not worried about that.”
Despite still only being 22 — the same age as rookie addition Johnson — he’ll also expected to be a leader of the team’s receivers room. That’s something he’s looking forward to.
“With the experience I’ve played, at this point, age is just a number. I’ve played enough games under my belt, where I’m able to take on this,” he said. “I like to have a little voice. Being a young guy in the room, being 22, I feel like I’m like my dog — a French Bulldog, just barking at everybody.”
But he doesn’t feel the need to go outside his own personality to get that job done.
“I’m already vocal,” he said. “I’m just a vocal person in general. That’s just how I am. There’s no need for me to go out of my way and yell at the guys. We’re all adults. We all know what’s right from wrong. Everyone just works. Everyone has a voice in the room, it’s not just mine.