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In the 2nd-round of the 2017 NFL Draft, the Steelers surprised many by selecting receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster. After only meeting with the USC stand-out briefly at the NFL Combine, it didn’t appear that Smith-Schuster was on the Steelers’ radar at all.
Funny how quickly things change.
Fast-forward to the present and it is easy to imagine the potential impact Smith-Schuster can bring to the Steelers’ offense early on in his career. In a crowded stable of receivers, Smith-Schuster has the chance to make a name for himself early. This chance will likely come in the slot. With Antonio Brown returning on a new 4-year extension and Martavis Bryant’s return from suspension, the starting jobs are 100% secure at this point. Everything behind them, not so much.
Sammie Coates, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Justin Hunter, and Cobi Hamilton will all be fighting for depth spots on the outside behind Brown and Bryant. The real competition, however, will be in the slot, where Smith-Schuster, Eli Rogers, and Demarcus Ayers will be battling it out for the starting job.
Rogers and Ayers compare to each other in very similar manners. Rogers (5’10”) and Ayers (5’9″) are both diminutive receivers that excel in space and create separation by using superior agility to evade defensive backs. While this is more of a traditional description for a slot receiver, Smith-Schuster breaks this stereotype by being the opposite.
At 6’1″, 215 lbs., Smith-Schuster is a big, strong, physical receiver that doesn’t get manhandled by defensive players often. Big slot receivers big pose a completely different threat to defenses than their tiny counterparts based on their ability to rely on crisp routes and to box out defenders when the ball is in the air. Smith-Schuster is no exception to this. He demonstrates a knack for being fearless across the middle of the field and is constantly aware of where defenders are around him. This allows him to find open spaces in coverage and make the catch when the ball is thrown his way. Additionally, he can stretch the field vertically, which gives the Steelers another danger down the field that isn’t Brown or Bryant. Rogers showed he could accomplish this last season, but there is no denying Smith-Schuster’s size bonus in this area.
Another strength of his game is his big, strong hands that seem to always find a way to grab the ball when it is in his vicinity. This is especially crucial for 50/50 passes where Smith-Schuster must find a way to go over the defender and fight for the ball so it doesn’t get knocked away or intercepted. While this can be useful in the slot, it also can be indicative of his ability to play on the outside, a place where he saw most of his time at USC.
Smith-Schuster lacks elite speed that most of the Steelers receivers possess, but this does not mean he won’t have the ability to also play on the outside at times if needed. Even though he doesn’t always get great separation from cornerbacks, his ability to be physical when the ball is in the air helps alleviate this deficit, as well as his great route running.
But back to the slot talk.
As a big, physical receiver, that does not always mean that you can block. This is not the case for Smith-Schuster. When watching him on tape, his blocking is reminiscent of Hines Ward and Anquan Boldin. He is selfless in the run game and could be the difference maker to spring a long run. Not only that, but by having a receiver that is able and willing to be a decent blocker means that defenses must respect this and adjust accordingly. Simply put, Rogers and Ayers, while both willing blockers, don’t have the size to be a consistently excellent run blocker.
Slot receivers also typically excel in their ability to make plays after the catch. Big slot receivers, while deceptively elusive, must make plays happen in other ways. A good way of examining this is with screen passes, something the Steelers are notorious for doing. Luckily for Smith-Schuster, he also did some of this in college. Small slot receivers typically rely on their agility and quick movements to make defenders miss on these types of plays. Big receivers, including Smith-Schuster, instead make an initial move at the line and then out-physical would-be tacklers. Smith-Schuster specifically has used a strong stiff arm to ward away defenders trying to make a tackle. This could give the Steelers another option in their screen game that they haven’t had or used since Ward was still around.
While Smith-Schuster should be able to come in and compete right away (and he likely will), how quickly he consistently sees time on the field over the likes of Rogers and Ayers will depend on how quickly he can build chemistry with Ben Roethlisberger. It has been well documented that Big Ben and Brown have a relationship unlike any other in the NFL. Will Smith-Schuster get to that point with Roethlisberger in one year? No. But he also doesn’t need to be there right now. Smith-Schuster’s work ethic and drive to succeed will make him all that more prepared to handle whatever gets thrown his way and to find a way to mesh with Roethlisberger.
Smith-Schuster has the chance to break the mold of recent “conventional” Steelers receivers. He is built and plays like a receiver we haven’t seen in the Black and Gold since Hines Ward and Jerricho Cotchery. His physical playing style will be more than welcome as a compliment on offense and as a different type of target for Big Ben.
It’s just a matter of “when”, not “if”.
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