Could Pittsburgh’s rookie wide receiver be given a big role in the offense right away?
For the Pittsburgh Steelers, the wide receiver position is arguably the biggest area of strength on the roster. You’d also be hard-pressed to find a receiver depth chart as littered with talent from top to bottom as Pittsburgh’s. It’s arguable that they were set at the position even before the 2017 NFL draft, yet still opted to take USC’s Juju Smith-Schuster in the second round.
With so many quality receivers on the roster, one would expect the Steelers to limit the 20-year old’s playing time this season and allow him to develop behind the veterans. However, it wouldn’t be shocking if he was able to carve out a significant role in the offense quickly.
It was surprising that Pittsburgh took a receiver so early in the draft, but it was the correct decision.
After Martavis Bryant was suspended for the entirety of 2016, Pittsburgh had difficulty finding a second option opposite of Antonio Brown. Sammie Coates’ five-game start was promising, but he became a non-factor for the remainder of the season after injuring his hand. Eli Rogers — who’s 600 yards receiving last year was a welcomed surprise — seems to be better suited as a third or fourth option
Without a legitimate second receiving option to divert attention from Brown, Pittsburgh’s offense struggled at times last season. In the AFC Championship game against the New England Patriots, the offense was never able to get much going; after Le’veon Bell went down with an injury, the Patriots were virtually able to focus entirely on Brown, rendering him ineffective.
Another quality receiving option may not have helped the Steelers win the AFC Championship, but it wouldn’t have hurt.
It is for that very reason that Pittsburgh invested a high draft pick into the receiver position and chose Smith-Schuster. Bryant was reinstated by the NFL, but he hasn’t yet proven to the team that they can rely on him. Coates has largely underwhelmed through his first two seasons in the league, though his talent is obvious.
Smith-Schuster was brought in to compete, and to provide insurance in case Bryant continues to make bad judgement calls. Pittsburgh also signed Justin Hunter in the off-season for essentially the same reasons, though he isn’t guaranteed to make the roster.
Ideally, Bryant will keep himself out of trouble and Coates will show signs of development. However, even if these things happen, there could still be opportunity for the rookie receiver to make an impact.
It’s possible that Pittsburgh will utilize more five-receiver formations this season because they do not have a tight end that can stretch the field. Jesse James — the expected starter at tight end — is a good, young player who presents a big target in the red zone and a solid underneath option, but his speed is limited.
Smith-Schuster is obviously not a tight end, but he could essentially be used like one in a five-receiver set. He plays with physicality, has a good size/speed combination and is willing to go over the middle. His skill-set would allow the team to deploy him in place of James when they are looking to throw downfield.
It’ll be interesting to what the Steelers have planned for the rookie receiver this season. They would most likely prefer to ease him into the offense, however, they may not end up having a choice.