Why draft a receiver when the need to further infuse the secondary with talented defensive backs was still so glaringly obvious? For starters, there were a record number of them taken by the end of Round 2—19—and it’s never smart to reach that early in the draft at any position, regardless of how great the need may be.
Secondly, well, Smith-Schuster was just a really good and productive receiver at USC, and it’s always smart to draft talented and productive football players, regardless of what position they may play.
One of Smith-Schuster’s strengths coming out of Southern California was his ability to make combat catches, what some people—including Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin—call 50/50 balls. A perceived weakness was a lack of elite speed, and that’s why on Smith-Schuster’s draft profile, NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein said, “Contested catches will have to be a big part of his future.”
To be fair, Zierlein also said, “Shows effective uses of frame to shield cornerbacks from contested catches.”
Hmmm, sounds an awful lot like the two very important fourth quarter grabs Smith-Schuster had during the Steelers final two possessions this past Sunday as they battled back from a two-score deficit to defeat the Jaguars, 20-16.
Both receptions jump-started touchdown drives and came when two of the games toughest cornerbacks were covering him on the far sideline.
The first one went for 21 yards while Smith-Schuster was being covered by Jalen Ramsey, the always tough to shed All-Pro corner. In order to make this catch on a back-shoulder throw from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, Smith-Schuster had to turn his body towards the sideline and keep his eyes on the ball as he reeled it in while going to the ground—and he had to do all of this with Ramsey right there trying to prevent it from happening. The catch paved the way for the 11-yard touchdown pass from Roethlisberger to tight end Vance McDonald that made it a 16-13 football game.
The second catch was pretty much a carbon-copy of the first one, only it went for 26 yards, and instead of Ramsey, it was A.J. Bouye who was providing the really tight coverage. This play proved to be the catalyst for Roethlisberger’s game-winning touchdown dive with just five seconds left in the fourth quarter.
People may wonder why the ability to make combat catches is so important in the NFL, but when you see how valuable this skill can be, you understand the need.
You also understand that speed isn’t the only thing that makes a receiver elite.
There’s a lot that goes into being a great wide-receiver, and in only his second season, Smith-Schuster seems to possess most of it.
Along with his affinity for blocking and willingness to go over the middle, Smith-Schuster has great hands, the ability to get open and, as you saw against the Jaguars, the talent to make a tough catch when he’s not truly open.
As for that speed, Smith-Schuster possesses enough of it to already have catches of 69, 75 and 97 yards on his resume, to go along with a 96-yard kickoff return against the Browns in Week 17 of last season.
With 64 receptions for 866 yards through 10 games, Smith-Schuster is on pace for 102 and 1385, respectively, numbers that would surely lead to Pro Bowl and maybe even All-Pro honors at season’s end.
Some have said that Smith-Schuster has benefited from the presence and omnipresent attention paid to perennial All-Pro receiver Antonio Brown.
No doubt that’s true, but Smith-Schuster is about as close to a total package as a wide-receiver as the Steelers have drafted in quite some time.
JuJu Smith-Schuster is the real deal, and contested catches aren’t the only things that will be a big part of his future.