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Steelers 2017 Draft Retrospective: Did JuJu Smith-Schuster live up to the draft-night hype?

Steelers 2017 rookie receiver JuJU Smith-Schuster had a high bar to clear in 2017, considering he had to share a receivers room with Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant. But did he live up to the draft-night hype?

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Houston Texans Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Confession time: I’ve never experienced “juju”, good or bad.

I’ve never Juju’d on that beat.

I’m not even a fan of Jujyfruit candies. Seriously, they’re like gummy bears on steroids. The stick to your teeth like it’s nobody’s business. Ever been entertained by a dog eating peanut butter for a few minutes? Feed the pup some Jujyfruits and settle in for hours of entertainment.

But I digress.

What I have done, though, is pass snap judgement on Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster. It turns out I was a little wrong, and a good bit right in my kneejerk reaction after he was announced as the Steelers’ second-round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft.

What I said

On many levels, this feels like an unnecessary luxury pick. ... The Steelers got a very talented player, despite the need being questionable.

What happened

As it turned out, there was nothing luxurious about this pick -- the Steelers needed every last snap Smith-Schuster played. Of course, it would have been nuts to try keeping him off the field, anyway. From almost the beginning, he showed his value. In week two he had a modest three catches on four targets while adding his first career touchdown. He would go on to set a record for the most touchdowns scored before turning 21 years old, scoring five before his November 22 birthday. But what made him most valuable of all was that he was performing well on the field at a time when Martavis Bryant, returning from a yearlong suspension, was struggling to find his old groove with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

What I said

Smith-Schuster lacks deep-threat speed, but he uses his size exceedingly well to shield defenders and give him a clear shot at the ball. With long arms, combined with his 6’-1” height, he has tremendous length, too, which works if you are a true hands catcher, which Smith-Schuster absolutely is. Rarely do you ever see the ball get into his body. He has tremendous body control in the air, and gets his head around to see the catch into his hands. If he was a little faster, he may have been a first-round pick.

What happened

Let’s take the deep-threat part out of the equation for a second. Everything else here was based on observations from his college game film, and it was as true as ever in his first year as a pro. Smith-Schuster has some of the softest hands in the entire NFL, and I really don’t feel like that’s hyperbole. Sometimes, the greatness of others can be muted when you have a future Hall-of-Fame player like Antonio Brown playing the same position, but there is no reason to overlook just how effortless Smith-Schuster makes catching a football appear.

Now, about that deep-threat part: clearly, the kid spent time before the season learning from Brown how to generate significant separation when you lack a true top gear, because he had a knack for getting open against otherwise tight coverage. I offer his 97-yard touchdown against the Lions — the longest reception in the NFL in 2017 — as exhibits A through Z. This was all about impeccably precise route running and selling body fakes like they were Fifth Avenue real estate for pennies on the dollar. Rumor has it defensive back Quandre Diggs had bruises from getting beaten so badly. Bottom line: separation isn’t all about speed if you have the ability to move the defender out of the way without even touching them. With a mentor like Brown, there is no reason for anyone with half a brain to improve as a receiver, and Smith-Schuster absolutely did not disappoint.

What I said

[T]he need at receiver was a little bigger than it may have looked, based on sheer numbers. (Sammie) Coates suffered what turned out to be a significant injury to his hand [in 2017], and his production didn’t just drop, it plummeted halfway through the Earth’s mantle. Despite surgery to repair it, there is no guarantee he returns well.

What happened

This tells a mere one third of the story as to how Smith-Schuster became, for all intents and purposes, the Steelers’ number-two receiver. Coates was traded to the Cleveland Browns for approximately a box of peanuts. That cleared one potential obstacle out of the rookie’s way. Add to that the fact that Eli Rogers spent most of the first three quarters of the 2017 season failing to rise up to the bar he set in 2016, appearing most of the time to be not just on a different page than Roethlisberger, but perhaps a different chapter. He ended the season with just 18 catches in 14 games. That resulted in Smith-Schuster progressively spending more and more time in the slot.

But it was Bryant’s early-season struggles and, eventually, a social-media tirade that made Smith-Schuster a near-permanent fixture opposite Brown. In retrospect, no one is complaining.

Except, perhaps, Cincinnati linebacker Vontaze Burfict. But, again, I digress.

While the Steelers made a great first-round pick in outside linebacker T.J. Watt, Smith-Schuster could go down in history as the best pick of the entire 2017 draft, for any team, at least when looking at value. He was underrated due to a lack of top-end speed, and then proved he never needed it anyway, and nearly put up a 1,000-yard season as a rookie, on a team with Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant and running back Le’Veon Bell all taking significant numbers of targets. That’s downright remarkable.

And, given how much the kid has endeared himself to the entirety of Pittsburgh with his whole-hearted embrace of the city, as well as his fun-loving, often child-like demeanor, it’s no surprise that fans are clamoring to see how he improves upon an already outstanding start to his career. He’s a Pittsburgher, through and through.

Not to mention, one heckuva draft steal.