By the end of the 2018 season, the Steelers were reaping the benefits of one of their better draft classes in recent memory: 2017. Three of their top four selections from that year, T.J. Watt, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and James Conner were enjoying Pro-Bowl seasons while Cameron Sutton, their third round pick, was impressing in limited playing time and looking like an excellent developmental project for the future.
However, after a dismal 2019 season, and with all four nearing the end of their rookie contracts, the future is in doubt for some of 2017’s star draftees.
Notably absent from this article will be first round linebacker T.J. Watt, who has become one of the best at his position and will no doubt be in Pittsburgh for a very long time. Josh Dobbs, Brian Allen, Colin Holba, and Keion Adams were all taken later in that same draft, but are not with team anymore.
Wide receiver Juju Smith-Schuster was the Steelers’ Joe Green Performance Award winner for team rookie of the year following his 2017 season, and impressed even more in his sophomore campaign by putting up 1,426 yards as the #2 receiver behind Antonio Brown in 2018. Brown’s plethora of issues led to him being traded to the Raiders ahead of the 2019 season, and despite Smith-Schuster’s successful past with the Steelers, there were doubts that he could maintain his level of production without Brown’s help.
Not long into 2019, Smith-Schuster soon found himself without his starting quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, who was lost to a season-ending injury in Week 2. Without Brown and Roethlisberger, as well as some injuries, Smith-Schuster put up an underwhelming 552 yards. Smith-Schuster struggled with consistency, drop issues, and had a crucial fumble which all contributed to an all-time low in his NFL career.
With Roethlisberger back and an improved offense in 2020, Smith-Schuster will surely enjoy a bounce-back season yet it remains to be seen to what extent he will improve. It has always been hard to evaluate Smith-Schuster. His rookie season was very successful even though rookie seasons are hard to judge, while in his second season he was paired with the arguably best receiver in the league which definitely inflated his production. Smith-Schuster’s third year was spent in a terrible offense sans the starting quarterback. The point being, we don’t yet know what an average season from Smith-Schuster looks like.
Smith-Schuster’s 2020 season will obviously have the biggest impact in determining what his next contract will be, and we might finally get to see what the real #19 looks like. A terrible season from Smith-Schuster might result in the Steelers not bringing him back, while too much production might put him out of the team’s price range. The result of JuJu’s 2020 season will either solidify him as a Steelers fan favorite, or further his fall from one of the most popular players in the NFL.
Cornerback Cameron Sutton was the Steelers’ first of two 3rd round picks in 2017. His playing time has increased each season, but he remains a limited contributor in the Steelers’ defense. Sutton is an excellent cover corner who is simply stuck behind the Steelers’ starting trio of corners in Joe Haden, Steve Nelson, and Mike Hilton on the depth chart at this point in his career. Unless Sutton is able to leapfrog Hilton as the Steelers’ primary slot corner, he will most likely be hard to keep around as an expensive backup come next season.
Sutton is a talented player, but he has never had his chance to shine as a starter. The Steelers are most likely hoping to keep him around as a successor to their aging cornerback unit. His future in Pittsburgh is a mystery, however, his limited playing time makes him a tough prospect to evaluate. His best chance at getting a new deal in the Steel City is to find himself a starting job this year, making 2020 an important season for the 4th year corner.
James Conner’s career is wholly dependent on his health at this point. After a rookie season sitting behind Le’Veon Bell, he became the starting running back in 2018 and played at a high level. However, he suffered an ankle injury in Week 13 versus the Chargers which started a downward spiral of injuries ever since. Conner played off and on in 2019, seeing the field for ten games but often leaving early due to injury.
Conner is definitely entering a make-or-break year in 2020 as his health will be a major factor in earning another contract. The 2017 third-rounder is a Pro-Bowl talent when healthy, but his availability issues are looming over his success. A good, healthy season from Conner would be excellent for the running back, but might make his price tag not worth the risk for the Steelers. The James Conner situation will be an interesting one to monitor this season.
After a strong two years of production from the 2017 Pittsburgh Steelers rookie class, it looked as if it would be a draft to remember. However, inconsistency and injury have plagued some of the great players selected, muddying their future and potential in the league.
We will get to see JuJu Smith-Schuster play an entire season as a #1 wideout with his starting quarterback, see if Cam Sutton can live up to the hype, and find out if James Conner can overcome his health issues to become a legitimate starting running back in the NFL. The success of these players, paired with the already-elite T.J. Watt, could swing Pittsburgh’s 2017 rookie class from good to great in this upcoming season.