You heard it here first, folks. JuJu Smith-Schuster is destined to have a huge bounce back season. The reason for that destiny might just surprise more than a few members of Steelers Nation.
The obvious reasons to predict a resurgence of JuJu's career would be the triumphant return of Ben Roethlisberger, and the added motivation of this being a contract season for the young man. However, the main reason I am expecting big things from JuJu this season has not yet been discussed as far as I know.
JuJu once again has some competition for the title of top dog among a talented receiving core. Competition drives elite athletes to the pinnacle of their profession. Take the greatest wide receiver tandem in Steelers history for example.
Steelers greats Lynn Swann and John Stallworth were Hall of Fame talents playing wide out for the Steelers during the Steel Curtain dynasty of the 70's. NFL offenses during that era were conservative by nature, a far cry from today's pass happy style of play. The rules favored the defense, resulting in fewer opportunities for pass receivers. Targets were at a premium and extremely coveted.
Terry Bradshaw gave a hilarious recap of Swann and Stallworth begging for the ball to come their way during his famous Hall of Fame enshrinement speech. All great receivers believe they are open on every play and the only thing they need is for the quarterback to throw the ball in their direction.
Swann and Stallworth were teammates, but in a sense they were intense rivals. Two great receivers competing for a extremely limited number of opportunities in that day and age. That competition drove both men to great heights that resulted in Hall of Fame careers.
JuJu arrived in the NFL with little fanfare and zero expectations. He was able to experience the youthful exuberance of playing in the NFL without the pressure and expectations experienced by so many, resulting in a record setting start to his career.
Prior to last season, that all changed. Not only did Antonio Brown's exodus from the Steel City shine the spotlight directly on the effervescent young man, but he dealt with the lost of Roethlisberger and numerous nagging injuries throughout the disappointing season.
On top of all that, JuJu received his first real criticism from the fan base. Many fans wanted to see less of JuJu on social media playing Fortnite and being an emergency prom date replacement, and more images of JuJu working hard in a personal commitment to be great.
The pressure of struggling for the first time in his professional career, coupled with the sudden negativity of the fan base, definitely took a toll on JuJu's countenance and demeanor. He often appeared sullen and demure. A far cry from the happy go lucky persona we had all come to know and love.
Now JuJu is back, with a newly chiseled physique and the focus of a proven professional. What brought about such a transformation in the young man? Was it the burning desire to show last season was a fluke and prove all the naysayers wrong? Maybe, but I believe it was something even more personal. Now JuJu has some serious competition for those coveted targets, and the title of Ben's go to guy.
Last season, JuJu ascended to lead receiver status after Brown's departure with precious little proven skill position talent around him capable of carrying their share of the load. This season is shaping up to be quite the opposite.
Diontae Johnson is coming off a productive rookie season and has also returned to camp with some much needed added muscle to his sinewy physique. If he can quickly develop a rapport with Roethlisberger he poses a real challenge to JuJu's present status as numero uno. Taking into account the similarities between Johnson's game and the aforementioned AB, the chemistry between Roethlisberger and Johnson could be something special, minus the diva attitude.
The competition for targets doesn't end with those gentlemen, far from it. Last season's receiving yardage leader, James Washington, is still improving as a professional and has showed he has a knack for the big play. Renowned for his work ethic, Washington is sure to make his presence known in the competition for targets.
Rookie Chase Claypool is a freak physical specimen who the Steelers coaching staff sounds determined to utilize in a variety of ways this season. Back shoulder throws and high point throws in the red zone have to be present on the menu one would have to believe. Claypool has already been making some highlight reel worthy catches at camp that have caught the attention of some Steelers veterans, notably Pro Bowl CB Joe Haden, a man who would know a thing or two about talented receivers.
Throw in former Pro Bowler and red zone monster Eric Ebron at tight end, and you have plenty of mouths to feed but only one ball to go around. Roethlisberger has to be stoked about the plethora of talent at his disposal, and being able to spread the wealth around the yard without having to worry about a grown man having a full blown hissy fit right there on the sidelines. The Gatorade coolers should be safe this season.
There will be some serious competition this season for Roethlisberger's attention, and internal competition only brings out the absolute best in the individuals willing to except the challenge. That all starts this week at training camp.