Can Steelers WR JuJu Smith-Schuster Thrive Without Antonio Brown?


Joe Sargent/Getty Images Antonio Brown celebrates with JuJu Smith-Schuster after a touchdown reception against the New England Patriots in 2018.

In 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster caught 111 passes for 1,426 yards and seven touchdowns. That season he outpaced Antonio Brown in terms of both catches and yards, much to the chagrin of Brown, who didn’t like playing second fiddle to the second-year wide receiver, especially with Brown drawing double-coverage, freeing up Smith-Schuster to make plays.

Brown predicted that Smith-Schuster wouldn’t be the same without him, and so far he’s been right. In week 17 of the 2018 season, when Brown did not play, Smith-Schuster hauled in only five passes for 37 yards on ten targets. And last season was no joy either, as Smith-Schuster caught only 42 passes for 552 yards and three touchdowns.

Is JuJu Smith-Schuster a No. 1 Receiver?

Of course, there were mitigating circumstances that hobbled Smith-Schuster last year, including nagging injuries, which caused him to miss four games. He was also hindered by playing with subpar quarterbacks, as backups Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges both proved to be an enormous step down from Ben Roethlisberger.

So 2020 is a ‘Prove-It’ year for Smith-Schuster, as Pro Football Focus puts it, noting that “the question marks all remain of whether Smith-Schuster can thrive on the outside as the No. 1 target without Brown taking the focus away from him….”

Will Diontae Johnson be Pittsburgh’s New No. 1 Receiver?

To be sure, Smith-Schuster will benefit greatly if Roethlisberger is able to return to his 2018 form.

But he may also face increasing competition from the other wide receivers on Pittsburgh’s roster, most notably Diontae Johnson, who impressed as a rookie—even with Rudolph and Hodges throwing him the ball—and flashed the potential to become a No. 1 receiver.

Then there’s James Washington, who was among the best receivers in the NFL during the second half of last season, not to mention rookie second-round draft pick Chase Claypool, whose contributions have thus far been limited to making a splash on social media.

One also expects that tight end Eric Ebron, acquired in free agency by way of the Indianapolis Colts, will also see his share of targets, especially in the red zone, as his forte is scoring touchdown in the passing game. Keep in mind that the last time Ebron played a full season, in 2018, he caught 66 passes for 750 yards and 13 touchdowns.

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JuJu Smith-Schuster a Pending Unrestricted Free Agent

Regardless, 2020 is a pivotal year for Smith-Schuster from a contract perspective, as he’s set to become an unrestricted free agent after this season, one of the Steelers’ top 5 unrestricted free agents entering 2021.

According to, Smith-Schuster is scheduled to earn $1,037,151 in salary in 2020 while also counting $1,335,020 against the team’s salary cap.

Smith-Schuster’s salary has risen every year since he earned $465,000 in base salary in 2017—his rookie year. The prorated portion of his signing bonus is $297,869, hence the $1,335,020 cap charge.

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