Steelers WR JuJu Smith-Schuster out to improve in Year 2
Given his brief training camp history, JuJu Smith-Schuster sitting out practice Monday with an undisclosed injury should not be cause for alarm.
After all, Smith-Schuster was involved with three medical issues last summer before the Steelers departed Latrobe, and it had no impact on his rookie season.
Despite suffering an ankle injury early in camp, being evaluated for a concussion in the preseason opener and tweaking his knee the following week, Smith-Schuster was ready to go in 2017 when the games counted.
And all Smith-Schuster did in his first pro season was wrestle playing time away from veteran Martavis Bryant, lead all NFL rookies with 917 yards and seven touchdowns and break a franchise rookie yardage record that stood for nearly 60 years.
So when Smith-Schuster sat out most offseason workouts with a knee ailment, he wasn’t concerned, taking advantage of the long layoff between the end of minicamp and start of training camp.
“By that time, I was getting healthy. I felt like I could go,” Smith-Schuster said of the six-week break prior to his arrival at Saint Vincent. “I went strong and just kept going.”
Smith-Schuster spoke those words last Friday after the team’s second workout and expressed optimism that the knee problem was behind him.
“Keep moving up,” he said. “No steps backwards.”
Two days later, he was unable to finish practice. Coach Mike Tomlin is hoping Smith-Schuster can get back on the field perhaps as soon as Wednesday when the Steelers return to practice after Tuesday’s scheduled day off.
Smith-Schuster missed one game last season with a hamstring injury, and he was suspended for another because of a crushing crackback block and taunt of Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict. In the 14 games he dressed, including seven starts, Smith-Schuster had 58 catches, which ranked third on the team. He also had a 15.8 average per catch that led all Steelers regular pass catchers.
Such contributions were rare for NFL rookies in 2017. Consider that three receivers drafted among the top nine picks — Corey Davis, Mike Williams and John Ross — combined for 45 catches and 470 yards. Even the two wide receivers selected before Smith-Schuster in the second round — Zay Jones and Curtis Samuels — combined for just 42 catches and 431 yards.
The natural question is: What can Smith-Schuster do for an encore?
“When you’re a young guy in this league, no matter what position — quarterbacks, receivers — you can sneak up on people,” quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. “He’s not going to sneak up on anybody this year. People know what you’re going to get, so he’s now going to have to take his game to the next level to find a way to get better than what the defense expects from him.”
Because of Smith-Schuster’s knee injury, new wide receivers coach Darryl Drake didn’t have much chance to work with him in offseason workouts. But he was around Smith-Schuster enough to express confidence that a drop-off won’t be forthcoming.
“I expect him to make great strides because of JuJu, because of what is inside of him,” Drake said. “He’s a very determined guy, a very smart guy, a guy who is really hungry. Sometimes guys get into that second year and have a tendency to relax. I don’t think that’s in his mentality, his makeup.
“His makeup is to go out there and be the best that he can possibly be. As long as guys take that kind of attitude, they’ll grow.”
In the early days of camp, Smith-Schuster said he focused on developing a rapport with Roethlisberger, trying to achieve the same kind of on-field relationship the quarterback has achieved with All-Pro Antonio Brown.
“They’ve been going at it for eight years,” Smith-Schuster said. “It’s Year 2 for me, so that’s what I’m trying to get to.”
Drake has been encouraged by what he has seen from Smith-Schuster.
“Ben has got a good feel for him,” he said. “He knows where he is, and he trusts him. As long as that quarterback has a great feel for you and trusts you and gives you those opportunities, it’s your job to go out there and seize them. Ben feels good about JuJu. He brought him along (last year), gave him confidence to let him know that he was in his thought process.
“When a guy has that and is able to transform that on the field, he’s got a chance to be special.”
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe at email@example.com or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.