PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Steelers’ offense will have a new feel in 2019. Antonio Brown has demanded a trade that the Steelers were probably executing anyway. Le’Veon Bell and the Steelers will undoubtedly part ways after failed franchise-tag negotiations and Bell’s yearlong holdout.
While Ben Roethlisberger was and is the central figure in the offense, JuJu Smith-Schuster instantly becomes his top weapon once Brown and Bell leave.
Whether Smith-Schuster can handle double-teams and beat top corners quite like Brown is still up for debate. What’s not debatable is where his career is trending: upward at a historic pace.
JuJu Smith-Schuster will get even more attention without Antonio Brown around, but his numbers suggest he’s up to it. AP Photo/Keith Srakocic
With the help of ESPN Stats & Information, here is the exclusive company Smith-Schuster joined by his 22nd birthday, along with records he can break before turning 23 on Nov. 22.
Hello, Randy Moss: Smith-Schuster has 11 games with at least 100 receiving yards, tied with Hall of Famer Randy Moss for most in NFL history by a player before his 23rd birthday.
Odell Beckham Jr. produced 10 such games before his 23rd birthday.
Smith-Schsuter was 20 when the Steelers drafted him, the youngest player among the 2017 class. But this feat is stellar nonetheless, and Smith-Schuster will have more than half the 2019 season to surpass Moss.
The 100-catch, 1,400-yard club: Only three NFL players have joined this group in their first or second NFL season. Isaac Bruce did it for the St. Louis Rams in 1995, Larry Fitzgerald with the Arizona Cardinals in 2005 and Smith-Schuster with the Steelers in 2018.
Bruce has been a Hall of Fame finalist multiple times, and Fitzgerald will be in Canton one day.
Last season, Smith-Schsuter — at 22 years, 31 days old — surpassed Fitzgerald as the youngest to reach 100 receptions in a single season. Fitzgerald was 22 years, 123 days old when he did it.
Fellow 2017 draftee Christian McCaffrey has 187 catches to Smith-Schuster’s 169. But the Carolina Panthers running back will be 23 before the season starts. Smith-Schuster hit that number with an average of 13.9 yards per catch.
Major progress: Smith-Schuster’s jump from 58 receptions as a rookie to 111 receptions last year is one of the steepest increases among 41 players with at least 50 catches in their first two years.
Only Indianapolis Colts great Marvin Harrison (plus-56 from 1998 to 1999) and Houston Texans star Andre Johnson (plus-55 from 2007 to 2008) experienced bigger leaps in their sophomore campaigns.
Company doesn’t get much more elite. Harrison is a Hall of Famer and fifth all time in catches (1,102). Johnson ranks 11th all time in both receptions and receiving yards.
Smith-Schuster won’t see a similar increase in 2019, but as a focal point, he could see an uptick in targets from last year’s 166.
Splash party: The flare for the big play has vaulted Smith-Schuster in the conversation of the bright young playmakers in the NFL.
Smith-Schuster has four career touchdowns of 75-plus yards. Only Kansas City Chiefs receiver Tyreek Hill (five) has more.
Smith-Schuster’s three games of at least 10 catches and 100 yards ties then-Cleveland Browns receiver Josh Gordon for second most by a pre-23-year-old in the Super Bowl era. Beckham leads this category with four.
What this means: That the Steelers have a legitimate No. 1 receiver, even as they lose a No. 1 receiver. Scouts and coaches I spoke to during the season agreed that Brown was “the guy” in the Steelers’ game plan for opposing cornerbacks. But Smith-Schuster consistently made teams pay for that plan, and his production through two years belongs among some of the game’s greatest to play the position. The numbers bear that out.