PITTSBURGH (AP) — The answer was decidedly on brand.
Asked on Monday what he brings to the Pittsburgh Steelers’ wide receiver room as the longest-tenured member of the group despite still being just 23, JuJu Smith-Schuster sounded very much like the kid he still is.
“I am definitely the guy that is trying to make everyone laugh and enjoy their job,” Smith-Schuster said. “Making the best out of it. I think there are days where we are tired or we are down and feel like we just don’t want to do it, but I am the guy that comes in and says, ‘Let’s go, man. Let’s have fun today, make the most out of it.’ Like I said, we are always lit.”
The underlying question heading into 2020, however, is for how much longer will it stay lit, at least in Pittsburgh? Smith-Schuster isn’t sure.
For all of his popularity, production and self-confidence — a troika that’s made his No. 19 jersey one of the team’s best sellers since he splashed onto the scene in 2017 still too young (20) to legally buy alcohol — Smith-Schuster has been in the NFL long enough to understand how the business side works.
He’s been good. At times really good. He’s also entering the final year of his rookie deal. The Steelers historically do not negotiate contract extensions once the regular season starts. The clock is ticking to get something done. Smith-Schuster insists he won’t let his long-term status affect his short-term goals.
“Contract-wise, that is between my agent and the Steelers,” he said. “At the end of the day … I am just here to play ball. I am not going to be the type of guy that sits out and waits. I am going to play regardless if there is a contract or not.”
There’s plenty to play for following the first significant speed bump of his football life. The de facto No. 1 receiver after the team dealt Antonio Brown to Oakland in March 2019, Smith-Schuster’s third season in the league was a myriad of setbacks and inconsistency.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger went down with a right elbow injury at halftime of Week 2 and never returned. Backups Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges struggled to generate any momentum offensively. Defenses focused on shutting down Smith-Schuster after he hauled in 111 passes while making the Pro Bowl in 2018. A concussion and a knee injury during an ugly loss to Cleveland forced him to miss a month. He finished with just 42 receptions overall and had just 109 yards receiving combined over his final five starts.
“One thing with me, I never had experienced injuries where I’ve been out for multiple weeks for that long,” Smith-Schuster said. “That was something I knew I had to learn as a young guy, and also being the No. 1 receiver for a team. It was just more so making sure that if I wasn’t playing, making sure that everybody else was a part of doing their thing, making sure that we get in and out of games.”
Which puts Smith-Schuster in a bit of a weird spot. The Steelers used their first pick in the 2020 draft to take 6-foot-4 wide receiver Chase Claypool out of Notre Dame with the 49th overall selection. Smith-Schuster called Claypool’s athleticism “amazing.”
In a way, Smith-Schuster is echoing the words Brown used to describe Smith-Schuster during his heady rookie season, when he became a sensation both on the field and off. His physicality and willingness to block earn earned him the respect of his teammates. His charisma made him a social media darling (feel free to Google “JuJu’s Bike” for proof) and a fan favorite.
Yet life comes at you fast in the NFL, where Smith-Schuster suddenly finds himself facing a “prove it” season before his 24th birthday. Roethlisberger’s return should certainly force defenses to play Smith-Schuster more honestly. He also cut weight during the “virtual” offseason, but declined to get into specifics about how much his 6-foot-1 frame is carrying.
He also modified his routine, returning from Southern California to Pittsburgh about a month early to put in time at the team facility. He stressed it wasn’t necessarily something he did because he’s intent on convincing the front office he is committed to sticking around in 2021 and beyond.
“I don’t think I did it for a contract,” Smith-Schuster said. “I think it is just every year I learn something new and become better as a player for the team.”
That’s a theme he invoked repeatedly when asked about his future. Yes, his job is to help Claypool and the rest of the receivers develop. Yes, there’s a very real chance Claypool or James Washington becomes his eventual replacement. Yet he is quick to point out they are teammates, not rivals. If they help him sharpen his craft, all the better.
“I want everybody to be successful,” Smith-Schuster said. “If I make them better, it makes me work harder to keep my job. We just want to win games and do our thing.”
NOTES: All-Pro defensive tackle Cam Heyward, who like Smith-Schuster is in the final year of his contract, said there have been no talks of any substance with the team about an extension. … G David DeCastro, WR James Washington and DL Chris Wormley missed the first day of padded practice Monday with what coach Mike Tomlin described as minor health issues. … C Maurkice Pouncey was excused from practice due to a personal matter.
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