Updated: Jun 12, 2021
(Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
JuJu Smith-Schuster has said it several times this offseason about playing more on the outside in 2021, but he made it clear-cut when he spoke with the media after Wednesday's OTAs practice.
A reporter asked him, "What is the biggest goal for yourself this year?"
Smith-Schuster replied, "Playing more outside. Simple as that."
Smith-Schuster predominately lined up in the slot in 2020 and averaged just 8.6 yards per catch, which ranked 126th in the league.
"Being able to play outside, you are adding more to your craft," Smith-Schuster said via Teresa Varley of Steelers.com. "When you look at Year 2, probably the best year I have had as a Pittsburgh Steeler, I played more outside than inside. Having another threat player on the other side with Ben (Roethlisberger). I think we have threat players all the way around.
"I haven't even had a conversation with (offensive coordinator) Matt (Canada) about me playing outside, but through OTAs there's been plays where he has put me outside, put me in the best situation getting the ball outside. It's not just me, that's all of us. Everyone is getting a little bit of a touch, moving around, knowing this offense. I think this offense is going to help us out a lot, being able to open up holes for Najee (Harris), being able to open plays and balls down the field. I really believe in this offense."
According to Next Gen Stats, Smith-Schuster ran the shortest routes of any wide receiver last season (minimum 300 routes), with an average route depth of 8.3 yards. As a result, Smith-Schuster relied on yards after the catch to gain yardage -- 51.3% of his yards came after the catch, which was fourth among wide receivers, minimum of 75 targets.
Smith-Schuster is great as a slot receiver and isn't afraid to go over the middle and catch a pass in traffic. He's also an incredible blocker. At times last year, he resembled Hines Ward with the way he fought for every yard after making a reception. However, he was misused by former offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner last year. There's no way a receiver of his caliber should be averaging a route depth of 8.3 yards. We're talking about the same receiver who has two 97-yard touchdown receptions in his career.
Hopefully, with new offensive coordinator Matt Canada using Smith-Schuster more on the outside in 2021, the fifth-year wide receiver will have a similar year to 2018 when he had his best career season -- recording 111 receptions for 1,426 yards (12.8 average) and seven touchdowns. Smith-Schuster also had eight 100-plus yard receiving games in 2018. However, it should also be noted that All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown was on the opposite side of Smith-Schuster in 2018.
Nevertheless, Smith-Schuster is still capable of playing on the outside. Remember in 2018 when he had a 21-yard reception against Jalen Ramsey and a 35-yard reception on A.J. Bouye on back-to-back drives that both led to Steelers' touchdowns to come from behind and beat the Jaguars, 20-16. Both of those receptions came on the outside and were against elite cornerbacks.
Hopefully, Smith-Schuster can get back to making dynamic plays on the outside, as it will not only help the Steelers' passing game in 2021, but it will also help Smith-Schuster when it comes to cashing in on a long-term deal with the Steelers or another team following the 2021 season. He'll have to improve his average per catch stat of 8.6 yards significantly if he wants to get Kenny Golladay type of money. That's one of the reasons why he's probably talking about wanting to play more on the outside so much this offseason.