Matt Waldman’s RSP shares its pre-draft scouting report of Steelers rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster.
“It would be incorrect to characterize [Smith-Schuster] as slow.” That was my assessment of the Steeler’s rookie before the draft. When it comes to receiver play, quickness, physicality, technical skills, and fit scheme fit matter more than sprinter’s speed.
Read on and you’ll learn why long speed isn’t the mark of a productive NFL receiver.
From the Profile section of the 2017 Rookie Scouting Portfolio:
One of the most polarizing receivers in this class, I imagine that my ranking will represent the low side of the argument, but my Depth of Talent score is closer to the high side. There’s very little difference in score between Smith-Schuster at 11 and Chris Godwin at 7.
However, in this case, his tier has four big-play possession receivers, and he might be the slowest when considering long speed, acceleration, and change of direction quickness. It would be incorrect to characterize him as too slow. This is what people do when they underrate Smith-Schuster’s game. There’s a fine line with the USC receiver because what will make him successful in the NFL is how quick he plays within the first 10-12 yards of the line of scrimmage. Where his limits will be defined is his speed beyond that range. Smith-Schuster plays most snaps with a high intensity that’s borderline frenetic. It’s something that many of the league’s best players possess, regardless of long speed. As long as he plays within control, it will remain a beneficial quality.
His 4.54-second 40-yard dash was a pleasant surprise to many, but his performance on the field revealed he was fast enough for the NFL. The film reveals a receiver who routinely earns deep separation. Smith-Schuster has good three- and four-step footwork, and he can use a chop or rip with that footwork to separate from press coverage. A sturdy athlete, he doesn’t get rerouted often by zone defenders trying to shove him off course. Although his vertical routes are best paired with play-action passes, his speed is good enough for a receiver with his size, strength, and physical nature.
Smith-Schuster has the makings of an excellent route runner. He drives off the line with intensity and works his stems into the body of his opponents so he can use his hands or position to earn separation. Off man cover corners will have difficulty with his patient stems because he earns consistent route depth and either forces them to turn or get pushed around at the top of the stem.
Smith-Schuster can drop his hips into hard breaks and he works back to the ball. He needs to take fewer steps into the break. When he learns to do this consistently, the combination of his size, his intensity of movement, and physicality will make him a difficult option to defend on routes breaking back to the passer. When he turns off one step, he’s not as sudden as he could be. He also doesn’t get his body square to the target. His build-up speed on intermediate and long routes is better than his acceleration. When he makes catches on shorter routes, he’ll get chased down from behind in high-traffic areas. On deeper routes, Smith-Schuster can stack and use his frame to control the pace, winning the ball in tight coverage.
He has a knack for tracking the ball, making late adjustments on his routes on vertical plays. He’s good at undercutting defenders running step-for-step with him to win the ball. Smith-Schuster high-points the ball well in traffic and makes a quick diagnosis for when to duck under contact or take the hit. He must work on shielding defenders better on shorter timing routes against tight coverage, especially the slant. His boundary awareness is good but needs more work so he’s consistently getting both feet in bounds. Although Smith-Schuster has no problem catching the ball when he extends his arms, he could do it more often. There are plays where he traps the ball to his frame in tight coverage or doesn’t extend his arms enough to avoid a swat on the ball from the defender.
Smith-Schuster will never be confused as a game breaker in the open field, but he’s capable of extending plays as a ballcarrier. He runs with enough power to drag defenders for extra yards, bounce off hits from defensive backs, spin away from shots, and use his length to earn yards after contact. He has good pad level, a useful stiff-arm, and he carries the ball under the appropriate sideline arm. Smith-Schuster practices good height and location with his ball security, but his elbow can get a little wide as he works the edge.
In big moments, Smith-Schuster will work hard to deliver a hit in the open field. On the lesser plays, he must show more effort. He doesn’t close the gap between himself and the defender as often as he should. Although his intensity is generally a good quality, Smith-Schuster can cross the line to unsportsmanlike behavior. He plays well when he cultivates a physical edge, but he’ll get tested on this behavior in the NFL. If he can keep it harnessed to his benefit, he’ll be a productive receiver who plays hard and wins with his strength, position, and technique.
Smith-Schuster has a lot in common with the physical side of Michael Crabtree’s game. Neither has great speed, but they are savvy route runners who track the ball well. If Smith-Schuster can aspire to run routes with Crabtree’s skill, his superior speed to Crabtree will make him a productive perimeter option.
Pre-NFL Draft Fantasy Advice: In this class, Smith-Schuster’s April draft value could range from the middle of the second round to the late third round. It should come into greater focus after the NFL Draft. Right now, I’d prefer to land him in the third round.
Tier 4: The four receivers in this tier have WR2 upside, perhaps even borderline WR1 production in PPR leagues. They also have WR3-WR4 floors and their development may take a little longer than the third tier.
For analysis of skill players, get the Rookie Scouting Portfolio. Better yet, if you’re a fantasy owner the Post-Draft Add-on comes with the 2012 – 2017 RSPs at no additional charge. Best, yet, 10 percent of every sale is donated to Darkness to Light to combat sexual abuse. You can purchase past editions of the Rookie Scouting Portfolio for just $9.95 each.