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Why Juju Smith-Schuster has earned a 2021 extension with the Steelers

Why Juju Smith-Schuster has earned his 2021 extension with the Steelers
Photo Credit: Pittsburgh Steelers

After the 2020 NFL season, the Pittsburgh Steelers will have a decision to make regarding wide receiver Juju Smith-Schuster. Smith-Schuster has played for the Steelers since being drafted by the team back in 2017 but will be looking to extend his expiring rookie contract this year. Using OSM metrics, let’s look at Smith-Schuster’s value to his offense, and why he has earned an extension.

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Juju Smith-Schuster and the Offensive Share Metric 

Smith-Schuster has a history of bringing some real value while on the field for the Steelers. Last season, even with limited playing time due to an injury, he still managed to be a reliable receiver with a great OSM overall grade of 31.30. But to get a peek at the true capabilities of a healthy Smith-Schuster, we will want to look back at the 2018 season.

The Offensive Share Metric (OSM) was created to provide a numerical scale to measure the overall value that an individual player provides to his offensive unit. A player with a higher OSM grade isn’t necessarily a higher skilled player, but they do create more offensive production for their team than a player with a lower OSM.

Related | What will the Pittsburgh Steelers offensive depth chart look like in 2020?

The 2018 season was hands-down Smith-Schuster’s best season in the NFL so far. He had a monster year for receiving yards, racking up 1,426 yards — the seventh-highest yardage for any receiver that season. Across 111 receptions, he averaged 12.85 yards per reception. His catch percentage was 66.90%, and he recorded seven total touchdowns.

Smith-Schuster played exceptionally well in the slot for Pittsburgh. He seemed to be a favorite target for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, commanding nearly 28% of the Steelers’ total air yardage. He really hit a stride later in the season and was one of Pittsburgh’s most valuable offensive players for production. For three consecutive weeks (Weeks 11, 12, and 13), Smith-Schuster put up elite weekly OSM grades north of 40.00.

Smith-Schuster’s OSM grades fell in 2020

For 2019, Smith-Schuster’s stats dipped off quite a bit. He had just 552 receiving yards by the end of the year, but there’s definitely an asterisk to go along with that. Roethlisberger was forced out with an injury early in the season, which drastically limited the number of passes thrown Smith-Schuster’s direction. Then, a foot injury required him to miss four games down the home stretch. For the games he was able to participate in over the second half of the year, Smith-Schuster only played about 65% of all offensive snaps.

Mike Tanier Season Preview | Roethlisberger’s return makes the Steelers Super Bowl sleepers in 2020

For the year, Smith-Schuster was only targeted 70 times — a third of his targets from 2018. But what he did with those limited targets helps show the value that he brings to his team. On those limited targets, he averaged over 13 yards per reception and recorded three touchdowns. His overall OSM grade of 31.30 was ranked as WR59 on the year. When given the opportunity, he was able to show consistency and positive production trends across the season.

Pittsburgh will need to retain as much value as possible in its receiving corps. And if there’s anyone on the roster that has proven his value over the last three seasons it is Smith-Schuster. When he’s healthy, he is going to be a high-producing receiving machine — he’s in the top third of all NFL receivers for individual production. Even when he’s limited, he’s shown that he can still be reliable and a consistent target for his quarterback.

Smith-Schuster into 2020

With the return of Roethlisberger, the Steelers are expected to shift back to that pass-heavy offense. Even though Smith-Schuster is still playing on his rookie contract, he plays with the same vigor as other veteran receivers in the league. His ability to create offense when the ball is in his hands should have the Pittsburgh front office anxious to get started on his negotiations.

The offense is starting to take shape as we near the beginning of the 2020 season. The biggest factor will be everyone managing to stay healthy. Almost every offensive skill position last season was missing a key player at some point in the season. But, if the Steelers can just stay on the field, Smith-Schuster should be able to get back to that 2018 Pro Bowl level and demonstrate why he has earned a contract extension.

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