We all imagined what it would be like if top names in the wide receiver market like Allen Robinson or Amari Cooper joined the Kansas City Chiefs. But the more realistic option — signing former Pittsburgh Steelers wideout Juju Smith-Schuster to a short-term deal — may end up being enough for the role that really needed to be filled.
When the signing was announced on Friday, I had immediate thoughts on what his role could be in Kansas City.
I think Juju’s capabilities in the quick-pass game could free up Hardman to be used in more vertical, big-play concepts again #Chiefs— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) March 18, 2022
Still, I wanted to get a deeper understanding of what Smith-Schuster can be by looking at his performance in recent seasons. A shout-out to my colleague Bryan Stewart for providing multiple clips.
At roughly 6 feet 1 and 215 pounds, Smith-Schuster plays like the bigger-bodied receiver that he is, using his strength in all facets of his game. That also has to do with his 97th-percentile hand size — along with his 74th-percentile arm length — from his 2017 NFL Combine measurements.
In five seasons with the Steelers, Smith-Schuster caught 323 passes at a clip of 11.9 yards per reception, scoring 27 total touchdowns. In his only Pro Bowl season in 2018, he caught 111 passes for 1,426 yards and seven touchdowns alongside Antonio Brown.
How he has been utilized
In Pittsburgh, Smith-Schuster’s primary responsibility was to take quick passes and turn them into successful gains. In five games last season, more than 75% of his targets came within nine yards of the line of scrimmage; in 2020, that number was 71.3%. To get him those short passes most efficiently, the Steelers aligned him in the slot on over 80% of his snaps in each of the last two seasons.
Over the last few seasons, however, the Steelers’ limitations at quarterback has been the primary driver for Smith-Schuster’s niche role — but he was still productive.
Juju was put in too limited a role in Pittsburgh, playing primarily from the slot and on shorter-hitting throws— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) March 19, 2022
But he produced on those plays bc the speed he can build up in the open field combined w/ his size. You have to get a solid hit on him once he gets downhill pic.twitter.com/lVaLKez0La
With Sneed being one of the better tackling corners out there and this a key 3rd down, effort, awareness, and strength like this from Smith-Schuster is admirable. pic.twitter.com/laOmb5sg5f— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) March 19, 2022
For his size, Smith-Schuster has impressive burst and explosiveness. It shows up when he catches swing passes (or other quick throws) in which he’s already moving as he catches the ball. After securing it, he gets downhill quickly. Once he has momentum, he’s hard to bring to the ground; he always finishes forward (and through) tackles.
He's not going to blow you away with the explosion out of his route breaks, but he'll build up speed quick.— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) March 19, 2022
When he uses his strong hands to beat press, he can create separation into open space -- which he should see a lot of in KC with the attention on Hill/Kelce #Chiefs pic.twitter.com/2FVUKj9JVy
At the same time, Smith-Schuster can win off the line of scrimmage with strong hand usage and quick feet. After that — depending on the coverage defender — he has the straight-line speed to create separation. Like some top-shelf receivers, he doesn’t explode out of his breaks — but after a few steps, he can get up to a pretty high speed.
Juju's strong hands show up in blocking, whether it's the punch on a DB or being able to hold his own against someone in the box— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) March 19, 2022
If he wants to do some of the dirty work, Andy could use him as a way to run lead-block schemes from lighter personnel #Chiefs pic.twitter.com/xkCbbMaFv6
Pittsburgh liked to align Smith-Schuster close to the offensive line, where he could also use his strength to be an effective blocker in the running game. He can hold up well enough to be trusted to scoop out edge defenders, but he’ll have the advantage in most blocking engagements with defensive backs — and sometimes linebackers.
How he fits with the Chiefs
Smith-Schuster will join an offense that already has pass catchers who understand their roles in the offense. Tight end Travis Kelce and wide receivers Tyreek Hill and Mecole Hardman all have tons of experience with how they will be implemented, so it will be a challenge for the newcomer to get comfortable as a versatile player who is moved around based on how others are being utilized.
But one way or another, the Chiefs will play a lot of 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers) and Smith-Schuster will be on the field. When the primary routes involve getting Hill and Kelce open, Smith-Schuster can be a reliable option to win against secondary coverage defenders — and in a variety of ways.
Any talk of Smith-Schuster being just some short area slot target at this point in his career is lacking context.— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) March 19, 2022
There’s a lot more there than just what the stat sheet shows. pic.twitter.com/ZXfHrQQeDF
Top of screen ~ man coverage, footwork widens the CB as he intended, uses hands to clear past and separates with underrated speed that carries him the distance — 97 yards to be exact. pic.twitter.com/jL29lkzkX3— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) March 19, 2022
Smith-Schuster may have been cornered into a particular role with the Steelers, but he has the athleticism (and playmaking instinct) to make a move and get into open space — both vertically and horizontally. He will build up speed in his vertical patterns just like he does once the ball is in his hands; his long speed shows up both before and after the ball is thrown.
Another physically tough red zone threat in the bag for KC — translates to all levels of the field for Juju. pic.twitter.com/hqEUvztaMR— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) March 19, 2022
Shake wide open from a LB in congested areas, adjust high to a throw and then reel it in with body control on the back line? ✅ pic.twitter.com/a1NpWSDrsK— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) March 18, 2022
So he can provide playmaking ability in both quick and long-developing routes — but at the catch point, he should also be an upgrade. That shows up most often in the red zone, where he makes strong-handed catches and can finish through contact.
Over the last two seasons, he has had four drops on 176 targets — a drop rate of just 2.3%. Last season (including the playoffs), Chiefs wide receiver Byron Pringle had seven drops with a drop rate of 11.5%. Hardman had four drops with a rate of 5.6%.
So while Smith-Schuster should be a reliable target, he will fit into a secondary receiving role in the Kansas City offense. He should not often be asked to be the primary option on downfield routes, but he will take advantage of open space in a variety of ways — and should be trusted to make tough, tight-window catches.
The bottom line
With this signing, the Chiefs have improved their passing offense. Smith-Schuster immediately becomes Kansas City’s most talented wide receiver who isn’t named Tyreek Hill, filling a void that has existed ever since Sammy Watkins was in town — and was healthy.
What he adds to the offense is exactly what the Chiefs need from their secondary receivers. If all of his strengths are utilized to their fullest extent — whether as a receiver or a blocker — he should be a big reason opposing defenses will not be able to sit back in deep, softer coverages.
His skills will either force defenses to adjust — which will open things up for other playmakers — or he will be very productive while taking advantage of the coverage his new teammates attract. Either way, his presence should add an extra dimension to the Chiefs’ offense.