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Film review: Juju Smith-Schuster blends physicality and dynamic receiving ability

Kansas City’s newest wide receiver brings a skill set that should open up the passing offense even more.

Las Vegas Raiders v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

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.

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.

The basics

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

Las Vegas Raiders v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

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.

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.

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.

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

NFL: AFC Wild Card Playoffs-Pittsburgh Steelers at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

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.

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.

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.