As the offseason of transition draws nearer to a close, it’s clear that the Chiefs will be uniquely different next season. The Tyreek Hill trade rocked the NFL, with many expecting the offense to take a step back without their top wideout. But what if it doesn’t?
The rumors of the Chiefs’ offensive demise are greatly exaggerated. Patrick Mahomes, Andy Reid, and Travis Kelce are still set to reign terror on opposing defenses. The Chiefs’ wide receiver room is the deepest in the Patrick Mahomes era. It’s gotten younger and more versatile. With Tyreek Hill gone, does the Kansas City offense truly lack an elite WR1?
Chiefs WR Juju Smith-Schuster Is Ready To Prove Himself…Again
Not only does Juju Smith-Schuster boast WR1 upside in the NFL: he’s already done it. Smith-Schuster entered the NFL as a 21-year-old rookie. He was drafted by the Steelers in the second round of the 2017 NFL Draft out of USC. In his rookie year, he tallied 917 yards and seven touchdowns despite starting just seven games for Pittsburgh. Once he became a starter that season, from weeks eight through 14, he played at a season-long pace of 1,666 yards and ten touchdowns.
Juju followed up that showing with 1,426 receiving yards and seven touchdowns in 2018. He essentially took over the top wide receiver role from Antonio Brown that season. Despite playing just 13 games, he finished fifth in the NFL in receiving yards. His seven touchdowns ranked just behind Julio Jones and Mike Evans for 16th on the NFL leaderboard.
Juju hasn’t just dominated against second-tier cornerbacks, either. In the above clip, that’s Smith-Schuster taking on consensus top cornerback Jalen Ramsey. He runs a dominant route to make the back shoulder catch. Ramsey can’t do anything to defend the catch for a first down.
Following his standout 2018 season, the respect for Smith-Schuster was seen throughout the league, as seen on the 2019 NFL Top 100. He was selected as the number 47 player in the entire league by his peers. Big Ben voiced confidence in Smith-Schuster following the 2018 season and the departure of Antonio Brown. Steel City Insider discussed Ben’s confidence in his new WR1 following the 2018 season: “Roethlisberger said that he believes that Smith-Schuster will be ready to take on the challenge as Pittsburgh’s new No. 1 receiver.” Smith-Schuster himself commented on taking on the role as well:
“It is weird, being 22, having that many games played, being a role model for that room,” he said. “Pretty sure I can take on that challenge, and that’s what I’ve been doing. Being a leader, trying to contribute.”Juju Smith-Schuster on becoming the Steeler’s top wideout prior to 2019
We’ve already seen Smith-Schuster perform as a top wide receiver in this league, despite playing with lesser quarterback play than he will have with Patrick Mahomes (more on that later). As a 22-year-old with Ben Roethlisberger, he dominated the NFL. Now, entering his age 26 season, he stands to have his best season to date.
The Decline In The Chiefs’ New WR Was A Result Of His Quarterbacks
Not only is Juju a proven WR1 in the NFL, but he’s also poised to be better than he ever has in 2022. At the start of his young career, Smith-Schuster played two seasons with Ben Roethlisberger as the quarterback. In those early years, Big Ben still played mostly well. His arm was strong and he averaged 7.6 yards per attempt. In fact, 2018 saw Roethlisberger post a career-high 5,129 passing yards. Following 2018, everything changed.
In 2019, Ben injured his elbow and was lost for the year after just two starts. Mason Rudolph took over as quarterback and averaged just 6.2 yards per attempt. His air yards per attempt were even worse, at just 5.7. With the rookie behind center, intermediate targets saw a greater target share in the Steeler’s offense. Diontae Johnson led the team with 59 receptions. Tight-end/running back hybrid Jaylen Samuels finished second on the team with 47 catches. The deep threat was no longer necessary to the offense. Rudolph simply could not utilize Smith-Schuster to his potential.
Roethlisberger returned for the 2020 and 2021 seasons. However, he just wasn’t the same quarterback behind center. He posted a career-low in 2020 with a 6.3 yards per attempt mark. It was even lower in 2021. Ben’s air yards per attempt were also among his career-low marks as the Pittsburgh offense changed. Instead of airing the ball out and taking advantage of Juju’s yard after the catch ability, they were forced to utilize short passes and again centered around Diontae Johnson and his intermediate skill set.
With Patrick Mahomes behind center, Smith-Schuster can once again be utilized to his full potential. Once again with a quarterback who can air the football out, we should see Juju dominate defenses. Patrick Mahomes has a career mark of over eight yards per attempt. The two players’ skill sets complement each other very well. For this reason, the Chiefs can expect Juju to once again return to the WR1 form that we saw in 2018.
The Chiefs have their new WR1 in Juju Smith-Schuster, and he’s poised to have his best season to date in 2022.