Being NFL's youngest player doesn't stop Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster
The eldest statesman among the Steelers wide receivers corps, Darrius Heyward-Bey is a birther when it comes a teammate who happens to be the NFL's youngest player.
“He's 19,” Heyward-Bey says of JuJu Smith-Schuster.
In reality, the Steelers rookie receiver was born Nov. 22, 1996.
“I always say 19,” Heyward-Bey said flatly. “He's 19.”
“Come on, he's a teenager. He doesn't even have his driver's license.”
Smith-Schuster gets around by bicycle, uses social media liberally and can't legally purchase alcohol. If he tried entering Rivers Casino, he would be turned away.
But he's also immensely talented. And he might — at a historically young age for a Steelers receiver — be asserting himself as a candidate to be the long-term answer for the Steelers' search for a No. 2 receiver behind All-Pro Antonio Brown.
“It doesn't matter whether he's a 20-year-old, a 30-year-old … we need guys out there doing what their supposed to be doing at a high level,” offensive coordinator Todd Haley said. “And he's done some real good things. So we're obviously encouraged by the direction he's going.”
Traditionally, the Steelers have given their young receivers time to develop before giving them a significant role. Possible future Hall of Famer Hines Ward, for example, was thrown only two passes over the first seven games of his age-22 rookie season.
Of more recent vintage, Steelers receivers who went on to prominence such as Brown, Emmanuel Sanders, Martavis Bryant and Sammie Coates weren't even in uniform for game days early in their rookie seasons.
The most recent time the Steelers took a receiver as high as in the second round (Limas Sweed in 2008), he was a gameday inactive until Week 7 of his rookie season.
Since the Ben Roethlisberger era began in 2004, the Steelers have drafted 15 wide receivers. Until Smith-Schuster, none were younger than 22 when they began their rookie seasons.
Only four were active for the first three games of their rookie seasons. And just one (Mike Wallace, a third-round pick in 2009) had better production through three NFL games.
“You see a mistake, but you won't see the same mistake twice, and that's growth,” Roethlisberger said of Smith-Schuster. “He communicates well back to you, and he's not just sitting there like a deer in headlights. He's a tough worker. He goes about his business as a professional. And that's good to see.”
Despite his young age, a crowded Steelers wide receiver depth chart and the fact he missed parts of his rookie training camp because of at least four injuries, Smith-Schuster already is making a case he is emerging as Roethlisberger's No. 2 wide receiver option.
During last week's game at Chicago, Smith-Schuster played 80 percent of the offensive snaps (51 of 64) — more than Bryant, Eli Rogers or Heyward-Bey and second behind Brown among all Steelers tight ends and wideouts.
Though Smith-Schuster's stat line was modest (two catches for 39 yards), it was more productive in regards to receiving than any Steelers player outside of All-Pros Brown and running back Le'Veon Bell. This came a week after he had three receptions and a touchdown during a win against Minnesota.
“If a guy shows he's capable of handling something, is able to go out and make plays, make blocks, get the job done, then we're going to give him more,” Haley said.
For the season, Smith-Schuster is well ahead of Rogers in offensive snaps played, 114-97, and even if the Steelers won't publicly anoint him, it appears as if Smith-Schuster is wresting the slot job away from Rogers.
Although Smith-Schuster is 28 snaps behind Bryant for second among receivers, the second-rounder out of USC has been virtually even in snaps played and targeted throws over the past two weeks.
Last season with Bryant out because of suspension, the Steelers never settled on a No. 2 option at wideout to complement Brown. Not counting Brown, nine players last season finished a game with the second-most targeted throws from Roethlisberger (or backup Landry Jones).
Six wide receivers finished a game with the second-most targets behind Brown.
Through three games this season, Bryant, Rogers and Smith-Schuster have led the Steelers in non-Brown targets and/or catches during a game.
“You'll see it develop,” Haley said of the No. 2 receiver. “It's one of those things you can't necessarily say coming right out of the gate, who's going to be what.
“I think as the story is written, some of those things will become clearer pictures.”
And as Bryant continues to struggle to find his big-play form of 2014-15 and Bell remains concentrated more as a runner than a pass catcher, maybe Roethlisberger will look even more to the youthful and exuberant Smith-Schuster.
“He's goofy, happy all the time,” Bell said. “You can tell he really likes to have fun.”
He might be not-so-accurately identified as a teenager by some of his older teammates, wear SpongeBob SquarePants sandals and use Snapchat to reach the world, but Smith-Schuster is serious about his profession.
Enough so that he might just continue to earn an increasingly bigger role in the Steelers offense.
“I mean, I love the game of football,” he said. “And everything that comes with it.”