PITTSBURGH (AP) _ Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger openly took his team’s wide receiver group to task after a loss in the AFC championship game in January, stressing the team needs to develop playmakers outside of All-Pro Antonio Brown.
Roethlisberger’s bosses were listening.
The Steelers took USC wide receiver Juju Smith-Schuster in the second round of the draft on Friday, giving Roethlisberger a big target to hopefully take some of the pressure off Brown.
“Really kind of a do it all guy,” Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Todd Haley said. “Can play inside (and) outside. If you had to say what he excelled at, the ability to catch the ball in combative situations. Those 50/50 balls, he usually comes down with them.”
The 6-foot-2 Smith-Schuster caught 213 passes for 3,092 yards and 25 touchdowns in three years with the Trojans before electing to enter the draft early. Schuster-Smith is the youngest wide receiver in the draft. He won’t turn 21 until November, when he’s more than halfway through his rookie season.
“I’ll do anything possible to bring the Steelers back to the Super Bowl, special teams, be a role player,” Schuster-Smith said.
Pittsburgh entered the draft looking to find a deep threat to complement Brown. Injuries to Markus Wheaton and Sammie Coates and a Martavis Bryant’s year-long suspension force the Steelers to rely on small, undersized receivers like Eli Rogers and Demarcus Ayers. Though they played well at times, they were a non-factor in AFC title game as New England pulled away.
Things could be very different this fall. The NFL conditionally reinstated Bryant last week. Coates should be healthy. Like both of them, Smith-Schuster is tall and can get downfield. He averaged 16.3 yards per catch as a sophomore in 2015, when he caught 89 passes for 1,454 yards.
Smith-Schuster also likes to block, a trait that endeared him to the Pittsburgh coaching staff, though he didn’t know it. Smith-Schuster said he only spoke to the Steelers during the NFL combine in February and didn’t hear anything until he received a phone call shortly before he was taken with the 62nd overall pick, a call he admits he wasn’t expecting.
This is the highest the Steelers have taken a receiver in the draft since picking Limas Sweed in the second round in 2008. Sweed was a bust – catching just seven passes in his career – but that was a lifetime ago by NFL standards.
The pick certainly raised eyebrows among his new teammates.
Bryant and Coates both took to Twitter moments after Smith-Schuster was taken, with Bryant tweeting “lol that’s Sammie Coates replacement not (mine) take it how you want to I am back” and Coates chiming in with laughter. Head coach Mike Tomlin wasn’t amused, making a rare appearance on Twitter to tell them both to “play nice.” The tweets were subsequently deleted.
Pittsburgh added much needed secondary depth with the first of its two third-round pick, taking Tennessee cornerback Cameron Sutton with the 94th overall pick. Sutton had seven interceptions in four years with the Volunteers. He missed the first half of his senior season in 2016 with an ankle injury.
Sutton is the second defensive player in three picks by the Steelers. Pittsburgh took Wisconsin linebacker T.J. Watt in the first round on Thursday.