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How JuJu Smith-Schuster Could Return to Elite Form in Kansas City

The talented new Chiefs wideout admitted he didn’t have the route versatility he wanted in Pittsburgh. Under Andy Reid’s scheming, how high should expectations be?

To much of the NFL world, the Kansas City Chiefs’ new wide receiver acquisition is known by the name JuJu Smith-Schuster. Though it wasn’t very long ago that the talented pass-catcher was earning a different nickname within the NFL’s history books: "youngest player to."

The mixture of injuries and Pittsburgh’s aging offense have made it relatively easy to forget the career arc that Smith-Schuster was once on — his 2,343 receiving yards are the ninth-most all-time within a player’s first two seasons — and in signing a one-year deal in one of the game’s most creative offenses, it’s only inevitable to wonder: just how much of that player can be resurrected in Kansas City?

Taking to the podium last Wednesday, the former Pro Bowler entertained a compare and contrast regarding his usage and route versatility in Pittsburgh compared to what it’s been in Kansas City. In real-time, it felt like a statement to think over in the long term:

Yeah, I mean this offense … oh my gosh. The amount of routes that I ran, I think I ran more routes here than in my previous offense, and being all over the field. And like you said, being able to play inside, outside … and that’s just for everybody. You see (Marquez Valdes-Scantling) playing inside or outside, you’ve seen Mecole (Hardman) play inside or outside, you’ve seen Skyy (Moore). We have so many guys playing different positions, which is so nice, because we move guys around. Today was just like the first taste of what I’ve got to show.

For those keeping score at home, Smith-Schuster spent five years with the Steelers; he has spent five months in Kansas City. The idea of Andy Reid and Eric Bieniemy uncovering lesser-seen traits to his route-running and ability to impact a game adds another layer to what is already a must-see upcoming season.

The numbers back that statement up tenfold. Smith-Schuster was limited to only 222 snaps in 2021-22, though it wouldn’t have taken rocket science to predict what route he was sending to an opposing defensive back. Nearly half of his routes (49.7 percent) were either slants or curls a season ago.

Theoretically, this is at least somewhat of a sound strategy, especially with the limitations of the Steelers’ offense last season. It allowed Smith-Schuster, one of the NFL’s absolute best at locating soft spots within a zone coverage, to inflict punishment via a thousand papercuts. And, as Harmon noted on Warren Sharp’s Sharp Angles podcast, Smith-Schuster has never statistically been impressive against man-to-man or press coverage. Getting clean releases or matchups with his 6-foot-1 frame in the middle of the field proved advantageous more often than not.

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This also pivots into a question of who commands that outside receiver role, with how many slot-proficient wideouts the Chiefs already have. Though, it’s likely that the preseason answers at least some of those thoughts.

Nonetheless, there remains some level of ambiguity and debate when considering that route tree. To play devil’s advocate on it, Smith-Schuster hasn’t been a part of a top-10 scoring offense since that 2018 season, so in his defense, perhaps there’s more than meets the eye with him speaking about his ability to impact the game in more ways than just slants and curls. If there’s a coaching staff capable of scheming that up, this would certainly be the one.

Using that 2018 campaign as a baseline, the tape from that 111-catch season speaks volumes to the many ways in which Smith-Schuster could return to standout status in 2021-22. It feels like one of the more overlooked facets of his game, but he fits the Chiefs’ mold as an elite improvisational receiver on “broken plays.” To illustrate:

The Chiefs’ receiving room has the talent needed to cohesively make up for the ghost of Tyreek Hill. And for everything that’s been thought, written and podcasted, there are three numbers that stand out when thinking Smith-Schuster’s re-ascension: 340 (the amount of vacated targets the 2021-22 Chiefs will have), 20 (the amount of vacated targets inside the 10-yard line), and 41 (the amount of third-down targets Hill commanded alone).

Smith-Schuster’s 2018 season is proof of his capability in fulfilling the role. In just his sophomore season, he turned in the second-most red zone targets (29) while also uncovering the fifth-most third-and-short targets despite sharing the field opposite a 1,300-yard pass catcher.

All of that said, it’s entirely on the table that this ends up being an 800-word fluff. Sometimes, this is just the way the NFL works. Given what’s been said about the Chiefs’ offense this offseason, they could embrace the idea of spreading the ball around to the point that Travis Kelce ends up being the only 1,000-yard receiver on the team.

On the off chance that one player does keep that wide receiver streak going, one would almost certainly imagine it’d end up being the player who was voted by his peers as a top-50 player across the NFL as a mere 22-year-old: JuJu Smith-Schuster.