In March, JuJu Smith-Schuster signed a one-year $10.75 million contract with the Kansas City Chiefs. Playing with Patrick Mahomes, this is his prove-it-or-lose- season. There are no more excuses if JuJu doesn’t play up to No. 1 receiver standards when the best young quarterback of this generation is throwing him spirals.
JuJu has blown up the league before, but if he squinted too hard in the wide receiver’s room at the guy who wore No. 12, he might have seen the Ghost of Christmas Future staring back. It’s been nine years since Josh Gordon burst into the NFL consciousness with a 1,400-yard, nine-touchdown season in 2013. Due to a series of suspensions due to repeated violations of the NFL’s substance abuse policies, Gordon hasn’t eclipsed 1,000 yards since then. Earlier this week, Gordon was released. JuJu isn’t at risk of falling off the NFL radar like Gordon. He’s five years younger, stayed clean off the field, and somehow still holds the NFL record for the youngest player to reach 2,500 career receiving yards. However, his inability to replicate 2018 is a similar source of frustration.
Something similar happened with JuJu at USC. His sophomore breakout JuJu reeled in 89 catches, more than twice as much as USC’s No. 2 pass catcher and 1,454 yards, 1,000 more yards than second-leading receiver Adoree’ Jackson. His output diminished during his junior year as the Trojans looked to diversify their offense and concerns about JuJu’s top-end speed led to him plummeting into the end of the second round where he was scooped up by Pittsburgh.
Their pedigrees couldn’t be more different, yet there is a litany of parallels between Gordon and JuJu. Gordon’s 2013 season with the Cleveland Browns is the fool’s gold standard of one-year wonder campaigns — especially for wide receivers. Taken in the 2011 Supplemental Draft after catching only 43 passes for 721 yards in his college career, Gordon experienced modest success as a rookie, but nobody saw his 2013 explosion coming. A league-leading 1,646 yards and nine touchdowns in 14 games lit the NFL on fire. But like a meteor entering the atmosphere, Gordon burned out upon entry.
Whether it’s a result of injuries, suspensions, or just defenses catching up, NFL history is littered with “now you see ‘em, now you don’t” talents who tantalized and then sank back into obscurity.
Peyton Hillis’ 1,200-yard season in 2010 made him one of the most unlikely Madden cover athletes ever. Ickey Woods’ 1,066 yards and 15 touchdowns en route to the Cincinnati Bengals’ Super Bowl XXIII berth, and Larry Brown’s Super Bowl MVP to cap off the 1995 season are some of the most notable flash-in-the-pan runs to the Big Game in league history.
JuJu had a passing moment of greatness in 2018. That year, his teammate Antonio Brown was the cover athlete on Madden and then reached 10,000 yards in fewer games as a receiver besides Calvin Johnson or Julio Jones. However, JuJu’s emergence was the highlight of that campaign.
JuJu’s second season witnessed him emerging from the shadow of Brown as he hauled in 111 catches for 1,426 yards. The Steelers were so confident in JuJu, that Brown sent a top-three receiver in the NFL walking. However, JuJu has faltered with the weight of the top pick on his shoulders.
Three seasons later, JuJu is known more for his TikToks than his pass-catching prowess. In his first full season as the go-to receiver, JuJu recorded a career-low 552 yards while playing through a toe injury and sprained MCL. Pittsburgh chalked up his disappointing performance to JuJu’s injury-riddled season and the fact that he was catching passes from career backups Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges. JuJu spent much of his last two seasons in Pittsburgh watching Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool eat his targets. The skinny on JuJu is that he maxed out as a No. 2 receiver alongside an all-time great, but once coverages and top cornerbacks fixated on him, he lacked the technique or physical attributes to thrive.
There are some differences that should give JuJu believers hope. In 2022, JuJu has an opportunity to return to glory as Mahomes’ top target. Replacing Tyreek Hill will be an insanely difficult task. It will take a composite of Skyy Moore, Marquez-Valdes Scantling, and Mecole Hardman to equal Tyreek Hill. Hardman has blazing speed, but his route running technique leaves much to be desired. Valdes-Scantling has always been a bundle of potential without the breakout year to show for it.
If there’s anyone who can put a defibrillator to JuJu’s career the same way Tyreek Hill is attempting to awaken Tua’s, it’s Patrick Mahomes. JuJu’s in a better place now. But he’ll have to prove to stay there past this season.