Juju Smith-Schuster is considered one of the better receivers in the 2017 NFL Draft, but he is not thought of in the same regard as Clemson’s Mike Williams or Western Michigan’s Corey Davis – seen by many as the top two wideouts in the class.
Despite racking up 3,092 receiving yards and 25 touchdowns in three seasons at USC, Smith-Schuster is considered at best a late first-round and most likely second-round pick.
The main knock on him is that Smith-Schuster does not have the downfield speed to create true separation.
It is a fair criticism, but there is a trait he does possess that makes Smith-Schuster a good bet to succeed at the pro level, his ability to defeat press coverage.
Many players do not face a lot of press coverage in college, but Smith-Schuster saw plenty of it while with the Trojans and dealt with it consistently well, whether that be by using his quickness to engineer a release off the line or physicality to win inside.
In the 2015 Holiday Bowl against Wisconsin, Smith-Schuster used his quick feet to gain releases off the line of scrimmage on a number of occasions.
Here Smith-Schuster subtly sells an inside route, giving him the smallest amount of separation to beat the cornerback to the outside. He has enough speed to stay ahead of the defender, but the ball is too far in front of him.
But Smith-Schuster is able to bring in a deep ball later in the game, using a very similar method to defeat the tight coverage he is faced with.
Smith-Schuster again relies on his quick feet at the beginning of his route, but also demonstrates his ability to fight through contact, using his hands to swat away the pursuing cornerback and make the reception for a significant gain.
Smith-Schuster uses that same capability to win the physical battles on this play against Washington, doing so to gain an inside release, though quarterback Sam Darnold makes an error and does not throw in his direction, resulting in an incompletion.
Beating press coverage in college and doing so in the NFL are two different things, but the promise Smith-Schuster in this area of his game should excite talent evaluators, particularly when his other skills are taken into account.
Winning inside is something Smith-Schuster does on a consistent basis and, at 6’2″ and 215 pounds, he has the frame to box out defenders over the middle.
He is a committed and polished route-runner who does a good job of working his way back to the football and shows determination to make yards after the catch, proving a difficult player to bring down once he has built up a head of steam.
Arizona found that out the hard way on this play, which sees Smith-Schuster score one of his three touchdowns on the day by picking up substantial yardage after the catch – running over a defender in the process – to find the endzone.
A hands-catcher with the leaping ability to go up and compete for the ball, Smith-Schuster attacks the ball when it is in the air, leading to plays like this one – his third touchdown against the Wildcats.
Darnold’s pass down the field should be intercepted by the Arizona cornerback, but Smith-Schuster is able to maneuver his way around the defender and time his leap perfectly to make the catch and waltz in for the score.
The long speed – or lack thereof – means Smith-Schuster has to primarily rely on his route-running to create separation, and that will continue to be of concern to many. Smith-Schuster is also not particularly shifty in space, and will not be able to win with pure brute force after the catch in the pros.
But receivers who can beat press coverage and win inside on a consistent basis tend to stick in the NFL, and there is little reason to suggest Smith-Schuster, particularly given his physical makeup and his technique as a pass-catcher, will not be able to continue to succeed.
Speed kills in the NFL and, while it always pays to have a burner to stretch defenses, guys who get the better of defenders underneath and over the middle and can make contested grabs are just as valuable. Smith-Schuster is the latter and has the all-round skill set to enjoy a long pro career, regardless of how fast he runs.