While there were a lot of positives to take away from last night’s game, and not a ton of lows, there was one major disappointment that, in the excitement of the return of football action, may have almost seemed to have inadvertently slipped onto the backburner.
The Pittsburgh Steelers did not come out of the preseason opener healthy, and, in fact, one of their most important rookies failed to leave the game unscathed, as second-round draft pick JuJu Smith-Schuster suffered a concussion early on. The wide receiver dove into the cornerback after intercepting a pass to assist on a tackle attempt by Jesse James.
Everyday readers will know by now that I take concussions very seriously. It’s a pretty frequent topic of the articles that I write. And the cold, stark reality is that we now have a 20-year-old man who already has a concussion history from his first taste of NFL action.
Notwithstanding the greater potential long-term implications that the concussion may hold for him later on down the line, either late in life or even late in his NFL career, the immediate consequence is simply going to be that his progress is going to be stunted for the time being.
Prior to the injury, Smith-Schuster was competing for the chance of becoming the Steelers’ primary slot receiver as quickly as the season opener. For a rookie with minimal experience, however, missing time in training camp can be a critical blow when it comes to their ability to make an immediate impact.
That is not to say that he is suddenly doomed to a reserve role during his rookie season now. Just last year, first-round cornerback Artie Burns spent a good deal of time sidelined due to injury during training camp, but he played in the dime defense in the season opener, then in the nickel several weeks later, and then was starting by the second half of the season. And he was rawer.
But the cornerback position last season that not nearly as deep as the wide receiver group is in 2017, and that is the main hurdle that Smith-Schuster will be working against. Especially with Martavis Bryant back in practice, he could potentially have issues even finding as many opportunities when he returns to the field to work with the first-team offense.
Eli Rogers has already shown himself to be a capable player in the slot, and Bryant is probably going to immediately be installed into the starting lineup. Justin Hunter will presumably return to practice soon as well, and could potentially be given some work in the slot with the first-team offense.
When Sammie Coates returns from the Physically Unable to Perform List, he could potentially be in consideration for a few snaps with the first-team offense as well. The group could suddenly look at crowded as it was meant to be by the time Smith-Schuster is ready to resume practice.