PHOENIX — JuJu Smith-Schuster doesn’t have Tyreek Hill’s wheels, but he showed this season that he was up to the challenge of being more than a third wheel.
Asked Monday at opening night for Super Bowl 2023 what he proved this season after moving from the Steelers to the Chiefs, Smith-Schuster didn’t hesitate: “That I still can play ball, man.”
One of the best receivers in the NFL during his second season — when he totaled 111 catches for 1,426 yards and seven touchdowns for the 2018 Steelers — Smith-Schuster fell on harder times over the next three seasons when All-Pro receiver Antonio Brown was no longer drawing away defensive attention. He bottomed out last season with a five-game season marred by “a shoulder injury that kind of held me back.”
Smith-Schuster, 26, is about to be a free agent for the third straight offseason, after taking a pair of one-year deals with the Steelers and the Chiefs when he was expected to fare better. In a depressed receiver free-agent market this offseason — and with the Giants among teams desperate for an upgrade at receiver — Smith-Schuster might be better positioned to cash in following 78 catches for 933 yards and three touchdowns.
“It’s not frustrating at all because I’m betting on myself,” Smith-Schuster said of his inability to secure a multiyear contract. “I’m going to keep doing that. One of my really good friends posted on Instagram the other day, ‘Betting on yourself is the number-one thing you ever do.’ I’ve been doing that since I got in this league. I knew that I had to prove myself this year to say I can still play ball — and I still can.”
During an hour-long interview at the podium, Smith-Schuster didn’t take any shots at the Steelers — comparing head coaches Mike Tomlin and Andy Reid as “two guys you don’t want to let down” — and his big personality shined bright.
Smith-Schuster promised one kid reporter that he would celebrate a Super Bowl touchdown by doing the “Griddy” and interacted with another over favorite Disney movies, highlighting “Let it Go” from “Frozen.” He agonized over picking his favorite three characters from the Dragon Ball Z anime series. He promised to dance along with the rival Eagles if they come out to his favorite song in pregame warm-ups. He considered reliving his infamous draft-day video, when he and his family ran into the ocean, if he wins a Super Bowl ring.
Smith-Schuster actually got a better opportunity than expected in Kansas City. About a week after he signed to be a complement to Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce, the Chiefs traded the speedster Hill to the Dolphins, which opened up an opportunity to be their No. 1 threat outside of the All-Pro tight end.
“It was crazy,” Smith-Schuster said. “I was hoping Tyreek and Travis were going to be our guys. Come to find out the changes and we’re still here [in the Super Bowl]. I don’t think it was ever about me filling shoes. It was, now I have more opportunities to make plays for this team.”