JuJu Smith-Schuster

Steelers RB James Conner Out, Juju Smith-Schuster Doubtful

The Steelers will already be shorthanded this Sunday against the Bengals after the NFL upheld a two-game suspension on starting center Maurkice Pouncey, but it appears injuries could be removing their two most important offensive weapons as well. Pittsburgh’s star running back James Conner is out this week with a shoulder injury and “it’s not looking good” for wide receiver Juju Smith-Schuster either, according to Ian Rapoport of NFL.com.

Pittsburgh’s season looked doomed early on when longtime starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger suffered a season-ending elbow injury. However, backup Mason Rudolph has managed to play well enough to keep the Steelers on the periphery of playoff contention. Of course, the presence of two elite weapons like Conner and Smith-Schuster has surely helped ease Rudolph’s transition.

Conner has struggled with durability through his three-year professional career, but remains an effective weapon when healthy. On the season, Conner has 390 rushing yards and possibly more importantly has averaged more than 8 yards a reception catching passes. Smith-Schuster has maintained solid production even amidst a down year for the receiver. Starting every game on the season thus far, Smith-Schuster has accrued 524 receiving yards on 38 receptions.

AFC North Notes: JuJu, Glenn, Browns

With JuJu Smith-Schuster dealing with a knee injury in addition to the concussion he sustained last week, the Steelers are expected to hold him out of Sunday’s game against the Bengals, Jeremy Fowler of ESPN.com tweets. However, the third-year standout is not expected to miss much time. Smith-Schuster has not missed a game since December 2017. The Steelers are not certain to have Diontae Johnson on the field in Cincinnati either, with the rookie also in concussion protocol. For a team that has featured at least one Pro Bowl-caliber wideout in its lineup for many years, given Antonio Brown‘s presence, Sunday will be an adjustment without one.

Here is the latest from the AFC North:

  • On the other side, Cordy Glenn is on track to make his 2019 debut. The Bengals have needed to use their third and fourth options at left tackle this season, with Glenn battling a severe concussion since August. But Zac Taylor confirmed the eighth-year tackle is ready to return, per the Cincinnati Enquirer’s John Fay. Glenn is not certain to start, however. It would certainly help Cincinnati’s cause. Last week, Maxx Crosby recorded four sacks — tied for the second-most a rookie has ever registered in a game — and did most of the damage against guard-turned-tackle John Jerry.
  • The Browns designated David Njoku to return from IR earlier Wednesday. The third-year tight end is eligible to return at any point. Although Njoku was not initially planning to have surgery, Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer notes (via Twitter) he did end up undergoing a procedure. Njoku totaled 639 receiving yards last season and will stand to help a Browns team clinging to fringe contention hopes after winning two straight games.
  • The NFL would prefer to have the Myles Garrett appeal process sorted out quickly, and ESPN.com’s Dianna Russini notes the league is targeting a decision by Thursday or Friday (Twitter link). NFL appeals officer James Thrash heard the appeal earlier Wednesday.
  • Garrett’s camp mounted a two-front case, first arguing the CBA does not contain language allowing for a six-game suspension for an on-field act and second citing the 2013 Antonio Smith incident, Ian Rapoport of NFL.com notes (video link). The then-Texans defensive lineman ripped off Richie Incognito‘s helmet during a game and swung it at him. While Garrett’s act was far more extreme, and occurred in front of a national audience and in a more safety-conscious NFL time, his side is hoping for a reduced suspension. Smith was banned for two preseason games and one regular-season game. Roger Goodell‘s previous comments on Garrett do not suggest leniency is coming, however.

AFC North Notes: Jackson, JuJu, Browns, Tate

The second of the Ravens‘ two 2018 first-round picks has changed the course of their franchise, with Lamar Jackson becoming an MVP candidate barely a year after he made his first NFL start. Ravens brass took extensive measures to keep their Jackson interest secret. While John Harbaugh has said he discussed Jackson at length with his staff and scouts leading up to the 2018 draft, Eric DeCosta said he and previous Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome did not mention their interest in Jackson to the team’s scouts or coaching staff, according to Peter King of NBC Sports. Nor did the Ravens interview Jackson at the Combine, with Newsome and DeCosta wanting to keep what turned out to be an important secret. The Ravens, however, took a risk on losing Jackson by trading back twice in Round 1. Baltimore selected Hayden Hurst at No. 25 before trading back into the first round, via Philadelphia, for No. 32.

We felt like there was a pretty good chance that Lamar might be there later in the first round, early part of the second round,” DeCosta said, via King. “We were willing, if we could, to trade back, trade back, accumulate capital and then possibly either try to trade back again or in a second round, make a play and get Lamar at that point. But, you know, it was a risk.”

“We were (nervous about losing Jackson). We were. But I think you’ve got to stay as clinical in the moment as you can, and really just go with all your best information and the plan.”

Here is the latest from the AFC North:

  • Although Myles Garrett‘s appeal will take place Wednesday, the odds the Browns defensive end plays again this season appear slim. “He will not play the rest of the season,” Roger Goodell told OTG’s Gary Myers (via Pro Football Talk). “He will probably meet with us some time in the offseason. We’ll make a judgement. … Does he have remorse? Does he understand why it’s not acceptable? Do we understand what he’s going to do to make sure it doesn’t happen again?” Garrett is suspended indefinitely for striking Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph with a helmet.
  • Prior to the AFC North rivals’ game-ending fight, the Steelers saw wideouts JuJu Smith-Schuster and Diontae Johnson suffer concussions. In addition to the head injury Smith-Schuster sustained, Adam Schefter of ESPN.com reports (via Twitter) the third-year receiver also sustained a knee injury on the play that ended his night. Smith-Schuster has not missed a game this season but he’s uncertain for Pittsburgh’s Week 12 tilt against Cincinnati.
  • The Bengals observed one of their emerging wideouts stretchered off the field Sunday. Auden Tate is in concussion protocol and suffered a cervical strain, Zac Taylor said (via ESPN.com’s Ben Baby, on Twitter). Tate flew back to Cincinnati with his teammates and has appeared to escape a serious injury.

North Notes: Steelers, Burnett, Lions

If you’ve missed the latest Thursday-night game, injuries have limited the Steelers. Pittsburgh lost JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner; the former suffered a concussion and the latter re-injured the AC joint that sidelined him for the past two games. Both are out for the rest of the Browns game, as are cornerback Artie Burns and wideout Diontae Johnson (due to a knee injury and a concussion, respectively). This is Smith-Schuster’s third known concussion since coming into the league. He suffered two as a rookie in 2017.

Here is the latest from the North divisions:

  • Both of the Browns‘ starting safeties are out of tonight’s game. Shortly before Damarious Randall was ejected for a helmet-to-helmet hit, the Browns lost Morgan Burnett. The ex-Packers and Steelers defender suffered what the Browns fear is a significant Achilles injury, according to Adam Schefter of ESPN.com (on Twitter). After being relegated to a part-time role in his one Pittsburgh season, Burnett has been a full-time starter in Cleveland.
  • The NFL is looking into the Lions‘ handling of Matthew Stafford‘s back injury, Michael Rothstein of ESPN.com notes. Multiple Lions players were informed Saturday that Stafford would not play, but Detroit had called the quarterback a game-time decision. Stafford has been playing through back pain all season. The league requires teams to update their injury reports if it has been decided, prior to a team’s stadium arrival, a player will not play.
  • With Michael Pierce battling an injury, the Ravens bolstered their defensive tackle corps with two veteransDomata Peko and Justin Ellis.

North Notes: Vikings, Conner, JuJu, Lions

The 2017 draft class will become extension-eligible in January, and Dalvin Cook‘s contract figures to be one the key talking points once the calendar flips to the 2020 offseason. The Vikings are one of the few teams to have paid a running back top-market money, via Adrian Peterson‘s $14.4MM-AAV pact from 2011. With Cook’s contract not containing a fifth-year option like Christian McCaffrey‘s does, the Vikings will likely have to address his deal sooner than the Panthers will need to negotiate with their All-Pro candidate. Ezekiel Elliott‘s $15MM-per-year deal represents the new running back benchmark. Although Cook has been injury-prone, he will surely seek a contract in the Elliott-Todd GurleyLe’Veon BellDavid Johnson tax bracket (north of $13MM annually).

Running backs are valuable,” Cook said, via ESPN.com’s Courtney Cronin. “For guys to get rewarded for how physical, how much they get their bodies ready each and every week to go take that pounding, guys [are] getting rewarded for that. The running back value kind of went down, but I think we’re just as valuable as any position.”

Here is the latest from the North divisions:

  • Adam Thielen will not play Sunday night. The Vikings ruled out their highest-paid wide receiver for Week 10’s Cowboys contest. Thielen has dealt with this hamstring injury since Week 7, missing Minnesota’s game against the Redskins and exiting last week’s Chiefs game after seven snaps.
  • One of Cook’s 2017 draft classmates, James Conner, will also need at least another week to recover from injury. The Steelers ruled out Conner for Week 10. They also added JuJu Smith-Schuster to this week’s injury report Friday. Pittsburgh’s top wideout is questionable to face the Rams with a toe injury.
  • Lions safety Miles Killebrew suffered a concussion during Thursday’s practice, Kyle Meinke of MLive.com notes. The Lions moved Killebrew to linebacker last year, but the trade of Quandre Diggs and Tracy Walker‘s knee injury prompted the team to shift Killebrew back to safety recently. UFA addition Tavon Wilson, third-round rookie Will Harris and rookie UDFA C.J. Moore are the Lions’ only healthy safeties. Killebrew and Walker are out for Sunday’s Bears tilt
  • The Lions’ two-year extension for Christian Jones features a short-term sacrifice for a 2020 payment. The deal reduces the linebacker’s 2019 salary from $2.45MM to the veteran minimum, which will be worth approximately $426K for the season’s remainder. In exchange, Jones will receive a $1.97MM signing bonus, Michael Rothstein of ESPN.com tweets. The through-2021 deal averages $2.92MM. Detroit tacked on a voidable 2022 year, in order to spread the bonus across three seasons instead of two.

AFC Rumors: Chiefs, Raiders, Steelers

De’Anthony Thomas was arrested on suspicion of marijuana possession and drug paraphernalia possession on Saturday, according to the Allen County (Kan.) Sheriff’s Office (via KMBC.com). The Chiefs wide receiver has since been released from Allen County Jail on bond. Thomas has played his entire NFL career with the Chiefs, signing a one-year deal to return to the team in 2018 after his rookie contract expired. The wideout’s latest Kansas City deal expired after this season. Thomas, 26, landed on IR in October.

As the Patriots venture to Atlanta for Super Bowl LIII, here is the latest from the AFC:

  • Needs exist at many spots on the Raiders‘ roster, but they are expected to conduct a defense-heavy draft, Scott Bair of NBC Sports Bay Area notes. Oakland added several defenders in free agency last year, most of whom on one-year deals. The Silver and Black finished with an incredible 13 sacks — 17 fewer than the next-closest team (the Giants) this season and fewest in a season since the 2008 Chiefs, who also traded their best pass rusher that year (Jared Allen), recorded just 10 — and lack long-term answers at just about every position defensively. The Khalil Mack and Amari Cooper trades garnered the Raiders, whose own first-round pick became No. 4 overall, the Nos. 24 and 27 selections.
  • The Steelers exercised Bud Dupree‘s fifth-year option last May but have not decided on his long-term status with the team, per Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Dupree collected 5.5 sacks this season and has 20 in his career but has not lived up to his first-round billing. Dupree’s option price is $9.23MM. It would not be surprising if neither Dupree nor 2016 first-round pick Artie Burns inked second contracts with the Steelers, Fittipaldo writes. Burns’ fifth-year option decision is due in May. Considering Burns played just 308 snaps this season and will carry an option cost of close to $10MM, it would be incredibly surprising if Pittsburgh exercised it.
  • JuJu Smith-Schuster suffered an injury in Sunday’s Pro Bowl. While the Associated Press notes the injury that caused the Steelers wideout to leave the game was just a bruised knee, the second-year wideout was limping en route to the AFC team bus. Smith-Schuster may be on the verge of becoming Pittsburgh’s centerpiece receiver, should Antonio Brown be dealt. It doesn’t sound like he’ll be in danger of missing OTA time, however.
  • Included in Seth Wickersham’s must-read ESPN.com piece about the Jimmy Haslam-era Browns: a near-deal that would have added to the Browns and Texans‘ unique quarterback pipeline. After Cleveland chose Johnny Manziel in the 2014 first round, then-Browns GM Ray Farmer had to calm down a “furious” Brian Hoyer. The Texans soon called to offer their No. 33 overall pick for Cleveland’s then-starting quarterback, but Farmer declined the deal to get control of a draft that had gone haywire (with Mike Pettine leading the way for Justin Gilbert and Haslam behind the Manziel move). Hoyer played one more season with the Browns and in 2015 signed with the Texans, who used that No. 33 pick on offensive lineman Xavier Su’a-Filo.

Latest On Antonio Brown, Steelers

Not only did the Steelers produce a six-Pro Bowler team that just missed the playoffs, they are dealing with another soap opera-esque plot development involving a superstar player. Antonio Brown has been unhappy for a while, according to ESPN.com’s Jeremy Fowler, and a Steelers source informed him the situation has “gotten worse” in 2018.

Reports Brown went AWOL on the Steelers last week have now led to teammates doubting if he was legitimately injured. Some, per NFL.com’s Aditi Kinkabwala (on Twitter), are skeptical. Mike Tomlin said the Steelers ordered a Brown MRI because of knee pain but that the All-Pro wide receiver did not show up for the exam. This has ignited Brown trade rumors, and players from other teams are making pitches.

As for a trade scenario, the Steelers would eat a $21MM dead-money hit in 2019 by shipping Brown elsewhere. This cap hit could be spread over multiple years if a deal occurs after June 1. As Tom Pelissero of NFL.com points out (via Twitter), no cap ramifications exist after 2019 — barring a post-June 1 trade — but the issue of trading the best player on the team may pose a problem for Pittsburgh’s high-powered offense. The Steelers, who frequently put money on future caps via restructures, have $28MM-plus in projected 2019 cap space.

One Steelers source’s working theory about Brown’s Week 17 actions is forcing JuJu Smith-Schuster, who was voted team MVP, to act as Pittsburgh’s top receiver, per Fowler. Smith-Schuster took a major leap forward this season, his receiving average shooting up from 65.5 yards per game to 89.1 per contest. Smith Schuster’s 1,426 yards topped Brown’s total (1,297), making it the first time Brown has not led the Steelers in receiving since 2012.

Brown still made the Pro Bowl and remains an elite pass-catcher, commanding top attention from defenses and creating better matchups for his younger sidekick. Fowler adds Brown was not happy Ben Roethlisberger — the target of his latest outburst — criticized his route-running after a November loss to the Broncos.

This century, the Steelers have only made substantial long-term wide receiver commitments to Brown and Hines Ward, reaching trade agreements to unload other talented receivers and letting other capable starters walk in free agency. Brown, 31 in July, has not requested a trade. Three more seasons remaining on the four-year, $68MM extension Brown signed during the 2017 offseason. Smith-Schuster cannot be extended until after the 2019 season.

Tomlin said Drew Rosenhaus’ Sunday-morning update his client was ready to play against the Bengals — despite leaving practice and missing Saturday Steeler activities — did not go over well with him. The 12th-year Pittsburgh coach told the high-powered agent Brown playing Sunday was off the table. Tomlin did meet with Brown on Sunday morning, per Mark Kaboly of The Athletic (subscription required), but hasn’t met with him since.

Defensive end Cameron Heyward also criticized Brown’s actions, calling them “unacceptable,” while indicating the Steelers still want Brown on the team. Linemen’s responses to the Le’Veon Bell drama affected the Steelers earlier this year, and Bell is on his way to free agency.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

NFL Suspends Steelers’ Smith-Schuster, Bengals’ Iloka

Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and Bengals safety George Iloka have each been suspended one game for violations of safety-related playing rules on Monday night. The league announced the suspensions in a press release on Tuesday, and has already denied an appeal by Smith-Schuster. JuJu Smith-Schuster (vertical)

In his letter to Smith-Schuster notifying him of the suspension, NFL Vice President of Football Operations Jon Runyan slammed his unsportsmanlike conduct in his illegal hit on Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict. Runyan also noted of Smith-Schuster’s taunting:

You are suspended for the dangerous and unsportsmanlike acts you committed during the fourth quarter of last night’s game. Specifically, with 7:10 remaining, on a passing play to a running back, you lined up a defender and delivered a violent and unnecessary blindside shot to his head and neck area. You then “celebrated” the play by standing over him and taunting him. The contact you made with your opponent placed the opposing player at risk of serious injury and could have been avoided. Your conduct following the hit fell far below the high standards of sportsmanship expected of an NFL player.”

Smith-Schuster is appealing his one-game suspension, a source tells Adam Schefter of ESPN.com (on Twitter). Per the collective bargaining agreement, his appeal will be heard by either Hall of Fame linebacker Derrick Brooks or former NFL receiver James Thrash.

Meanwhile, Iloka will serve a one-game ban for his helmet to helmet hit on Antonio Brown with 3:55 left in the game. He’ll miss Sunday’s game against the Bears while Smith-Schuster will be forced out of Sunday’s primetime matchup against the Ravens.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

AFC Notes: Peyton, Fuller, Big Ben, JuJu

Peyton Manning has taken a few years off from the game after his Super Bowl farewell in 2016. However, he’s been widely speculated to move into a team president type role as soon as he fills like jumping back into the industry, and there should a wide amount of interest in his services.

As part of his Friday column, Albert Breer of Sports Illustrated mentioned that Manning would likely be on the top of the list for any team with an opening at the head of their football operations. He spoke to a source on the Broncos current staff who said that, “There’d honestly be no one better.” 

Breer expressed that while the former Colts and Broncos signal caller doesn’t have any front office experience, he’s been preparing for the position for years as a player, specifically shadowing the actions of current Broncos football czar, John Elway. As a player, Manning always kept tabs on the draft, free agency and many of the other aspects that go into leading an NFL franchise. While there’s nothing like firsthand experience in that atmosphere, Manning has clearly demonstrated his vast knowledge of the game in the way he revolutionized the quarterback position during his time in the league.

“He’ll be extremely successful in anything he chooses to do because of the person is, how smart he is and how hard he works,” said one personnel man who worked with him in Indy. “He’ll be extremely well prepared, have done research on the job and have an understanding of what the job entails. 

Breer speculates that the Browns would likely be clamoring to bring Manning aboard to lead their football operations, among pretty much any other front office needy franchise.

  • The Texans have been without big play threat Will Fuller for the past two weeks and head coach Bill O’Brien doesn’t expect that to change in Week 13, reports Sarah Barshop of ESPN.com (Twitter link). The 2016 first round pick missed the opening part of the year with injury too, but sandwiched an outstanding run of games in which he scored six times in four contests. Barshop does note that the O’Brien didn’t entirely rule out the possibility of Fuller making a return in the final few weeks of the regular season.
  • The Steelers are in a much different spot than the Giants at this point in time, but veteran QB Ben Roethlisberger opened up to Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette to discuss how he empathizes with the situation Eli Manning is going through right now. “It sparks the reality that that could be me,” Roethlisberger said. “They could do that to me next year or whenever, who knows? It’s eye-opening that you have to take every play, every game, don’t take it for granted, take it for what it is because you never know when you’re done.” However, while Big Ben and Eli were taken in the same draft and both have multiple Super Bowls to their credit, the Steelers signal caller doesn’t believe that the only team he’s ever known would treat him in the same way. “I don’t, and I don’t mean to talk negatively about the Giants, especially I know the Steelers and Giants are very close and are family, too. But I don’t think they would, I think they would handle it differently.” These are interesting comments considering Roethlisberger expressed some reservations about continuing to play this past offseason, and even though he’s recovered nicely from a unusually slow start, the fact that he’s thinking about these career questions shouldn’t be overlooked.
  • On the field, Pittsburgh is expected to have rookie wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster back in the lineup for the team’s Monday night affair against the Bengals, according to Josh Alper of Pro Football Talk. The 21-year-old sat out last week’s victory over the Packers with an ankle injury, but returned to practice in-full on Thursday. He’ll likely continue to operate in the slot with Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant playing more on the boundaries.

 

 

AFC Notes: Gordon, Bolts, Cutler, Steelers

Browns receiver Josh Gordon declared himself ready to go despite having another week before he is ready to be activated, according to ESPN’s Tony Grossi.

It’s been awesome. It’s been a joy. It’s been fun. It’s been exciting,” Gordon said Friday. “I think I knocked that rust off prior to getting back to the building. I think I accomplished that. First day of practice, [I was] able to adjust pretty quickly.

Anyone worried about Gordon needing time to round into shape hasn’t kept up with his comeback. The former All-Pro receiver has been working out constantly and looks ready to go when the team can activate him in Week 13.

Here’s more from around the AFC:

  • The Chargers did not escape their Thanksgiving Day bout with the Cowboys unscathed. Kicker Nick Novak sustained a back injury and his status has led the team to possibly tryout kickers next week, Eric Williams of ESPN reports (Twitter link).
  • Staying in Los Angeles, the Chargers also expect rookie wideout Mike Williams to miss time, though it has ruled out an ACL injury, Pro Football Talk’s Charean Williams writes. Williams was carted off the field with an injury during the game.
  • The Dolphins have ruled out Jay Cutler (concussion) for Week 12 vs. New England, ESPN’s James Walker reports (Twitter link). The team will turn to Matt Moore for the divisional bout.
  • Steelers rookie wideout JuJu Smith-Schuster has been ruled out of the team’s Sunday night matchup with Green Bay, ESPN’s Adam Schefter reports. (Twitter link). The first-year receiver from USC has been impressive in recent weeks, averaging 17.2 yards per reception and logging five touchdowns on the season. He will miss the game due to a hamstring injury.