Can JuJu Smith-Schuster continue expanding his role in Kansas City?

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – At this point in his career, after averaging fewer than nine yards per catch over the last two seasons, JuJu Smith-Schuster was supposed to be a possession receiver for the Kansas City Chiefs.

That’s mostly what Smith-Schuster was until the Chiefs played against the Buffalo Bills on Sunday. Then he busted out with two catches of more than 40 yards -- one going for a touchdown -- and the Chiefs’ first 100-yard game of the season from a wide receiver.

Including a 53-yard catch earlier in the season, Smith-Schuster has delivered the Chiefs’ three longest plays of the season. His per-catch average of 13.7 yards is best among the Chiefs’ seven leading receivers.

At the age of 25, still young in football terms but now in his sixth NFL season, can Smith-Schuster be more than just a receiver who can move the chains, one who can replace 1,000 or more of the yards the Chiefs lost when they traded Tyreek Hill?

Smith-Schuster, who is on pace to gain 1,048 receiving yards this season, gave an emphatic answer.

“I see myself being the guy that, wherever they need me at, I’m there to be that guy,’’ Smith-Schuster said. “Inside, outside, whatever that may be. If they need me to block, [I’ll] come block. If they need me to do this or do that [I’ll do it]. I’m an all-around guy.”

Smith-Schuster wasn’t an all-around receiver the last couple of seasons for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Playing with Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback, he lined up mostly as a slot receiver. He did catch 97 passes in 2020 before injuries last year limited him to five games and 15 catches, but his longest play over the two seasons was 31 yards.

After he signed with the Chiefs as a free agent this year, Andy Reid and his offensive staff, including wide receivers coach Joe Bleymaier, thought that using him only as a slot receiver would limit what Smith-Schuster does best: some of everything.

“He’s just got a natural feel, very similar to [Travis Kelce],’’ Bleymaier said. “He just knows the game and the passing game. His style of route running gets him open and the quarterbacks see it and they put it on him and he makes the catch. And so that’s what we’ve been seeing. That’s what we expected.’’

Playing with Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs this season, more of his routes have been run from an outside position rather than from the slot.

“He's battled to kind of continue to evolve in this offense and learn more and more,’’ Mahomes said. “I think he's going to be a big part of this offense because of the way he's able to catch the ball and run tough through traffic.

“I'm sure he'll keep getting more and more involved.’’

Both of his big plays against the Bills were of the catch and run variety. On his 42-yard touchdown, he made the catch at the 34 with three Bills defenders in the area. He did a spin to avoid all of them and ran to the end zone. Similarly, 36 of his yards on a 41-yard play later in the game came after the catch.

“There’s not a lot of guys I’ve played with that can make that throw,’’ Smith-Schuster said of the touchdown catch, a pass from Mahomes, who scrambled before making the throw and took 6.7 seconds before making the pass.

“He did and he trusts me to catch the ball and go upfield and score a touchdown and that was pretty cool. I’ve been here for quite some time now. Working with Pat, I know a play never, never ends, basically. . . . Scoring touchdowns is what I came here to do.’’

But in Smith-Schuster’s first game with the Chiefs, a matchup against the Cardinals in Arizona, it looked like fumbling is what he came to Kansas City to do. He fumbled twice, with the Chiefs losing the ball once.

Even in those fumbles, Mahomes said he saw some things to like from Smith-Schuster.

“Obviously, we don’t want [fumbles] but he’s playing hard,’’ Mahomes said. “Both times he fumbled he was trying to get extra yards. … I think if he kind of keeps it high and tight, he’ll start breaking some of those tackles when they’re going in for their strips and he’ll get a few extra yards for us.”

Mahomes has proved to be correct, at least so far. Smith-Schuster hasn’t fumbled since. He is fourth in the NFL among wide receivers in average yards after the catch at 7.7.

Reid and the Chiefs did their research on Smith-Schuster before signing him, but this part of his game was a revelation to them. His 7.7 yards per catch is higher than it was for him in any season with the Steelers and well above the 4.16 and 4.53 of the past two seasons.

Reid said that’s not the only thing he’s learned about Smith-Schuster.

“JuJu loves to play the game.’’ Reid said. “That’s the part I appreciate about him. He’s very tough and he’s very strong, But he loves to play and those kind of guys can hang with me all day.’’