PITTSBURGH — JuJu Smith-Schuster is back. Kind of.
The Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver returned to practice Thursday after the team designated the fifth-year receiver to return from injured reserve. The Steelers now have 21 days to activate him to the active roster. The team also activated wide receiver James Washington from the reserve/COVID-19 list. Smith-Schuster has been on IR since Oct. 16 after he suffered a shoulder injury against the Denver Broncos in Week 5 and had surgery later that week.
After that surgery, Smith-Schuster posted on social media that he would be out the rest of the regular season, but speaking with ESPN last month, he acknowledged there was a chance he could return this season.
“AFC championship or the Super Bowl,” Smith-Schuster said Dec. 7 when asked if and when he could return. “Either one works for me.
“There’s a percentage that I could possibly come back and participate in [the AFC championship]. That’s where I’m at right now. I’m rehabbing as much as possible every day, just trying to get after it. You just never know.”
At the time, Smith-Schuster put the percentage of him returning at 5%, but in opening the practice window, it appears odds are greater that he could play again this season — perhaps as early as Sunday’s wild-card game against the Kansas City Chiefs.
Smith-Schuster, 25, has just 15 catches for 129 yards in his injury-shortened season. Since Smith-Schuster went out, Ray-Ray McCloud has filled his role as a slot receiver, snagging 39 catches for 277 yards.
Smith-Schuster is set to be a free agent again in the offseason after returning to the Steelers on a one-year deal for the 2021 season. But he told ESPN that he’s not ruling out staying in Pittsburgh.
“Because I’ve done it already, I know what it feels like,” Smith-Schuster said of free agency. “I think mentally, I’ll be totally fine. It’s a brand-new market. There’s more money involved, more cap space available, especially the Steelers being one of the top teams. As of right now, we’re not talking to anyone. We’re going to let it play out in March and February.
“The Steelers are still a top priority, but it all depends on how they move their pieces — who they bring in. Who’s the future. They’ve still got to go get guys, pay guys. It’s still a top priority.”