During the past two seasons, we’ve seen JuJu Smith-Schuster finish as high as WR8 and as low as WR65. What can we expect from him as he enters Year 4?
In fantasy football, young, productive players are beyond enticing. It’s thrilling and rewarding to get a share of a trendy player before they officially become a household name, and that’s even more true in dynasty.
Of all the intriguing players to enter the league over the past couple of years, few have been as polarizing as JuJu Smith-Schuster. JuJu is entering his fourth year in the NFL, and his fantasy outlook moving forward depends on who you ask. Some optimistic folks might still tab him as a top-five dynasty receiver, while others have him in the 12-15 range. Some have him nearing the low-end WR2 category. Our May ADP has JuJu as WR19, behind guys like Deebo Samuel, Tyler Lockett and even Adam Thielen.
I was in a dynasty startup draft last summer, and I was sitting at 1.04 looking to grab my franchise cornerstone at WR. I ultimately went with Hopkins, but immediately afterward, I slightly regretted not taking JuJu. Fast-forward a year, and I’m glad I didn’t.
JuJu was one of the top WR available on draft boards that early, which shows just how far he’s fallen in terms of hype. Those who are high on him point to his age – he doesn’t turn 24 until Nov. 22 – and he had an incredible 2018 campaign that placed him in the top-10 wide receivers in all formats. Those who are less optimistic acknowledge the fact that he has never been a true No. 1 and claim he simply doesn’t have elite talent.
So how do we get to the bottom of the enigma that is JuJu Smith-Schuster? Should we be buying? Selling? Holding? I will provide some data to help you form an opinion regarding where you stand on JuJu, and to conclude, I’ll give my final take on the trash-talking, Fortnite-loving wideout.
JuJu Smith-Schuster’s breakout
Before we get into anything big-picture, let’s look at the primary reason for JuJu’s hype,the 2018 season in which he totaled 111 receptions, 1,426 yards and 7 touchdowns.
In 2018, Big Ben threw the ball a whopping 675 times, which was the fourth-highest total in NFL history. Smith-Schuster (WR8) and Antonio Brown (WR5), who gathered 166 and 168 targets, respectively, were the primary benefactors.
A disappointing follow-up
Enter 2019. JuJu was expected to receive even more targets with the departure of Antonio Brown. Mathematically, that makes sense. When a player with a large target share leaves, a bunch of those targets are up for grabs. You’d assume a chunk of those would go to the most talented players, and JuJu fits that bill for the Steelers. Unfortunately, we never got a true idea of what that might look like. Ben Roethlisberger suffered a season-ending elbow injury in Week 2, and JuJu himself missed four games with various knee and foot injuries, as well as a concussion.
Minor injuries are part of the game for most players, but JuJu has a history of concussions dating back to his time at USC, so that in particular is, at the very least, mildly concerning. He missed only two games during his rookie year and followed it with a 16-game sophomore season, so it’s best to give him the benefit of the doubt while keeping an eye on those concussions.
Projecting 2020 volume
As highlighted above, Roethlisberger attempted an astronomical 42.2 passes per game in 2018. The previous season, he attempted 37.4 passes per game. If we split the difference between the past two seasons, we can use that figure and roughly assume he would have thrown about 40 passes per game, which equates to about 640 attempts in a year (which is still a ridiculous amount of attempts).
In theory, it’s not absurd to assume JuJu digs into some of AB’s leftover targets and winds up with around 150-175 attempts thrown his way. But two things have to be true for that to happen:
- Big Ben needs to continue to throw the ball at a high volume
- He must prove to be an effective receiver as the top option
So now let’s dig into those two conditions that need to be present.
The first part of that equation is Big Ben. I don’t think this requires much elaboration: For as long as Ben Roethlisberger is the quarterback of the Pittsburgh Steelers, they are going to throw the ball. I don’t see the Steelers abruptly shying away from the passing game, despite Roethlisberger getting up there in age.
— Around The NFL (@AroundTheNFL) May 22, 2020
Now to the second part of the equation. Juju is more effective in the slot than he is outside, and nobody can pretend he didn’t benefit from having Antonio Brown – in his prime, nonetheless – on the outside, taking attention away from him. We will likely see a lot of Diontae Johnson with Chase Claypool or James Washington on the outside, with Juju operating more in the slot. Juju has proven his effectiveness all over the field, but he definitely does more damage from the slot.
Much of JuJu’s production will have to do with the growth and development of Johnson. If he can polish his game and develop a rapport with Big Ben, that might be enough to free JuJu up for another monster season. The opportunity for volume will be there regardless. It just depends on whether JuJu can handle the burden of being the focal point of opposing defenses. Again, the more of a problem Johnson is, the better-off JuJu will be.
Uncertainty at quarterback
Unfortunately for JuJu, Devlin Hodges and Mason Rudolph are not Big Ben. The Steelers took the ball out of the hands of their quarterbacks after Roethlisberger went down in 2019, opting to throw the ball only 31.9 times per game, which was the seventh-lowest mark in the league.
This put JuJu on a 16-game pace of 94 targets, which is barely enough to sustain WR2 numbers. He wound up as WR65, turning a mere 71 targets into 42 receptions, 552 yards and three touchdowns.
How much was that target number affected by his quarterbacks’ ability to make reads? How much of it was a product of his inability to separate from top corners?
We’ll know the answer to both of those questions this upcoming season, assuming Big Ben is healthy.
The verdict on JuJu Smith-Schuster
My assessment of JuJu Smith-Schuster is a layered one. This season, I like his odds of finishing as a strong WR2 or a low-end WR1. If we’re projecting the future though, things get a bit murkier.
He will not always have a Hall-of-Fame quarterback. He will not always top 165 targets. And he will probably never have a wide receiver across from him of Antonio Brown’s caliber. I think we saw a perfect storm for JuJu in 2018, and if you capitalized, you likely received multiple first-rounders, or a first plus a solid player. There have already been rumblings of JuJu not returning to Pittsburgh after this season, and with the Steelers’ long-term plan at quarterback seemingly nonexistent, the floor could fall out from underneath JuJu as he moves forward. That’s not to say he can’t be a quality player for your dynasty team. Rather, there is a lot of risk with JuJu because of the unknown factors.
If you can get a running back or receiver in the 8-14 range for him, potentially adding a second-round pick if the player is on the lower end of that, I’d make the deal. Unless you feel you can contend this year and need the WR help.
It’s crazy to think that a 23-year-old wide receiver is considered a win-now option, but the volume should be there for him this season. However, the less confidence you have in your QB, the more likely you are to lean on the run.
I have JuJu Smith-Schuster at WR16 for dynasty purposes, sandwiched between Terry McLaurin and Stefon Diggs. He could easily shoot back into my top 10, but without certainty regarding his landing spot and his quarterback going forward, I have him as a mid-WR2 with upside.