by Angel Maldonado Tejada (Angel_TejadaFF)
JuJu Smith-Schuster had a rough 2019 season, to say the least. After an offseason that saw many pundits (myself included) projecting a Top 5 fantasy season from the former USC star, Smith-Schuster had his worst year as a pro as he limped his way towards a WR65 finish in PPR formats.
Can JuJu Smith-Schuster put the struggles of 2019 behind him and regain the hearts of fantasy managers?
Let’s begin by addressing the question marks. While poor quarterback play affected his production, Smith-Schister had a down year as well; he uncharacteristically struggled with drops (5 on 70 targets), played subpar against some of the league’s top corners, and rarely created separation when facing press coverage. Yet, despite these concerns, I’m… not at all worried. The Steelers playbook was incredibly limited by the aforementioned poor quarterbacking, Smith-Schuster was dealing with a number of injuries (turf toe and sprained MCL), and it seemed like he never recovered. All of this to say: JuJu Smith-Schuster will once again be a WR1 in 2020.
While he may not be one of the most physically dominating receivers in the league, Smith-Schister excels at making contested catches, running pristine routes that leave his defenders in shambles, and creating yards after the catch. You can’t measure heart, but you can definitely see it in Smith-Schuster’s game every time he takes the field. In addition, he also has developed great chemistry with Ben Roethlisberger, chemistry that became more evident as the 2018 season progressed. While we didn’t get to see that chemistry in action for the majority of 2019, we can safely assume that Smith-Schuster will continue to be fed targets by Ben Roethlisberger in 2020, barring injury.
In an attempt to take you through my thought process, I’m going to break down why I think Smith-Schuster is going to succeed in 2020 step by step. Of course, the biggest factor is the return of Ben Roethlisberger. A healthy Roethlisberger transforms the Steelers offense, turning them from a conservative, run-first team to a pass-happy, high powered offense.
Smith-Schuster is the best receiver on the team and I project him to have a similar target share to the one he had in 2018 (24.5%). How many targets is that? Well, below are Roesthlisbeger’s number of attempts (and attempts per game) from 2016-2018.
2016 (14 Games): 509 (36.35)
2017 (15 Games): 561(37.4)
2018 (16 Games): 675 (42.18)
It would be unreasonable to expect a 38-year-old Roethlisberger to once again throw 675 passes, especially with a stronger defense fortifying the Steel City. For argument’s sake, let’s say that he throws the ball 560 times (35 attempts-per-game) over the course of 16 games. Based on Smith-Schuster’s 2018 target share, that would leave him with 137.2 targets.
In 2018, Smith-Schister caught approximately 67% of the targets thrown his way. That would put Smith-Schuster at 92 catches for the 2019 season. If he maintains his career average of 13.7 YPR, JuJu would be left with 1,260 yards in 2020.
Lastly, Smith-Schuster scored 7 touchdowns in each of his first two seasons with Roethlisberger. I’m going to be conservative and say he catches 5 touchdowns, as I’m taking into account the fewer pass attempts. This would leave Smith-Schuster with roughly 248 fantasy points in 2020, a number that would have made him the WR9 (along with Kenny Golladay) last season.
YAC/reception last 2 seasons
1. George Kittle – 8.6
2. Cooper Kupp – 6.4
3. JuJu Smith-Schuster – 5.9 pic.twitter.com/Ys9tTrj15S
— PFF (@PFF) April 3, 2020
I’m confident Smith-Schuster can sustain this production because of his strengths as a player. As we talked about earlier, JuJu excels at creating separation and extending plays with his quickness. He led the league in yards after the catch in 2018 (567) and was still effective in 2019 (262 yards after the catch in 12 games) despite his injuries. The Steelers have also discussed keeping Smith-Schuster in the slot in 2020, a move that would allow him to be in open space more often and let him do what he does best: creating yards after the catch and making defenders look silly. The continued growth of Diontae Johnson can only further help Smith-Schuster.
I know Smith-Schuster hurt many of you in 2019; I completely understand your residual pain from last season and the hesitation that pain has bred to invest in him this season. However, his current ADP of 34.3 is great value for a receiver that is sure to see plenty of passes thrown his way in 2020. Move on from 2019, draft JuJu, and watch as your late third-round investment provides you a WR1 season.
248 Points (WR9)