Fantasy Reaction: JuJu Smith-Schuster Re-Signs with the Pittsburgh Steelers

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Almost every fantasy manager and NFL fan alike assumed JuJu Smith-Schuster had played his final game in Pittsburgh, as all signs pointed to JuJu testing the waters in free agency and signing with a new team…surprise! JuJu is back in Pittsburgh on a 1-year deal worth $8 million. Reportedly, Smith-Schuster turned down multi-year deals from Kansas City, Baltimore and Philadelphia to say home in Pittsburgh. Let’s dive into the signing in more detail and what it means for the Steelers in 2021.

The Band is Back Together

Towards the end of the 2020 season, it looked like a lot was going to be changing in Pittsburgh. The starting QB position was in question as rumors surrounding Ben Roethlisberger swirled, JuJu was a virtual lock to leave via free agency, the offense was moving on from their OC Randy Fichtner and the team looked headed for a full on rebuild given their salary cap situation.

But, as we’ve seen in recent years, NFL teams can work their magic to get in under the salary cap. Alas, Big Ben is back and so is JuJu Smith-Schuster to man the slot for his 39-year-old QB. With the offensive pieces largely unchanged outside of the running back position (James Conner is currently an unrestricted free agent), the Pittsburgh offense as far as the personnel should look very similar to the team that took the field in 2020. Three wide-receiver sets should feature Chase Claypool and Diontae Johnson on the perimeter with JuJu Smith-Schuster playing the slot role and Eric Ebron lined up as the featured tight end. So, if the offense will look the same on paper, can we project a similar fantasy outlook for all three of these primary pass-catchers? Let’s dive in.

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A More Balanced Offense in 2021

Last season, the Pittsburgh Steelers ranked 28th in rushing attempts, 32nd in rushing yards, and 27th in rushing TD. Simply put, they could not run the ball to save their lives. As a result, we saw Ben Roethlisberger drop back to pass at the highest rate in the entire NFL and that’s with the QB coming off surgery to repair three tendons in his throwing elbow. Why couldn’t they run? What happened? The Steelers dealt with several injuries to their offensive line, scrambling to put together backups to protect the aging Big Ben who resembles the Statue of Liberty in the pocket at this stage of his career. As a result of a banged-up offensive line, the Steelers used the short and quick passing game to get the ball out of Ben’s hands quickly as an extension of the running game. The primary beneficiary of this strategy? JuJu Smith-Schuster, who saw 128 targets last season with the vast majority of these targets close to the line of scrimmage.

The thing about this strategy is that is worked for the first two-thirds of the season. The Steelers were 11-0, and Super Bowl buzz starting growing for the Steel City…until the rest of the NFL starting figuring it out. Defensive game plans against Pittsburgh started changing with corners and safeties cheating up close to the line to sit on slant routes, screen passes, and drag routes, and as a result, we saw the offensive production stall with Pittsburgh ultimately losing to Cleveland in the Wild Card round of the playoffs.

Given the lackluster end to the season and the offensive line presumably returning to form, I would expect the Steelers to try to run a bit of a more balanced offensive game plan in 2021. That’s not to say the Steelers won’t be a pass-first team (they will be), but it’s reasonable to expect regression in Ben’s pass attempts. His 608 pass attempts last year were tied for the second-most of his 17-year career. I’ll take the under on that number by a wide margin in 2021 based on statistical regression and a likely change in the offensive game plan.

Dynasty Outlook: 2021 and Beyond

JuJu’s 97/831/9 stat line from 2020 looks pretty decent on the surface. After all, he did finish as fantasy’s WR22 in PPR formats. However, despite seeing the 13th-most targets among all wideouts, Smith-Schuster averaged just 6.6 yards per target, the seventh-worst among all NFL wide receivers. Simply put, JuJu’s fantasy production was propped up by volume…and lots of it. If we project the Steelers passing attempts to regress by a decent margin, JuJu will need to rely on touchdowns and/or targets down the field to make up for the deficit, and I just can’t see a scenario where that happens.

Big Ben threw the most passes that traveled less than ten yards downfield than any other QB in football last year, and that’s what helped make JuJu a PPR viable WR in fantasy. Assuming the offense opens it up a bit more in 2021 and the Steelers can get a run game going, Chase Claypool and Diontae Johnson more likely to receive those deeper targets down the field. As a result, they’ve got much more upside than JuJu in 2021.

For dynasty, there’s still a lot of intrigue surrounding Smith-Schuster, who is still just 24 years old. That age combined with his early production in the NFL should give dynasty managers hope that JuJu can continue to grow in this league beyond what we saw over the last two seasons. I fully expect JuJu to test free agency again in 2022, which makes him a tricky guy to peg for dynasty. For the reasons outlined above, I expect we see JuJu’s fantasy production take a small hit in 2021, which should help to lower his trade value entering the 2022 offseason. If you’re still a believer in JuJu, that may provide a nice trade window for the former 2nd round NFL Draft pick as he’ll likely look to take a step forward in his career in a new city.

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