How JuJu Smith-Schuster Can Bounce Back in 2020 (Fantasy Football)

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We are not so far removed from Juju Smith-Schuster’s smash season in 2018 when he burst onto the fantasy scene with an epic cannonball that doused us in fantasy points.  During that year, we saw Smith-Schuster catch 111 passes on 166 targets for seven touchdowns with an average 89.1 yards per game.  After veteran WR Antonio Brown dramatically vacated the premises and 168 targets, our expectations for Smith-Schuster were predictably high.

We expected him to step into the WR1 role after Brown left the building.  The opportunity was there, ready and ripe for taking.  He had developed a trust with QB Ben Roethlisberger, James Conner was healthy coming into the season, and his supporting WRs were young and lacked chemistry with their QB.  This should have been Smith-Schuster’s year to dominate.

Obviously, it was not.  It was bad.  He finished as the WR62 in half-PPR scoring after 16 weeks and was the WR37 from Weeks 1 through 11 before he was sidelined for four games.

Unfortunately, 2019 was not the season any of us would like to remember from Smith-Schuster or from the Steelers in general.  He saw nine fewer targets, 16 fewer receptions, 365 fewer yards, and four fewer touchdowns than his rookie year in 2017.  An absolute comparison is admittedly unfair, but I bring up the disparaging differences to put his down-year into perspective.  There are many factors that played crucial roles in Smith-Schuster’s disappointing 2019 season and it’s important to keep all of these issues in mind as we look for his bounce-back return in 2020.

What Happened in 2019

Let’s address the obvious and get that out of the way.  He was playing without his future Hall of Fame QB for practically the whole season.  Instead, he was playing alongside a mediocre Mason Rudolph and a third-stringer nicknamed “Duck” only to go back to playing with Rudolph once again.  That situation is not ideal by any standards and a lack of production was inevitable.  However, all of the blame can’t be piled on the shoulders of two rotating quarterbacks.  After all, James Washington finally took a step forward in his sophomore year and rookie Diontae Johnson cemented a name for himself receiving 59 passes on 92 targets, for 682 yards, and five touchdowns.

We know that Smith-Schuster was concussed in the same game that Miles Garrett infamously smacked Mason Rudolph with his own helmet.  It was a brutal game against the Browns as it usually is when these two teams play.  He missed four games going through the concussion protocol and didn’t return until Week 16 when he saw six targets, two receptions, and only six yards.  Let’s not forget that before his concussion, Smith-Schuster had been dealing with a lingering toe issue he sustained in Week 1 against the Patriots.  That injury kept him out of the final plays of the game and seemed to linger with him through the upcoming weeks.

There was more to that Week 1 Patriots’ game aside from Smith-Schuster’s hurt toe.  While that kept him off the field at the end of the game, Stephon Gilmore kept him out of the action the rest of the time.  Gilmore is an elite cornerback, yes, however, Smith-Schuster needed to step into a WR1 role, competing against elite defensive players and succeed.  This didn’t happen.  It was also not as surprising for some as you may expect.

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In Matt Harmon’s Reception Perception, he notes that Smith-Schuster finished in the 97th percentile against zone coverage but struggled for the third year in a row in success versus man and press coverage.  He simply did not have the ability to create separation to be successful in the traditional WR1 role.  He is the most productive when surrounding weapons can take the heat off his back.  By expecting him to step into a role he is not meant for, he was already set up for failure, regardless of injury and shoddy QB play.

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What Has to Happen in 2020

First and foremost, Roethlisberger must stay healthy and produce like a Hall of Fame QB.  He can make the throws in tighter windows than two back up QBs making their NFL debut.  While Smith-Schuster may not have a high degree of separation from defenders, Roethlisberger can make throws accurately and more often.  In only six quarters with Roethlisberger, Smith-Schuster saw 13 targets.  He only had 70 all year.

Secondly, Smith-Schuster himself must stay healthy.  This is obvious, I know, but even battling through lingering injuries will hamper his ability to remain on the field and crush zone defenses.  He must also remain in the slot.  This is his bread and butter where he is the most successful by route and against coverage.  The wideout experiment did not work well, no matter who was at quarterback.  In 2018 he was a WR2 or better in ten out of 15 games and a WR1 in four of those ten games when he was healthy and in the slot.

Finally, the surrounding weapons on the offense have to draw away defenses.  Luckily, the Steelers have developed their WR corp during Roethlisberger’s absence and have added the gigantic end zone target, Chase Claypool, from the NFL draft.  Johnson has emerged as a serious receiving threat after his 2019 rookie season.  He averaged 42.5 yards per game with over a 64% catch rate.  James Washington had a much slower start in 2018, partly because the Steelers tend to develop rookie players rather than heavily rely on them.  Washington’s catch rate increased from 42.1% to 55% on more than double the number of targets and nearly tripling his receptions.  Both he and Johnson have the opportunity to pick up the slack and fulfill an Antonio Brown-type role.  With a dual-threat out wide, Smith-Schuster should remain in the slot where he is most productive.

Fantasy Conclusion

Smith-Schuster’s regression year is reflected in his ADP. He is currently being drafted toward the beginning of the 4th Round with names like Devin Singletary, Calvin Ridley, and David Montgomery. Depending on your roster construction, you may have the opportunity to draft a potential PPR machine IF all of the factors mentioned above prove true. He can be a solid WR2 with WR1 upside depending on the matchup and I wouldn’t hesitate to draft him, especially if I already have stud players that I drafted early.

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