Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Juju Smith-Schuster took the world by storm during his first two years in the league. Serving as the Robin to Antonio Brown’s Batman, Smith-Schuster compiled 169 receptions for 2,343 yards and 14 touchdowns throughout the first two years of his career. However, with Brown now in Oakland, how will Juju fare as the top option in Pittsburgh’s passing game?
Fantasy Football 2019 Season Preview: Juju Smith-Schuster
Juju Smith-Schuster built on his promising rookie campaign to emerge as one of the best young wide receivers in football. Appearing in all 16 games, Smith-Schuster finished his 2018 with 111 receptions for 1,426 yards and seven touchdowns. Juju finished the season as the WR9 in standard scoring and was one of the most consistent receivers in the league, recording 7.8 fantasy points or more in all but four games.
The Pittsburgh Steelers threw it to Juju a lot, and the second-year wide receiver made his opportunities count. According to Sharp Football Stats, Smith-Schuster finished the 2018 season with a 57% success rate when targeted. This rate was the second-best on the team among players who received 30 or more targets, and it ensures the Steelers will want to keep giving him the ball. When in the red zone, Smith-Schuster had a 48% success rate and a 102 passer rating when targeted. Interestingly enough, Juju actually led the 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers with 29 red zone targets.
Of course, a big reason Juju was able to do as well as he did was thanks to Antonio Brown. The Steelers had arguably the best wide receiver duo in football last season, and defenses simply couldn’t stop both Brown and Smith-Schuster. Brown was the better receiver, and defenses allotted more resources to stopping him than Juju. This gave Smith-Schuster favorable matchups and allowed his production to be artificially inflated.
Antonio Brown is out of the picture, so Juju is now the unquestioned top option in the Pittsburgh Steelers passing game. Because of this, defenses will now allocate more resources to stopping Smith-Schuster, which could hurt his production. Instead of beating single coverage against a teams’ second-best cornerback, Juju will need to beat double coverage against the best defenders on the opposing defense.
Of course, the counterargument here is that Smith-Schuster will receive more targets without Antonio Brown around. Brown finished the 2018 season with 168 targets, and those pass attempts will need to go somewhere. While the Steelers will probably run more in 2019, Smith-Schuster should be the primary recipient of said targets.
Juju’s ultimate production is based on whether he has the ability to be a true WR1 in the passing game. If he can, then the extra volume should push his production to new heights. If he can’t, then the added defensive focus will lead to a decrease in production.
By this writer’s eye, Juju has what it takes to be a true top option in the passing game. He won’t be as good as peak Antonio Brown, but he’s one of the best route runners in the league and is explosive after the catch. So far through his young career, Smith-Schuster has played three games without Antonio Brown. In those games, Juju has recorded 20 receptions for 255 yards and three touchdowns. This is obviously a small sample, but he’s performed well as Pittsburgh’s top option.
Average Draft Position
As of this posting, Smith-Schuster is ranked as the 18th overall pick in half-PPR scoring formats, according to Fantasy Football Calculator. This makes him the sixth receiver off the board, behind only DeAndre Hopkins, Davante Adams, Julio Jones, Michael Thomas, and Odell Beckham.
This is a fair spot for Juju, although I’d argue taking him over guys like Odell Beckham and Dalvin Cook (16th overall pick). Smith-Schuster has already shown the ability to thrive without Antonio Brown and is one of the most electric young players in the league. Entering his age-23 season, Smith-Schuster should only improve as an athlete and a player.
The tiebreaker between Smith-Schuster and a guy like Beckham is health and situation. Beckham has missed 16 games over the past two seasons, while Smith-Schuster has only missed two. Additionally, Smith-Schuster will be in an offense which already knows his skill set and how to use him. Beckham is starting the year with a completely new team and there could be some growing pains. Both players should be fantastic, but Smith-Schuster is a slightly safer option.
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