JuJu Smith-Schuster (Dynasty Fantasy Football Outlook)
The Dynasty Doctor / @DynastyDoctorFF
The wide receiver position in Fantasy Football has slowly become an incredibly deep pool of players. Any WR on an NFL offense who sees the field has the potential to be a fantasy darling on a given week. As opposed to other offensive skill players, it’s a position that can be more easily streamed on bye weeks or during a starter’s injury stint. As owners, we all know that there’s nothing sweeter than having a set-it-and-forget-it position player, especially in the WR slot, whether it be a target monster or a speed demon able to bring any ball to the house. The WR class from the 2017 NFL Draft brought in a number of fantasy-relevant names including Chris Godwin, Kenny Golladay, Cooper Kupp, and Mike Williams. Some of these guys lock down our lineup as the week-in, week-out WR1. There’s one more WR to be prominently named from this draft class, who has had quite the roller coaster of an NFL career thus far. It’s Pittsburgh Steelers WR, JuJu Smith-Schuster. Let’s unravel his football journey and the Dynasty Fantasy Football value he carries heading into the 2020 NFL season.
JuJu Smith-Schuster was an exceptional high school recruit. According to the 247Sports Composite, he was a five-star recruit out of the state of California, in which he ranked third amongst the state and 21st nationally. Out of 21 collegiate offers, he made official visits to five schools. JuJu chose to stay in California, by committing to the University of Southern California, over the likes of Alabama, Notre Dame, Ohio State, and Oregon.
JuJu was a Day One contributor as a Trojan. He put up a respectable 54-724-5 over 13 games as a Freshman. For USC players who registered at least 40 receptions during the 2014 collegiate season, JuJu’s 13.4 YPR lead the team. His Sophomore season was anything but a slump. Smith-Schuster was the bonafide #1 aerial target for the Trojans in 2015. Over 14 games, JuJu recorded 50+ receptions and 1,000+ yards more than any other USC player. Stacking up against the Pac-12, JuJu led the conference in receiving yards (1,454), had the second-most receptions (89), and found the endzone 10 times, which was good for fourth. His 1,454 receiving yards and 16.3 YPR ranked fourth and seventh, respectively, in all of NCAA football that season.
Smith-Schuster’s 2016 was highly anticipated by the NCAA universe. It was completely appropriate to assume that he would put up an even better stat line in his Junior season. Bleacher Report went far enough and ranked JuJu as the #1 Returning WR in 2016. The sky was the limit. USC had a great 2016 season, finishing third in the AP poll and defeating Penn State in the Rose Bowl. JuJu, unfortunately, had an underwhelming Junior year. Although he led his team in receptions, yards, TDs, and YPR (at least 40 receptions), JuJu failed to eclipse 1,000 yards. He finished the season with a 70-914-10 stat line over 13 games, good for fourth, third, and fifth in the Pac-12, respectively. Smith-Schuster forewent his Senior season and declared for the 2017 NFL Draft. JuJu finished his USC career as a 1x First-team All-Pac-12 (2015) and a 1x Second-team All-Pac-12 (2016). He ranks fourth in receptions, fifth in receiving yards, and is tied for fifth in TDs on the All-Time USC Receiving list.
JuJu did not have particularly impressive workout metrics at the NFL Combine but nonetheless received a “best comparable player” in one of the league’s elite, DeAndre Hopkins. That’s quite an endorsement. JuJu tested into the 50th percentile or better in four of five metrics, including the 40-yard dash (4.54 - 52nd), speed score (101.2 - 72nd), agility score (11.07 - 68th), and catch radius (10.00 - 50th). His burst score was a disappointing 115.3, landing him in the 21st percentile. As per Player Profiler, Smith-Schuster’s 31.9% college dominator put him on the higher end of “mid-level talent with situational upside”; a 35% or greater would have predicted JuJu into having “the potential to be a team’s No. 1 WR and/or high caliber contributor”. Many believed that JuJu would be a Dallas Cowboy, as they were the only NFL Team to invite him for a private workout. Smith-Schuster was being mocked as a late-second, early-third-round NFL draft pick behind other WR talents such as Mike Williams, Corey Davis, Zay Jones, and John Ross. With the 62nd overall selection in the second round, JuJu Smith-Schuster was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers. Keep in mind, JuJu was the youngest player selected in the 2017 NFL Draft.
(Photo Credit: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
JuJu entered his rookie season in a crowded wide receiver room. Antonio Brown was the de facto #1 and opposite him was Martavis Bryant, who had been reinstated for the 2017 NFL season. In rookie dynasty drafts, Smith-Schuster was being taken in the late-first, early-second-round. Smith-Schuster ended up taking the field in Week 1 but did not record his first reception until Week 2. JuJu was given a chance to start in Week 8 against the Detroit Lions (thanks to Martavis Bryant’s trade request) and absolutely WENT OFF. He finished the game with a 7-193-1 stat line. We all remember that 97-yard TD on Sunday Night Football. JuJu simply put on a show in his first NFL start at wide receiver. His rookie season had some additional highlights and milestones, including his blindsided block on Vontaze Burfict and being the youngest player in NFL history to accumulate over 1,000 all-purpose yards. Smith-Schuster ended the season with 58-917-7. JuJu’s 917 receiving yards and 7 receiving touchdowns were first amongst rookies.
JuJu entered his second season with a clear path to a starting job opposite Antonio Brown after Martavis Bryant was traded to the Oakland Raiders. To make a long story short, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Antonio Brown set the NFL on fire in 2018. With “Big Ben” Roethlisberger at the helm, JuJu and AB put up a combined 215-2,723-22. Talk about absolute insanity. AB paced the league with 15 receiving TDs, but JuJu had a respectable 7 receiving TDs. Smith-Schuster edged out Brown in the other two categories, receptions (111 vs. 104) and receiving yards (1,426 vs. 1,297). Amongst his NFL peers, JuJu finished the 2018 season 6th and 5th in those categories, respectively. On his 166 total targets, he only dropped SIX of his “catchable” 117 targets. His Steelers teammates took note of his incredible Sophomore campaign and voted JuJu as the team MVP. A costly fumble by JuJu against the New Orleans Saints contributed to the Steelers missing the playoffs that season. His excellent Sophomore season concluded with a Pro Bowl selection as an alternate.
JuJu Smith-Schuster had fantasy owners salivating heading into the 2019 season, considering Antonio Brown had found a new home with the Oakland Raiders. JuJu was the unquestioned #1 target for the Pittsburgh aerial attack. Would it be appropriate to expect a similar 111-1,426-7 stat line? Would it be appropriate for JuJu to EXCEED his 111-1,426-7 stat line from last season? Fantasy owners thought that they were heading to the moon with Smith-Schuster. Unfortunately, those owners would not breach Earth’s atmosphere. There were a number of factors that contributed to his disappointing 2019 campaign. Poor QB play was a significant factor; “Big Ben” was shut down for the season after Game 2 against the Seattle Seahawks. Mason Rudolph and Devlin “Duck” Hodges were major downgrades to the entire Pittsburgh offense. On top of injuries (four games missed) and more concentrated double coverage, JuJu couldn’t catch a break. He ended the season with 42-552-3. Woof. On the bright side, JuJu Smith-Schuster passed Randy Moss as the youngest player in NFL history to record 2,500 receiving yards. It’s quite an accomplishment to be mentioned in the same sentence as one of the game’s greats.
The Pittsburgh Steelers’ offensive coordinator, Randy Fichtner, has an extensive history with the black and yellow. He was hired in 2007 as the team’s wide receivers coach. Some wideouts that he groomed include Super Bowl MVP Santonio Holmes, Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders, and all-pro Antonio Brown. It’s safe to say that Fichtner has a soft spot for the wide receiver position. After his stint as wide receivers coach, he took over as the quarterbacks coach in 2010 and has since developed a favorable relationship with Ben Roethlisberger; he held that job through 2017. Fichtner wore two hats in the 2018 and 2019 seasons as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. Fichtner was able to shed the latter and will be entering the 2020 season as solely the offensive coordinator.
Randy Fichtner knows what it takes to have an offense firing on all cylinders. In his first season as offensive coordinator, relative to the rest of the NFL, the Steelers were second in passing yards and first in red zone efficiency in 2018. Setting a single-season franchise record with 53 touchdowns was the “cherry on top”. If we recall, this was the season that Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster set the league ablaze. I consider the 2019 season as an outlier and a wash. Now entering the 2020 season, Roethlisberger has returned, and the Steelers have JuJu atop the depth chart, with a strong complement in WR talent from Diontae Johnson, James Washington, and rookie Chase Claypool. JuJu’s supporting cast is more than adequate; Diontae Johnson led all rookies in receptions last season (59) and James Washington led the team in receiving yards in 2019 (735). This is because JuJu missed Weeks 12-15, allowing Washington to register 325 receiving yards, a whopping 44% of his receiving yards for the season. In tandem with the return to satisfactory QB play, the degree of talent in the Pittsburgh receiving core will draw heavy coverage away from JuJu, allowing him to once again create big plays. In addition, the Steelers offense thrives with multiple contributors through the air. Neither Johnson, Washington, or Claypool can individually compare to AB, but Fichtner knows the formula that gave his offense such a great deal of success in 2018. Fichtner is entering the final year of his contract and I’d imagine that he tries to mimic and reapply this formula in 2020. Due to a few more mouths to feed than previously, I’m not sure if JuJu will return to his 166 targets from 2018. As far as the 2020 season, which happens to be a contract year for JuJu, a 125-130 target campaign is not out of the question. Some believe that Smith-Schuster is not in the future plans for Pittsburgh, which should inevitably motivate him to ball out in 2020.
Owners may not be aware, but JuJu’s injury history is a bit more significant than one would think. He fractured his right hand in college, which warranted surgical placement of a plate and screw. JuJu fought through the pain and hung a 5-138-1 stat line the very next game against Arizona. Safe to say, JuJu is a gamer. He had a couple of other collegiate injuries that were more minor, such as a toe sprain and hand-finger dislocation. Smith-Schuster’s NFL career has been more troublesome. Over three seasons, JuJu has had three grade one concussions, a grade one hamstring pull, and a knee patella sprain. His most noteworthy injury was sustained during Week 11 of the 2019 season. JuJu suffered his third grade one concussion on the same play as he sprained his patella tendon. This limited Smith-Schuster to just 12 games in 2019. The three concussions are what concern me the most. We all know of other players whose careers have been defined by countless cranium injuries, such as Jordan Reed (seven) and new to the conversation, Brandin Cooks (five). Another player who has suffered three concussions is Sterling Shepard. Shepard differs from the pack due to his most recent concussion, which was deemed “severe” and assigned grade three. Regardless of JuJu’s three “mild” concussions, I think we need to start associating some more concern. Medical literature has supported the notion that an athlete is predilected for subsequent concussions after an initial concussion has been experienced. Athletes who have suffered three or more concussions are three times more likely to sustain a future concussion than those with no concussion history. Some food for thought and something to be aware of.
This past offseason was a great time to buy-low on JuJu Smith-Schuster. His 2019 season undoubtedly drove down his value. I applaud and congratulate everyone that was able to acquire JuJu at a significant discount. If you missed the buy-low window, act FAST because it’s almost shut. In dynasty start-up drafts, JuJu currently has an ADP of 23, roughly WR7. You may think that his ADP is a bit rich, but I certainly do not. JuJu is ONLY 23 years old, younger than his fellow draft classmates Chris Godwin (24) and Kenny Golladay (26), amongst other WRs such as Calvin Ridley (25), Terry McLaurin (24), Courtland Sutton (24), and Deebo Samuel (24). Some of those names may surprise you, but it’s the facts. Remember, wide receivers typically hit their peak around age 27. In other words, there is ample time for a major bounce back, which I expect to start in the 2020 season. Smith-Schuster is in a contract year, and he’ll enter the 2020 season on a mission and hungry for a big, second NFL contract. If I have JuJu as my WR1, I’m on board with it. I am not panicking in the slightest. If a JuJu owner is weary, trade for him and slot a stud into your WR2/Flex. Whether or not the Steelers plan on extending JuJu Smith-Schuster, I expect his well-rounded skill set to support his continued development into a top-tier NFL WR.
(Photo Credit: USA Today)