Why JuJu Smith-Schuster's Fantasy Football Success Will Continue in 2018
JuJu Smith-Schuster had an impressive rookie year with 58 receptions, 917 receiving yards, 8 total (receiving and returning) touchdowns, and a 73.4% catch rate in 14 games. His ability to play multiple roles in the offense and on special teams contributed to an outstanding 11-3 record when active and a playoff season for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Smith-Schuster's 2017 production not only led all rookie wide receivers, but among the skill position players in his rookie class, his total 133.7 fantasy points were only bested by four running backs -- Christian McCaffrey, Alvin Kamara, Kareem Hunt, and Leonard Fournette -- with an abundance of opportunities. That's impressive, but to do so at just 20 years old is ridiculous.
With an extremely productive rookie season under his belt, Smith-Schuster's expectations are much higher for year two, and rightfully so.
Third downs are critical situations in football, and they are often referred to as the "Money Down" because it allows offenses to keep drives going and potentially keep defenses on the field for extended periods of time. These situations often rely on clutch plays from a team's wide receivers.
In his very first NFL season, the young receiver showcased his talent on third down, with totals of 18 receptions, 300 receiving yards, and 4 touchdowns (on 26 targets) in these clutch situations.
The red zone was another place where Smith-Schuster performed well as a rookie, hauling in 9-of-16 targets for 7 first downs and 5 scores. And with Martavis Bryant being traded to the Oakland Raiders, Bryant's eight targets and two touchdowns in the red zone from a season ago could possibly create even more opportunity for Smith-Schuster to produce inside the 20.
The Pittsburgh offense's production has historically been affected by road environments, which has been well documented in the form of Ben Roethlisberger's home/road splits, including a career quarterback rating of 89 away compared to 99 at home.
As for Smith-Schuster, though, his road production showed no signs of being affected by Big Ben's lack of success away from Heinz Field. In 2017, he totaled 28 receptions, 473 receiving yards, and 4 touchdowns (51.8% of his fantasy points) over 8 road games.
These type of numbers inspire confidence that JuJu is a weekly plug-and-play guy no matter the circumstances.
The unique ability to play both the slot and outside positions allowed this former second round pick to stay on the field as he played at least 70% of offensive snaps in 10 of 14 games, with Bryant still taking some playing time.
The most promising trend can be seen in the second half of Smith-Schuster's 2017 season as his snap count never dropped below 79.7% and was 85.0% or higher in 4 of the final 7 games. The consistent playing time allowed for more opportunities and production in the second half with averages of 7.6 targets and 13.2 fantasy points per game.
The 2018 schedule provides Smith-Schuster with a number of potentially favorable matchups for him to excel in. Using Pro Football Reference's defensive rankings against wide receivers from a year ago (fantasy points allowed), the Steelers will face four of the five worst defenses in Kansas City (32nd), Tampa Bay (30th), Carolina (29th), and New England (28th).
Using numberFire's 2018 projections, Smith-Schuster's totals are set at 63.4 receptions (95.6 targets), 820.8 receiving yards, and 8.09 touchdowns but there are reasons to believe that's his floor. The departure of Bryant and lack of other additions -- outside of rookie James Washington -- are indicators of the Steelers' plan to lean on Smith-Schuster and stud Antonio Brown to play a large share of snaps and produce.
Pittsburgh's open targets are another reason for optimism. By breaking down targets in 2017, 20% of the team's targets (120 of 584) are now unaccounted for and could be distributed as additional targets among Brown (received 28% of overall 2017 targets), Le'Veon Bell (18%), Smith-Schuster (13.5%), Washington, and Pittsburgh tight ends (14.8%). Using this target distribution, Smith-Schuster would be in for an additional 16 looks.
Overall, the second-year wideout brings exciting potential at his current average draft position (ADP) of 4.07 in 12-man PPR leagues. While it can be a little scary to project a young player coming off just one giant year, there's little reason to doubt Smith-Schuster's ability to sustain his rookie success.