Why JuJu Smith-Schuster Can Be the Top Wide Receiver in Fantasy Football
The Pittsburgh Steelers' offense may have lost Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell in the offseason, but that doesn't mean they can't continue to be a top unit in 2019. James Conner looked more than capable of filling in for Bell last season, and while Antonio Brown may be a future Hall of Famer, JuJu Smith-Schuster has already proven to be a major talent at the NFL level, and it's hard to know just how high his ceiling can be.
He burst onto the scene in 2017 and, despite playing second fiddle to Brown, Smith-Schuster is tenth in receptions (169), ninth in receiving yards (2,343), and tied for seventh in receiving touchdowns (14) amongst all wideouts over that two year span.
Smith-Schuster will look to take another leap forward entering his third year, now as the alpha dog amongst the Steelers' receivers. Already finishing with the eight-most fantasy points among wide receivers last year in point-per-reception (PPR) scoring, a strong case can be made that he has the potential to become the overall WR1 this season.
Opportunities For Days
Volume is king in fantasy football, and it's absolutely nuts that Smith-Schuster, who was fourth in the NFL in targets last season, could potentially expand on that volume in 2019.
The Steelers have 226 targets missing from last year, and Smith-Schuster has a roster full inexperienced and injury-prone pass catchers behind him. Only newly acquired Donte Moncrief has ever caught more than 50 balls in a single season. We know that the Steelers love to the fling the ball around, as evidenced by the fact that Ben Roethlisberger has averaged 37.2 passing attempts per game this decade (2010-2018), and those missing targets will need a new home.
While Antonio Brown rarely missed any games since Smith-Schuster joined the roster, there were three games where we can look for some trends. Football is a small sample size game, so we have to take what we can get. In the table below, we can see an opportunity increase when Brown did not play. Air Yards data was pulled from AirYards.com.
|Split||Target Market Share||Air Yard Market Share||PPR Points/Game|
|With Antonio Brown||22.3%||22.9%||16.6|
|Without Antonio Brown||26.7%||38.8%||21.2|
If those numbers without Brown are reflective of what we can expect in 2019 then prepare yourself for a big time season. Naturally, there should be the expectation that Roethlisberger will rely heavily on JuJu in 2019.
They have a built strong rapport that doesn't exist with any of the other Pittsburgh pass catchers, and Smith-Schuster generate more Reception Net Expected Points (NEP) Per Target (0.69) than Antonio Brown (0.68), while also putting up a better Success Rate (83.8% vs 78.9%), which measures the percentage of receptions on which a player generates positive NEP. You can read more about NEP and Success Rate in our glossary.
Our numberFire projections have JuJu seeing a 26.1% target market share, which basically means even if Roethlisberger has a 10% decrease in pass attempts from last year, Smith-Schuster should see close to a similar target total as last season. While the number of targets might not dramatically increase if there is an offensive philosophy change, the value of those targets should increase from air yardage. But if the Steelers do indeed stay pass-happy, JuJu has a real chance to pace the league in targets.
What Does It Take To Be The WR1?
To understand if JuJu can make that leap from a top eight receiver to number one, lets take a look back at recent history. Taking a look at the top-scoring wide receivers over each of the last seven seasons, we can see what kind of numbers need to be had.
|Team Target Share||Targets Per Game||PPR Points/Game||Touchdowns|
All of these seem pretty obtainable for Smith-Schuster in 2019, as he wasn't terribly far off from these last season. The lone category that has been tough for him the last couple seasons is in the touchdown depart. Now that Antonio Brown and his 11.8 touchdowns per season over the last five seasons are out of the equation, that should make things easier for JuJu.
Smith-Schuster's outlook looks a lot like the 2018 Davante Adams situation. Adams finished the '17 season as the PPR WR14, and then saw Jordy Nelson leave the team before the 2018 campaign that catapulted him to WR2 in PPR scoring. He more than likely would have finished as the top wideout if he didn't sit out Week 17. JuJu finds himself in a very similar situation heading into 2019.
The case for JuJu to finish the season as the top scoring fantasy wide receiver is quite simple.
He finished last year as number-eight wideout in PPR scoring despite sharing the field with the guy who finished fifth. Removing Brown from the situation now thrusts Smith-Schuster right into being Big Ben's top guy without much competition behind him.
That spot (Brown) produced the the most fantasy points for five straight seasons from 2013 to 2017. In those dominant seasons, Brown posted 13.5 yards per reception, while JuJu may have more big-play ability, as evidenced by his career 13.9 yards per reception and the fact that he led all receivers in yards after contact last year. Amongst the top wideouts, JuJu has a real shot at seeing the most volume, and at age 22 we can expect him to continue to improve his skills.
By removing 165 targets (20 in the red zone) and 12 touchdowns from the field without Brown, Smith-Schuster should see the most volume of his career as well as an increase in high-leverage target opportunities. The Steelers have been in the top ten in terms of passing attempts the past three seasons, and now JuJu looks primed to compete for that number one spot amongst all wideouts this season.