Should You Buy Low on JuJu Smith-Schuster in Fantasy Football?
Every season we see fantasy football players fail to reach expectations, and recency bias often leads to buy-low opportunities the following year.
The tricky part, of course, is deciding whether an underwhelming campaign is the beginning of a troubling trend or simply a case of normal year-to-year variance. Particularly in a season as short as the NFL's -- a sample size that isn't much bigger than a couple weeks of baseball -- it's inevitable we'll get outlier campaigns.
Which brings us to JuJu Smith-Schuster, an unquestionable bust in 2019.
Smith-Schuster was drafted as a bonafide WR1 last year, going around the 13th overall pick in PPR formats by the end of draft season, per Fantasy Football Calculator. He was often the fifth wideout off the board behind Davante Adams, DeAndre Hopkins, Julio Jones, and Michael Thomas and in the same range as Tyreek Hill and Odell Beckham. Pretty good company, indeed.
Alas, Smith-Schuster ultimately finished as the WR65 in PPR formats, enduring easily the worst of his three NFL campaigns.
As a result, he's now going 40th overall (WR15) in offseason 12-team BestBall10 drafts and ranks 31st overall (WR12) in FantasyPros' expert consensus rankings. While this still places him as a borderline WR1 and high-end WR2, this is a significant drop-off from a player who was going near the end of the first round or early second a season ago. Fantasy Football Calculator has him even lower as a seventh-round pick, though that data could be skewed by early offseason mock drafts that might be less reliable.
Does this present us with a buying opportunity? Or was Smith-Schuster overvalued in 2019? Let's take a look.
What Went Wrong
Not a whole lot went right for Smith-Schuster last season, but much of that was out of his control.
Ben Roethlisberger's season-ending elbow injury in Week 2 is the most obvious example, as backups Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges combined for one of the league's worst passing-attacks. When adjusted for schedule, the Pittsburgh Steelers' passing offense ranked 29th by numberFire's metrics.
Both quarterbacks were among a handful of starting signal-callers who actually averaged negative Net Expected Points (NEP) per drop back -- meaning they hurt their team more often than not when dropping back. Others who fell in this category with a minimum of 100 pass attempts included Josh Rosen, David Blough, Dwayne Haskins, Nick Foles, Daniel Jones, Joe Flacco, and Jeff Driskel. Yeah, not so hot.
Rudolph also ranked dead last among 33 qualified quarterbacks in adjusted yards per pass attempt (5.7), and Hodges fared even worse in the metric (5.0). No matter how you look at it, Pittsburgh's quarterback play was pretty dreadful.
Pittsburgh's rushing attack did their offense no favors, too, ranking 32nd by numberFire's metrics.
This would've been a difficult enough situation to find success in as is, but Smith-Schuster was also hobbled by multiple injuries, appearing in just 12 games and playing much of the season at less than 100%. He suffered a nagging toe injury in Week 1 and later suffered both a concussion and knee injury in Week 11, which effectively derailed the rest of his season.
JuJu ended up finishing with just 42 receptions for 552 yards and 3 touchdowns.
The Return of Big Ben
Between renewed health and the return of Roethlisberger, it sure feels like JuJu has nowhere to go but up.
Let's not forget just how productive Smith-Schuster was in his first two NFL seasons with Big Ben, racking up 58 receptions, 917 receiving yards and 7 touchdowns his rookie year, followed by his breakout 2018 campaign of 111 receptions, 1,426 yards and 7 scores.
Smith-Schuster's volume took a sizable hit in 2019, as he averaged just 5.8 targets per game and compiled a mere 18.3% target share and 22.6% air yards share in his 12 games. That's arguably his biggest worry entering this season, but much of that decline was likely due to his injuries and a struggling Steelers offense.
In 2018, he averaged 10.4 targets per game -- the NFL's fourth-best mark -- with a 23.3% target share and 26.1% air yards share. He accomplished that despite playing alongside Antonio Brown, who tied for the league lead in targets per game (11.3) and soaked up 27.9% of the targets and 40.3% of the air yards on Pittsburgh.
Some might conclude that Brown's absence was another reason JuJu's production declined, suggesting he's not cut out to be a leading man. But even with a drop in efficiency from the added defensive attention, seeing his targets per game plummet by nearly half just isn't something we should expect moving forward. Smith-Schuster clearly gained the trust of Big Ben in 2018, so it's hard to see JuJu not getting elite volume again, particularly with his role cemented as the team's top wideout.
Success in the Slot
In 2018, Smith-Schuster ran 61.5% of his routes out of the slot (421 snaps; fourth-most), leading to the league's most targets from the position (92) and second-most yards (814), per PFF. And despite all that volume, he was efficient, too, averaging 1.93 yards per route run (Y/RR), fifth-best among players with at least 200 snaps on passing plays in the slot.
He excelled as a slot receiver his rookie year, as well. Although he didn't see as many raw snaps (246), he still ran 58.0% of his routes from the slot, averaging 2.15 Y/RR -- the best mark in the NFL (minimum 200 snaps).
Not surprisingly, JuJu was far less productive out of the slot in 2019 (1.28 Y/RR), but it's worth noting he still ran 66.3% of his routes there, contrary to the narrative that he saw less slot time last season.
In all, he should continue to run a majority of his routes as a slot receiver, and if he shows the same efficiency he did from 2017-18, there's little reason to think he can't put up strong numbers again.
JJ Zachariason's model projects Smith-Schuster for 129.6 targets, 80.4 receptions, 1,110.3 receiving yards, and 6.6 touchdowns -- numbers that place him just outside the WR1 range. That puts him roughly at his third/fourth-round Best Ball ADP and makes him a fantastic value should he fall past that ADP.
Roethlisberger set career-highs in passing yards (5,129) and attempts (675) in 2018, both of which led the league, so expecting a near repeat for either Ben or JuJu probably isn't realistic. But JJ's projections give us a good ballpark figure of what we can reasonably expect, and we've already seen the type of ceiling JuJu can bring.
Remember, he won't turn 24 years old until November.