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It’s difficult to overstate JuJu Smith-Schuster's absurdly great rookie season. He is one of just eight wide receivers of the past 18 years to register 800+ yards before his 22nd birthday. He didn’t catch 101 passes like Anquan Boldin, or score 17 touchdowns like Randy Moss. But he did quietly finish as the 17th best fantasy receiver in points-per-reception formats while costing you next to nothing on draft day. Dynasty owners were keen on the young, college-productive Smith-Schuster, but re-drafters exercised plenty of caution with the Steelers’ new No. 3 receiver; he fell to the 15th round in typical 12-team drafts. Savvy owners who took the risk late in drafts were handsomely rewarded.
Of course, Smith-Schuster no longer fetches that kind of discount. He’s now overwhelmingly viewed as a top-20 wide receiver, coming off draft boards in the same ranges as Stefon Diggs, Amari Cooper, and Josh Gordon. But is he still worth drafting in the early rounds? Is there enough untapped ceiling to warrant considering him even higher than those other players?
It appears so. And here’s why.
Just How Good Is He?
In Smith-Schuster, we’re discussing one of the best college-to-pro prospects of the past several years. It feels odd to say that, given the wealth of talent that’s entered the league of late, but it’s borne out by his profile. Smith-Schuster stepped on-board last year as an unusually young (20 years old), highly productive guy who slipped into Round 2 based on one down year at USC.
A quick tour through Smith-Schuster’s USC career: he burst onto the scene as an 18-year-old freshman, catching 54 balls as the clear-cut No. 2 option for Cody Kessler. He and Nelson Agholor combined to vacuum up 53% of Trojan yardage, as well as 44% of touchdown production. As a sophomore, he posted a dazzling 89 receptions, 1,454 yards, and 10 scores, thoroughly dominating the USC offense – no other Trojan topped 37 catches or 414 yards. As a junior, things went south a bit. With quarterback Sam Darnold taking the reins, Smith-Schuster dipped to 70-914-10, due to a combination of better competition (Deontay Burnett) and a nagging back injury. Smith-Schuster didn’t dazzle at the scouting combine, either, registering ho-hum numbers across the board (a 4.54 40-yard dash and 32.5” vertical jump). Ultimately, he fell out of first-round contention, and some even felt the Steelers reached a bit for him at No. 62.
In all, the team landed a big (6-foot-1 and 215 pounds), productive receiver with enormous (10.5”) hands and a competitive spirit. Comparisons to Anquan Boldin are fair.
Just How Good Was His Rookie Year?
In short, it was simply outstanding. To illustrate: dating back 20 years to that memorable Randy Moss rookie season of 1998, 54 rookie receivers have caught at least 50 passes. Let’s take a brief tour through them, as well as where Smith-Schuster landed in some key measures.
Smith-Schuster produced the second-best debut season of that span in terms of per-target efficiency. He averaged a full yard more per look than anyone else, while essentially matching Moss in PPR scoring. (Note that a good chunk of Tyreek Hill's elite rookie production came from rushing and returning.) He registered the seventh-best catch rate (an elite 73.4%) and turned a whopping 12.1% of his receptions into touchdowns. For any rookie, that’s an impressive debut. For a 20-year-old entering the season as his team’s No. 3 receiver, it’s sensational.
And it doesn’t even tell the whole story. Smith-Schuster opened the year firmly behind Martavis Bryant in the pecking order, averaging just 44 snaps (63% of team snaps) and 3.4 targets (11% of team targets) over the first seven weeks. All of that turned on its ear in Week 8; Bryant sat out, and Smith-Schuster eviscerated Detroit for 7 receptions, 193 yards, and 1 touchdown. From that point forward, Smith-Schuster's workload increased to 57 snaps (83%) and 7.6 targets (23%). As it stands, based solely on his numbers after midseason, if one could project a boost to just 95 targets, he’d produce 14.97 PPR points per game. For comparison, Adam Thielen finished 10th among fantasy receivers last year with a 14.86 points-per-game average.
Where Smith-Schuster slipped out of that elite class of rookies (though still quite high on the overall list) was in reception volume. Antonio Brown and LeVeon Bell continued to dominate the Steelers passing game, and Bryant opened the year claiming a decent chunk of targets behind them. But again, that shifted at midseason, and Smith-Schuster is now locked into the starting lineup – and the volume that comes with that full-time role.
Since it would be irresponsible to assume last year's astounding efficiency numbers roll over into 2018, shrewd drafters will be focused on successfully projecting Smith-Schuster’s volume outlook.
The (Volume) Numbers Game
How much attention can Smith-Schuster command in Year 2? Let’s bear in mind the following factors:
Bryant, the primary hurdle between Smith-Schuster and a full complement of snaps, has been traded. Bryant’s ouster locks Smith-Schuster into an 85% snap rate or better – and opens up 84 real targets. Beyond Antonio Brown, only raw second-rounder James Washington looms as a threat. Justin Hunter and Darrius Heyward-Bey, the team's fourth and fifth receivers, combined to for 13 targets last year.
Furthermore, Bryant’s Pittsburgh skill set matches Smith-Schuster’s quite nicely. Bryant’s trademark as a Steeler was his big-play capability; over his 32-game Pittsburgh tenure, he averaged a stout 8.5 yards per target and registered 25 grabs of 20+ yards. Smith-Schuster was more explosive, averaging 11.6 yards per target with 12 catches of 20+ yards. He has a higher touchdown ceiling, too. Bryant scored four touchdowns (25%) on 16 targets inside the 10-yard line, while Smith-Schuster scored twice (33%) on six targets from a similar distance. All told, Smith-Schuster has the potential to be more productive than Bryant on a similar workload.
Brown’s 2015-17 target share looks destined to come down. No, Brown isn’t on the verge of slowing down in any way. But typically speaking, his team target rate is exceptionally high every year, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see it scale back gradually – and his age-30 season could be the onset. Over Brown's last 44 full games (spanning three seasons), he has commanded a stunning 30.5% of the team's targets, and 48.5% among the receivers. The 3-year league-wide average for a team’s No. 1 receiver over that span is just a hair above 40%, which shows how rarified Brown’s air has been – and suggests that some degree of regression is coming. Brown is spectacular, but much of that force-feeding is born out of the unreliability of Bryant, Markus Wheaton, and Sammie Coates Jr. It would be foolhardy to bet against Brown compiling a sixth straight 100-catch season, but even sillier to merely pencil in another team-dominating target share that limits his teammates’ ceilings.
What to Expect When You’re Projecting
Smith-Schuster isn’t just a blue-chip prospect – he’s in a blue-chip fantasy situation. He doesn’t project to lose too many targets to James Washington – Smith-Schuster beat the established Bryant 43-32 in targets after that Lions game – or any of the reserve receiver. And while Vance McDonald’s ADP keeps climbing, the Steelers targeted their tight ends just 96 times last year, good for a 16.3% rate that’s well below league average. Smith-Schuster’s production looks quite well-insulated from a tumble, barring injury, suspension, or some other unforeseen fall from grace.
Smith-Schuster probably won’t lead the league (again) in yardage per target, but that’s okay. As we've already detailed, he's more than a deep threat; he's a complete prospect With a full-time starting role, plus size and frame, great hands and the versatility to move from all over the formation, he can remain a fantasy WR2 without last year's unsustainably high per-target averages.
2018 Staff Projections
|Gms||Recs||RecY||RcTD||Rush||RuYd||RuTD||Fm||PPR FanPt||PPR WRFin|
Over at the Footballguys Shark Pool, longtime community face travdogg is relatively bullish on Smith-Schuster's ADP:
"I like Smith-Schuster quite a bit and would take him over the likes of Cooper, Allen Robinson, Brandin Cooks, and Demaryius Thomas. That said, I think it's important to note that he had some amazing per target numbers, so while he'll certainly see more targets, he is highly unlikely to do as much with them. I certainly wouldn't take him over Fitzgerald... I think he sees more targets but has fewer big plays. 70-1000-5 feels like a fair over/under to me."
Though fellow poster menobrown offers a reality check:
"Looking at some of the projections here, if I'd been in a coma for the last few months and just woke up to see this thread, I'd think Brown was not a Steeler anymore. I guess no one else is worried about his knee issue? Could be nothing but it's keeping him out of minicamp, he's saying it's been an issue since college and won't directly answer a question on whether he's had surgery this offseason. I'm at least a little worried that it will impact him, this upcoming season at least. If the knee is OK, though, I'd tend to put him in the ballpark of Justin's and travdogg's numbers."
numberFire's Matt Lo excited about Smith-Schuster's second-year potential:
"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."