After a down 2019 season marred by poor quarterback play and his own injuries, JuJu Smith-Schuster looked to come into the 2020 season with a strong start. He would do just that in Week 1 against the New York Giants. Now the question that lingers is if he can sustain this type of performance in fantasy football over the course of the season. We’ll take a deeper dive.
JuJu Smith-Schuster had a disappointing 2019 fantasy season
In his first season without Antonio Brown as his partner-in-crime on the field, expectations were high for Smith-Schuster to ascend into the echelon of great wide receivers in the league. We were able to see a good glimpse of his potential in 2018 when he had 111 receptions, 1,426 yards, and seven receiving touchdowns. His Consistency Score in 2018 was 7.82, good for ninth among all wide receivers while he had the fourth-highest expected fantasy points (296.9) total amongst wide receivers as well.
Entering 2019, Brown had been traded and Smith-Schuster was expected to take over as the clear-cut number one WR for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Unfortunately, between quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s early season-ending elbow injury and Smith-Schuster’s own issues with injuries, that never came to fruition.
Before Roethlisberger went down for the season with an injury, Smith-Schuster was off to another strong start in 2019. Over the first two weeks of the season, JuJu had at least five receptions and 78 receiving yards. After that, he began to see a dip in his numbers. To make matters worse, Smith-Schuster dealt with a mix of injuries that forced him to miss four games last season and limited him throughout the season.
A key factor in Smith-Schuster’s disappointing 2019 fantasy season was the clear downgrade in quarterback play once Roethlisberger went out. The combination of Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges under center provided some of the worst QB play in the entire league last season. In the 14 games that Hodges/Rudolph started at QB, they combined for 2,828 passing yards (202 yards per game) and 18 passing touchdowns to 17 interceptions. In comparison, Roethlisberger threw for 5,129 yards (320 yards per game), 34 touchdowns, and 16 touchdowns in 2018.
Smith-Schuster finished third on the Steelers in receptions (42) and receiving yards (552) behind James Washington and Diontae Johnson. He also had a consistency score of 2.49, which was 57th amongst wide receivers. His expected fantasy point total was 113.2, good for 51st.
With Roethlisberger back under center, expectations for a bounce-back season for the Steelers offense are high. Not only was Smith-Schuster joined by Johnson and Washington as the primary wide receivers in 2020, but the team also drafted Chase Claypool in the second round of the 2020 NFL Draft. So while things were looking up for Smith-Schuster, he still had a fight ahead of him for his share of snaps and targets as well.
JuJu Smith-Schuster had a strong Week 1 fantasy performance
The season opener for the Steelers presented them with a terrific “get-right” spot against the Giants, who possess one of the worst defenses in the league. While it may not have been an “offensive explosion” with a score of 26-16 on Monday night, the Steelers came out victorious and already showed a large difference in performance on offense.
More importantly, Roethlisberger looked to be back to his 2018 form despite this being his age-38 season and coming off major surgery to his throwing elbow. Roethlisberger threw for 229 yards, three touchdowns, and zero interceptions. Two of those touchdown passes were to Smith-Schuster.
Smith-Schuster finished the night with six receptions for 69 yards and two touchdowns. He caught all six of his targets, which was second-most on the Steelers. Not only did Roethlisberger look healthy, but so did Smith-Schuster. Despite the increased competition for targets with Washington, Johnson, Claypool, and even new tight Eric Ebron, it was clear that Smith-Schuster is still one of Roethlisberger’s go-to targets in the passing game.
While all of the other wide receivers represent their own strengths and weaknesses, Smith-Schuster has flashed elite-level talent in the past and is only 23 years old. His ceiling is as high as some of the best wide receivers in the league, and we were reminded of that this past Monday night. That was especially true in the red-zone, where he was able to convert both of his targets into touchdowns. On top of that, Smith-Schuster had the third-highest fantasy point differential amongst wide receivers in Week 1 (142%).
Plus, with the injury to running back James Conner, the Steelers may have to rely upon their passing game even more moving forward. This wouldn’t be new for the team as they led the league with a 66.6/33.4 pass to run ratio in 2018, which was the highest in the league.
Roethlisberger only had three games in 2018 where he threw less than 32 passing attempts while having nine games with at least 40 attempts. It’s fair to say that Roethlisberger may not be expected to attempt 675 passes in 2020 as he did in 2018. However, if he can continue to show that he is fully healed from his elbow injury, it would not be surprising to see him throw a lot. This goes in mind with the fact that they will face tougher competition throughout the season.
Can he keep it up throughout the season?
As mentioned above, we can expect to see Pittsburgh throw the ball more as they face tougher competition as the season progresses. With that comes more targets towards Smith-Schuster, who saw the fourth-most targets (171) in the league back in 2018. That was also with Brown still on the Steelers, who finished with the fifth-most targets that year (165). Now that Roethlisberger is back and healthy, Smith-Schuster will still contend for targets but under the very clear expectation that he is the team’s number one wide receiver.
Johnson saw 10 targets in Week 1, which led all Steelers players. He is expected to be Smith-Schuster’s biggest competitor for targets. Even if that is the case, Johnson is nowhere near the level of talent that Brown was. He shouldn’t be expected to see double-digit targets every week. Smith-Schuster, on the other hand, can expect his target levels to increase after seeing double-digit targets in 10 of 16 games in 2018.
The Steelers have some tough matchups coming up against the Houston Texans, Tennessee Titans, Philadelphia Eagles, and Baltimore Ravens, in four of their next five games. Each of these opponents represent a different mix of potential high-scoring offenses and strong defenses/secondaries. With these types of opponents though, it should force the Steelers towards more of a passing game-script. These types of games will only benefit Smith-Schuster’s cause as we progress through the season.
Is Smith-Schuster expected to have two touchdowns receptions every week? No, but he can absolutely be a weekly double-digit target threat. He’ll also have the luxury of other talented wide receivers taking attention away from him and avoid constant double-teams/attention from opposing safeties as often.
He will remain one of the team’s top red-zone targets as well. If this past Monday’s performance is any indication of how they’ll do, Pittsburgh looks primed to once again be a well-oiled machine on offense and in the passing game. Smith-Schuster also looks to be the one leading the charge for the team this time around. He’s capable of great things, and he looks well on his way to achieving them and more.
Doug Moore is a fantasy football writer for Pro Football Network. Follow him on Twitter at @DMooreNFL.