After two down back-to-back seasons, JuJu Smith-Schuster’s market was more tepid than he probably expected. He’s back with the Steelers on a one-year, $8 million deal and got a nice $7M signing bonus for re-upping. Apparently, JuJu turned down slightly better offers from Kansas City and Baltimore for one last ride with Ben Roethlisberger.
Still only 25 years old, JuJu can cash in on a big pay day in 2021 when he becomes a free agent again. And I get why he wants to stay in Pittsburgh. The Ravens are the most run-heavy team in the league and he probably wouldn’t have had a chance to put up big numbers before he tests the market again. And had he gone to the Chiefs, he certainly would have been the third option at best behind Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill. Turning down Patrick Mahomes probably wasn’t easy, but continuity does matter and JuJu knows exactly what role he’ll have with the Steelers.
JuJu dealt with a slew of injuries and bottom-3 QB play in 2019 when Roethlisberger got hurt and he was essentially reduced to a short-area receiver who was just an extension of the Steelers run game last season. Pittsburgh couldn’t run the ball with any semblance of consistency last year, so they just funneled JuJu a bunch of shallow targets to make up for it.
Want to know why he only turned his 125 targets into 831 yards last season? JuJu’s 6.0-yard average depth of target ranked dead last out of 77 qualifying receivers. Teammate Diontae Johnson wasn’t too far behind, either. His aDOT (8.5 yards) was 63rd.
While Chase Claypool (13.8 aDOT) and James Washington (13.1) were the deep threats, JuJu was just stuck in the slot and really didn’t run many vertical routes at all. In fact, 81 of JuJu’s 97 receptions came when he lined up in the slot. That led all receivers.
When Smith-Schuster posted his monster 111/1,426/7 season in 2018, he still ran the majority of his routes from the slot. Per PFF, JuJu lined up in the slot on 62% of his routes that season. In 2020, he was inside 85% of the time. That’s definitely an uptick in slot usage, but it’s not ridiculous. The difference came down to the type of targets he’s getting.
JuJu’s downfield targets trended down in 2020
|Season||% of targets that were 10+ yards downfield|
(Data from SIS).
Looking deeper, it’s apparent that the Steelers really limited JuJu’s route tree last year. According to SIS, Smith-Schuster saw just 9 targets total on Post, Go, or Deep Crossers in 2020. Those routes are typically deep downfield and were a part of the reason why he busted out for the WR8 finish in 2018. In that season, Smith-Schuster saw nearly three times as many targets on those deeper Post/Go/Crosser routes (24 total) than he did last year.
If JuJu is going to return back to his previous fantasy WR1 status, he’s going to have to get more action downfield. And with Roethlisberger entering his age-39 season, I’m not betting on a resurgence for JuJu. He’ll kick back into the slot and continue to hoover shallow targets, but it’s going to take dominating performances after the catch for him to really hit his ceiling.
Really, JuJu’s return just impacts both Claypool and Johnson’s ability to bust out in 2021. I think Johnson (WR22 in early ADP) and Claypool (WR28) were slightly underpriced to begin with and JuJu coming back for one more year should only keep their prices palatable, especially for Diontae. In the 14 full games that he played and did not leave early for an injury, Johnson averaged 11.2 targets and put up 17.4 fantasy points per game. That 17.4 FPG would have made him the WR7, tied with A.J. Brown.
The Steelers desperately need to go after offensive line help in the draft and try to get some semblance of a run game going. You pass to win in this league but at Big Ben’s age, I’m not sure the Steelers can just go back to chucking it non-stop again. Their offense was so predictable over the back half of the season and defenses just keyed in on it.
With their clearly defined roles, I’ll have Johnson and Claypool ranked closely as my preferred Steelers wideouts to target in drafts, with JuJu coming in as a distant third.