Why JuJu Smith-Schuster Is The WR1 In Fantasy Football
Earlier in the offseason, we took a look at all the possible candidates to be the top wide receiver in fantasy football. DeAndre Hopkins is the consensus number one after his high-volume 2018 and with Antonio Brown’s departure from Pittsburgh to Oakland. As I have continued to draft teams in leagues such as the FFPC Pros vs Joes and work on our team-level down detailed projections, I have become more staunch in my belief that JuJu Smith-Schuster is the top overall wide receiver in fantasy football and should be drafted accordingly.
Our general philosophy is to maximize Average Draft Position in each draft that you do (especially if you are drafting a large number of teams in contests like the DRAFT Best Ball Championship) so this article is not to suggest that Juju Smith-Schuster should be drafted at 1.06 after the top five running backs have gone off the board. While I don’t think you are making a mathematically incorrect decision by taking Smith-Schuster anywhere in the first round, you would not be allowing yourself a chance to maximize ADP. Smith-Schuster has an Average Draft Position of 15.8 on DRAFT at the moment and is the average 18th selection in Fantasy Pros combined ADP.
One of the edges this year seems to be that the market doesn’t realize the truly absurd season that lies in (potential) wait for Smith-Schuster.
Our median projections have Smith-Schuster with the most fantasy points of any pass-catcher. He, Hopkins, Julio and Michael Thomas are all within 10 projected targets of one another. Our projections have also already accounted for the fact that Pittsburgh is incredibly likely to throw a fewer number of passes this year than they did last season. Smith-Schuster had 166 targets last season and that wasn’t even the most on his own team! The Steelers threw 689 passes last season; we have Roethlisberger scaled down to 584 attempts. Antonio Brown has had target shares of 26.7% and 30.7% the last two seasons; his role is now vacated. Even with Pittsburgh returning to more a league-average pass to run ratio, there is room for Smith-Schuster to match or top his targets from 2018.
Given the unsteady nature of the Pittsburgh offense, it is reasonable to ask where all of those targets are going. We the offense broken down like this:
Juju Smith Schuster: 162.5 targets (27.8%)
Donte Moncrief: 87.05 targets (14.9%)
James Washington: 58 targets (10%)
Vance McDonald: 69.6 targets (11.9%)
James Conner: 75.4% (12.9%)
Jaylen Samuels: 58% (9.9)
Those distributions are off a small bit from the historical norms in Pittsburgh because it used to be clear who the second wide receiver on the team was. This year, it is not yet clear who has firmly won the job between Moncrief and Washington or how the passing targets will shake out between Conner and Samuels. This is the most in-flux Steelers team that there has been during the Tomlin/Roethlisberger era. In 2015, the Steelers threw the ball 584 times with Antonio Brown racking up 193 targets (!!!!) and second-fiddle Martavis Bryant tallying 92; that sort of split is the fuel on the Juju Smith-Schuster fire. 2012 was the last time that the Steelers top wide receiver saw less than 153 targets and in that year, Heath Miller and Mike Wallace combined for 220 of the Steelers 565 targets. Ironically enough, Ben Roethlisberger was unhappy with the way plays were called during that 2012 season and that effectively ushered in the era of Antonio Brown dominating targets. Overall, targets are likely more derivative of talent than simply coaching or play calling (at least at the extreme ends) so the most effective argument in Smith-Schuster’s favor should be about his talent.
Of course, Smith-Schuster has been one of the most productive young players in NFL history. Perhaps the most interesting reasons to value Juju Smith-Schuster as the top wide receiver in fantasy is not the sheer volume of targets (of which almost everyone agrees he will see plenty of) but the efficiency on those targets. At the point in which you are splitting the hairs between Hopkins/Julio/Odell/Smith-Schuster, efficiency is likely going to be what differentiates the players in fantasy football scoring. To this point, Smith-Schuster has been one of the most efficient players, ever.
Since 1992, only six players have averaged 9.5 yards per target or more on 200 more targets during their first and second seasons in the NFL. Those players are Odell Beckham, Randy Moss, Josh Gordon, Torry Holt, Julio Jones and… JuJu Smith-Schuster.
What makes Smith-Schuster so unique is how well he has performed at a young age. One of the biggest things we have learned about projecting football players (particularly wide receivers) is that age matters. The younger a player is able to accumulate league-leading statistics, the better their future prognostication becomes. In NFL history, NO player ever has had over 150 receptions, 2,300 yards, and more than 10 touchdowns before their 23rd birthday other than Smith-Schuster.
So in sitting down to project Smith-Schuster over the course of the 2019 season and beyond, you effectively have a fantasy football unicorn. Smith-Schuster has never missed a game due to injury, playing in all 40 games in his three seasons at USC. He is the youngest player to score an NFL touchdown since 1964. The Steelers just removed a player that commanded over 153 targets for six straight seasons and did so with full knowledge that they had a more efficient, younger player ready to take that volume. If you take anything away from reading this article though, make it be this: “double-teams” are not really a thing in the NFL. Yahoo!’s own Matt Harmon’s Reception Perception data found that true double-teams happen on less than 10% of NFL snaps.
The team itself is already reacting to the change in roles that Smith-Schuster is going to play in 2019 and I am comforted that the team is aware of it. The Athletic’s Mark Kaboly wrote an excellent piece on how the Steelers plan to use JuJu. Kaboly wrote “The Steelers have moved Smith-Schuster all around the formation in an effort to make it more difficult to double team him, if that is ultimately what the opposition chooses to do.” Further more, Big Ben seems to be aligning himself with his new young WR, stating “He is talented enough that he can move all over the place, he’s talented enough to know what he’s supposed to do at every spot. His body type allows us to do that — try to create matchups and get him on linebackers for his speed and little guys for his thickness. He is a very talented receiver who is capable of moving around.”
So here is where we leave it with Juju Smith-Schuster:
-His team vacated the most targeted receiver in the NFL over the last five seasons and even regressing the Steelers back to league average in terms of pass to run ratio, Juju Smith-Schuster still projects to lead the NFL in targets.
-Smith-Schuster will not turn 23 until after Week 11 of the 2019 season and has never suffered a major injury after playing a fully healthy three seasons in college and missing his lone NFL game through a minor suspension. Julio Jones, DeAndre Hopkins, and Odell Beckham have reported serious injuries in their playing career and are least four years older than Smith-Schuster. Davante Adams and Michael Thomas are both four years Smith-Schuster’s senior. It truly feels absurd to consider how young he is relative to his peers at the position.
-Big Ben is ninth all-time in NFL history in yards per attempt and the Steelers have finished top 10 in the NFL in points scored and yards gained each of the last five seasons (even last season while missing the playoffs).
-Smith-Schuster himself is perhaps the most impressively efficient player in the last five years in the NFL. The only two players to match his production totals and yards per reception numbers at such a young age are the greatest wide receiver of all time (Randy Moss) and a player who could have been one of the best we’d ever seen if he had stayed on the field (Josh Gordon).
Considering all of these contextual factors, it is impossible for me to believe anyone else other than Juju Smith-Schuster is the best wide receiver in fantasy football.