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Fantasy War of Words: JuJu Smith-Schuster (2020 Fantasy Football)

Jun 4, 2020

Welcome to our Fantasy War of Words series, in which two of our analysts go head-to-head via email to defend their rankings position on a notable player ahead of the 2020 fantasy football season. In this edition, Mike Tagliere and Kyle Yates lock horns over their respective rankings of Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster (Tags has him as the WR9 in 1/2 PPR scoring, while Yates has him ranked as the WR21.)

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Mike Tagliere: There are too many people willing to give up on Smith-Schuster after one disappointing season where his quarterbacks consisted of Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges. In Week 1 and Week 2, when Ben Roethlisberger was on the field, Smith-Schuster saw 16 targets, catching 11 of them for 162 yards. Not too shabby. Insert bad quarterbacks, paired with Smith-Schuster trying to run routes from the perimeter, and it was a recipe for disaster. The Steelers have vowed to put him back in the slot where he belongs, and he’s getting back Roethlisberger, who’s continually supported fantasy receivers throughout his long career. Any time I can get a receiver who’s a virtual lock for 140-plus targets, I’m willing to invest a top-30 pick on him.

Kyle Yates: Your big claim with drafting JuJu Smith-Schuster is that he’s going to see 140-plus targets. But are we sure that’s the case? Obviously, him moving back into the slot is going to help his fantasy output, and I will give you that it can only go up from last season with Big Ben back at QB, but I don’t see how he finds 140-plus targets in this offense. The last time we saw Juju be a dominant fantasy force, Antonio Brown was taking away attention from him and he didn’t have another player in this offense that I believe has broken out in Diontae Johnson. Additionally, in 2018 when Juju was a top-tier option for fantasy football, the Steelers threw the ball 689 times! There’s no way that they come close to that number this season with how good that defense is now. I have Juju currently down for 123 targets, which is a 21% target share, and it’s hard to find a way to give him more than that in this offense.

JuJu Smith-Schuster Total Targets

YEAR TARGETS (PER GAME) LEAGUE RANK
2017 79 (5.3) T-69th
2018 166 (10.4) 4th
2019 70 (5.8) 84th
2020* 123 (7.9)

* Kyle Yates’ 2020 projections

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MT: Going all the way back to 2008, Ben Roethlisberger’s top two wide receivers combined for at least 225 targets on eight different occasions, including 334 times when he had Antonio Brown and Smith-Schuster in 2018. Unless you think Diontae Johnson is going to get 100-plus targets, Smith-Schuster is going to get much more than the 123 you’re projecting. I won’t dismiss your claim that Antonio Brown helped Smith-Schuster break out, but part of the fear was that he’d have to move to the perimeter, something we no longer have to worry about. Don’t be so quick to dismiss high pass attempts out of this offense, either. The Steelers (with Roethlisberger) haven’t thrown the ball less than 594 times since 2012, and pass attempts continue to trend upwards in the NFL.

KY: Did you know that Diontae Johnson saw 92 targets last season, while Juju only saw a total of 70?! Granted, Juju only played in 12 games, but Johnson’s not going to go away this time around. If he averaged 5.8 targets per game in 2019, it’s not unreasonable to project him with a slight increase to 6.5 targets per game, which is where I have him at. With that being the case, Johnson finishes with 105 targets on the season, while I have Chase Claypool (who the Steelers invested high draft capital in) only receiving 64 targets. There’s a possibility that he receives even more targets than that, which could take away from both Johnson and Juju. All I’m saying is that I don’t believe it’s a lock for Juju to see 140-plus targets, which is why he falls down my rankings a little bit.

Steelers 2020 Target Projections

PLAYER TARGETS AVERAGE
JuJu Smith-Schuster 123 7.9
Diontae Johnson 105 6.8
Chase Claypool 64 4.1
James Conner 59 3.8

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MT: Yeah, JuJu played just 12 games total, and played less than 40 snaps in two other. It was understood that he was trying to play through injuries, which is what led to them eventually shutting him down for a month. Maybe 140 targets as a lock was a strong take, but there’s clearly an avenue for him to get there, and much more possible than someone like DeAndre Hopkins (who is more talented) in Arizona, who is being drafted almost three rounds ahead of JuJu. If there’s one thing we can agree on from this conversation, it’s that Diontae Johnson is undervalued early-on. I’m not convinced Claypool cracks the starting lineup.

I think he and James Washington battle with each other for the WR3 spot in the lineup, which won’t have any relevance. But here’s the bomb that needs to be dropped: Smith-Schuster posted 1,426 yards in his second NFL season at the age of 22. There are just six players who posted more yardage in one of their first two seasons. The list includes Isaac Bruce, Josh Gordon, Torry Holt, Jerry Rice, Victor Cruz, and Odell Beckham Jr. We can’t pretend Smith-Schuster is anywhere close to average.

KY: I certainly am not trying to insinuate that Juju is an average WR from a talent perspective. I love Juju the player, but it’s difficult to see a true path to top-tier fantasy football relevancy with these other factors. A lot has to go in his favor in order for him to crack the top-12/top-15, in my opinion. It certainly can, and I can look foolish at this time next year, but I’m more willing to look elsewhere when I’m on the clock in that range right now.

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