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Fantasy Impact: JuJu Smith-Schuster Returns to Steelers (2021 Fantasy Football)

by Zachary Hanshew | @ZaktheMonster | Featured Writer
Mar 19, 2021

The latest free-agent wide receiver has inked a new deal, though it’s probably not what you were expecting. JuJu Smith-Schuster, one of the most high sought-after pass-catchers of the 2021 free-agent class is returning to the Steel City on a one-year, $8M deal. What does his return to Pittsburgh mean for him, for his quarterback, and for Pittsburgh’s other receivers this year and beyond? Let’s find out!

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Competition

Pittsburgh’s receiving corps is one of the best in the league, and the talented youngsters Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool should only get better with another season under their belts. In his second season, Johnson led Pittsburgh in targets (144) and went for 88/923/7, while Claypool went for 62/873/9 on 109 targets as a rookie. JuJu could have signed elsewhere as a team’s top receiver, but by staying in Pittsburgh, he’s ensuring plenty of competition for targets. The good news is that Pittsburgh will likely remain a pass-happy team – one capable of supporting three high-volume targets.

Stable Role

Despite competition from a talented receiving corps, Smith-Schuster should maintain a stable role within Pittsburgh’s offense offers fantasy manager’s a safe floor. He saw 128 targets last season, which he turned into a 97/831/9 receiving line. He enjoyed career bests in touchdowns (9) and catch percentage (75.8) and caught the second-most passes of his career. Fantasy managers would surely like to have seen more than Smith-Schuster’s pitiful 8.6 yards per reception, easily the lowest mark of his career, but those in PPR leagues benefited from a healthy dose of catches.

How stable is his role as a go-to slot receiver? According to Player Profiler, Smith-Schuster’s 711 slot snaps and 629 slot routes were the most in the NFL last season. His average target distance was a mere 5.8 yards, and he saw only six deep targets all year. He also drew 19 targets in the red zone, which was fourth-most in the NFL. What these numbers suggest is that Ben Roethlisberger looked his way on critical third downs and around the goal line. We can likely expect a bump in yards per reception in 2021, but a huge increase likely won’t be the case given his role and surrounding receivers.

Other Steelers

The biggest winner in this deal is Roethlisberger. No doubt about it, Big Ben is better off with JuJu than he is without him, and the veteran signal-caller will have a full arsenal of receivers at his disposal for a potential swan song season. Even more beneficial for Ben is Smith-Schuster operating out of the slot as a security-blanket target for quick dump-offs, chain moving, and red-zone completions.

Now for Johnson and Claypool. Widely regarded as receivers ready to “break out” even further in 2021 (after doing so in 2020) and take the next steps in becoming fantasy royalty, these two will have to share targets with Smith-Schuster once again – a blow to their redraft fantasy values for sure but not for their dynasty values. Both could be great buy-low trade targets from an impatient manager, as JuJu’s deal only guarantees one more season in Pittsburgh. Johnson comfortably led the Steelers in targets a season ago, and he compiled his team-best 144 looks despite drawing only three combined in the Steelers’ third and fourth games of the year. His steady stream of targets provide him safe fantasy value, and Chase Claypool‘s field-stretching, deep-play abilities should keep him in the WR2/3 conversation.

Conclusion

JuJu’s new deal with Pittsburgh is a bit disappointing for Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool managers for the upcoming season, but there is room for all three to thrive in a Pittsburgh offense that led the league in pass attempts in 2020 and looks poised to do so again in 2021 with a diminished run game. All three receivers have their own unique roles in the Steelers’ offense, so worries of cannibalizing targets and touchdowns aren’t as dramatic as they may seem. Ben Roethlisberger gets his same receiving corps back for 2021, and he’s surely excited that JuJu is back. I expect Smith-Schuster to continue soaking up short receptions out of the slot and finding his way into the endzone, making him a WR2 for the 2021 season based on volume alone.

Way-Too-Early 2021 Projection: 95 receptions, 967 yards, 8 TDs

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Zachary Hanshew is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Zachary, check out his archive and follow him @zakthemonster.