Remember when Juju Smith-Schuster‘s bike was stolen during his 2017 rookie season? It seems like just yesterday that his completely sane buddy, Antonio Brown, was appealing to the city of Pittsburgh to return JuJu’s hot set of wheels. What you might not remember is the story of how AB tried to renege on his promised reward of two Steelers tickets to whomever returned the bicycle. The good Samaritan was forced to involve local media in order to claim his bounty:
All the Antonio Brown red flags were right there in front of us! Altercations with coaches, late arrivals to team meetings, stiffing fans out of tickets and farting in doctors’ faces; how did I miss it?! The Steelers knew this guy was a ticking time-bomb, but ignored all the warning signs and even enabled him for nearly a decade for one reason: he was that good. Great players have a way of making everyone around them better, even if their cancerous ass-gas has infected the locker room.
Over the past two seasons JuJu has lost the luxury of two elite talents in his supporting cast—Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell—as well as his veteran starting quarterback for almost the entire 2019 season. So when we saw Smith-Schuster take a huge step back statistically in a year where he himself battled several injuries, naturally there’s plenty of differing opinions regarding what the future holds for the 23 year old wide-out.
When I ranked JuJu #50 overall in my Top 200 Dynasty Rankings for 2020 Fantasy Football some critics cited reason for optimism in a 2019 yards per target number of 7.9, which was only slightly down from his 2018 mark of 8.6. To me this number only further supports the idea that Antonio Brown opened up the field and created the volume opportunity which Smith-Schuster might require to produce fantasy WR1 numbers.
Fact of the matter is, JuJu fell from a whopping 10.3 targets per game in 2018 to 5.8 targets per game in 2019. None of us can say for sure exactly how much of this drop in opportunity was due to injury or quarterback instability. I’m speculating a substantial portion of the decrease can be attributed to the absence of his counterpart, the best receiver in the game, Antonio Brown.
Smith-Schuster will never be the fastest guy on the field; he ran a 4.54 40-yard dash at the combine compared to the wide receiver combine average of 4.48 over the past five years—this average includes schmoes like J’Dinkalage Margoone out of DeVry University. Out of college JuJu was thought of as a big, physical target who would naturally complement a speed threat—think something like Anquan Boldin to prime Larry Fitzgerald. Diontae Johnson just might be able to fill that role, but asking him to draw Antonio Brown type coverage is a bit much.
As for the quarterback situation, Ben Roethleisberger will be 38 years old coming off elbow surgery. Even if he recovers back to 100%, Big Ben will be a free agent after this coming season and he’s been considering retirement since JuJu was in grade school. On the plus side, the Steelers are now aware Mason Rudolph and Duck Hodges aren’t the answer unless they’re going hunting or planning to get bashed over the head with a helmet. At least now Pittsburgh can get the plan B wheels in motion and it’s worth noting that JuJu will also hit free agency in 2021, so there’s no guarantee he’s in black and gold long-term.
All this to say, anyone who’s super confident in their read on Juju Smith-Schuster’s future shouldn’t be trusted. There’s more moving pieces here than a stack of pizzas in front of Eddie Lacy. Could JuJu be a top 10 receiver for the next decade? Absolutely. Could he be a fringe WR2? For sure. And I’ll wager Smith’s Schuster on the latter.