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Is JuJu Smith-Schuster Still a WR1?


In the last 10 seasons, only one man has been able to finish with more than 300 PPR points in fantasy leagues while playing wide receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers: Antonio Brown. The misunderstood and now much-maligned wideout did it six times from 2013 to 2018 without failing at it, getting between 307.3 points and 388.2 in every one of those seasons.

Sharing the field with Brown, then-sophomore JuJu Smith-Schuster had the season in 2018. When playing as the WR2 of the Steelers he racked up all of 296.9 PPR points, falling just three fantasy points short of the 300-mark. The expectations were super high for his 2019 season, but with Ben Roethlisberger getting injured, he could never live up to his WR1 role and fantasy expectations, finishing with just 113.2 PPR points in 12 games.

We're now five games into 2020 and JuJu, once more, got to the season with overly high expectations attached to his name--and with Big Ben back at manning the pocket. Smith-Schuster's ADP of 35.3 overall (drafted as early as the 21st player off the board) clearly had him as a WR1 entering 2020. At this point, though, he's just the WR31 and far from a WR2, let alone a WR1. So, what's the deal with JuJu? And more importantly, can he be trusted as a bonafide WR1 going forward? Let's explore.

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What's a WR1, really?

The first thing I wanted (and feel the need of doing) to address is to define what we consider a WR1. I'm working with PPR-format, 12-team leagues data. In those competitions, starting in 2010 and up to 2019, here is how the WR1-3 groups have finished the season in terms of fantasy scoring:

On average, a WR1 has averaged 283.5 PPR over the season and 18.1 PPG, a WR2 14.4, and a WR3 12.1. Currently, through Week 5 of the 2020 season, the averages are at 18.9 for WR1 (+0.8 over the past decade average), 15.7 for WR2 (+1.3), and 12.3 for WR3 (+0.2). Makes sense, considering we're only past the first third of the season and those averages will probably come down a bit showing a regression toward those 10-year averages.

Considering those values, JuJu Smith-Schuster's current 59.8 PPR and 15.0 PPG would make him a borderline, low-end WR1 over the past decade on a per-game basis, and a high-end WR2 in 2020.

The numbers align with the reality of the Steelers roster production so far this season: Chase Claypool is putting up 17.4 PPG to JuJu 15.0, which makes Chase the WR1 in raw production for Pittsburgh followed by WR2 JuJu.

 

What's Going On With JuJu's Season?

After a good rookie season (WR20, 14.1 PPG) and the explosion he had as a second-year player (WR8, 18.6 PPG), all pointed to an established WR1 coming in 2019. Far from it.

JuJu's third year as a pro finished with him playing for middling, reserve quarterbacks. JuJu was also limited to just 12 games due to injuries and finished a putrid WR65 averaging a measly 9.4 PPG... With Big Ben slated to return this season, he could only get better, right? Wrong.

Here are JuJu's game results through Week 5 of the 2020 season:

Nothing beautiful about them except that Week 1 monster performance, which was a fluky, near-perfect, and hard-to-replicate 6-69-2 game in which JuJu excelled and had everything going his way.

After that, three underwhelming outings to the level of a WR3 are everything JuJu has been able to do in the past four weeks (Pittsburgh couldn't play its W4 game due to COVID-reasons leaving the Titans out of contention), touching a worrying floor this past weekend when he couldn't even reach seven PPR points (four receptions on five targets, 28 receiving yards).

 

JuJu's Numbers In Pittsburgh's Context

With great power comes great responsibility, they say. That was always going to be JuJu's fate as soon as Brown exited the team a couple of years ago. Through five weeks of play, JuJu's usage has hardly been low in the context of Pittsburgh, so that has nothing to do with his role as a WR1, which he has been so far for the Steelers.

JuJu has played the largest number of snaps among Steelers skill-position players and has the largest Snap% with over a seven percentage-point distance with TE Eric Ebron. No other player has even played 60% of the team snaps.

The same has been true when it has come to actual opportunities. Only Diontae Johnson (26) has more targets than JuJu in 2020 (24), who leads Chase Claypool and Eric Ebron (20) in that department. Smith-Schuster also has the highest amount of catches among Steelers with 21 receptions to Johnson's 15 as the second-best receiver. Only Claypool (four), after a monster W5 game, has more TDs than Smith-Schuster, who has three on the season.

What's wrong with JuJu, then?

 

Digging Deeper Into Usage

In order to get a better picture of Smith-Schuster's 2020 year, and why even on seemingly high usage and productive level of play he's struggling to get into the realm of top-tier WRs, I went to study some play-by-play data. The chart below includes Pittsburgh's top-four WR/TEs and how they've been used and fared in the passing game:

There is a lot of stuff going on there. Let's break it down a bit so it's easier to digest:

  • JuJu, along with Diontae Johnson, has mostly been used in short-to-mid pass areas (0-9 yards downfield). He has been targeted 16 times in that 10-yard span, with just one true deep pass thrown his way (he didn't catch it).
  • JuJu, though playing mostly off the slot, has yet to be targeted in the middle zone of the field at 10+ yards of distance, and he's the only Steelers pass-catcher lacking targets in three areas by distance/direction (Ebron is the only other player without a targeted area--deep right).
  • JuJu's catch rate of 87.5% is by far the best of all four players included in the chart above. In fact, he's only missed on catching one short/mid pass and his two other non-completions all went for 10+ yards.
  • Digging even deeper, we see how the two long passes he missed (right-side of the field, downfield) had Expected Completion Percentages below 50% (35%, and 46%), so it is not that those were going to be easy completions anyways.

Most of the problems of JuJu's fantasy production, though, can be spotted looking at the field-breakdown that is in the middle of the chart (third column: Avg. rePPR):

  • JuJu is generating the second-most PPR points of Pittsburgh on that 0-to-9 area, behind TE Eric Ebron.
  • JuJu's downfield production looks great at 5.2 PPR in 10-to-20+ yards passes, but he's only been targeted four times there. Johnson, on the other hand, is generating 9.4 PPR there while being targeted a lot more in those deep spots.
  • Chase Claypool has been a beast of his own in deep routes and targets, mostly thanks to his W5 historic performance.
  • Given how production is being shared between all Pittsburgh players, and although JuJu has caught passes all around the field (and then some), he's far from the most used player of the team in mid- (Ebron and Johnson) and deep-routes (Claypool and Johnson). Those passes, if completed, hand the highest fantasy-points per play in comparison to short ones (in the 0-to-9 yards clip)
  • JuJu's is making his damage in places and depth were the fantasy upside is quite limited, having to go for extra yards after the catch himself in order to really rack up high fantasy tallies.

 

Higher Role, Tougher Competition

Another important point to have in consideration when looking at JuJu's production is the fact that, as the supposed WR1 of his team (at least on paper), opponents are (almost) always going to throw their best cornerbacks toward him week after week, forcing JuJu's into the hardest of coverages to beat on a game basis.

The good thing for JuJu, though, is that he's Pittsburgh's slot receiver both left and right to the ball and rarely does he lineup on the outside. He has 178 snaps in the slot (78%) compared to just 46 outside (20%). Looking at PFF Grades over the 2020 season, only five slot-corners rank inside the top-25 at the position this year, which bodes well for slot receivers like JuJu.

Per PlayerProfiler.com, these have been JuJu's game logs this season, including the cornerback tasked with covering him for the largest number of snaps in each of those matches.

Let's look at each of those individually, just to know a little bit more about them and how they could have impacted JuJu's upside:

  • Darnay Holmes is a rookie, and his first assignment in the NFL was JuJu (not good for the Giant). So far through five weeks of play, Holmes has 13 tackles but just two passes defended. It was going to be a cupcake of a matchup for Smith-Schuster, and it was indeed his best game of the season catching every target and scoring two touchdowns.
  • Essang Bassey is also a freshman this season, and once more he couldn't do anything to stop JuJu, who finished with 7-of-8 caught targets, only missing on a red-zone one. But this marked the first letdown in JuJu's season, and it came when covered by a low-end CB like Bassey (45.7 PFF Grade, 71st among CBs). Bad outlook.
  • Eric Murray is the best corner JuJu has faced up to Week 5. Murray is the 22nd-best CB per PFF Grades, and one of only five slot-corners inside the overall cornerback rankings. JuJu improved his W2 score, but could only catch four passes for 43 yards. He scored a touchdown, though, so I'm not sure this could be labeled as a dud given the production and competition.
  • Nickell Robey-Coleman, although having dropped from seasons prior in PFF Grade (61st-best CB this year), is still a stud slot-corner and he limited JuJu to his worst outcome of the season at just 6.8 PPR points on 4-of-5 receptions.

Even playing at the slot position--which means avoiding top-dog CBs in most cases--JuJu has only been able to truly take advantage of one cover-man in his four games (he was a rookie making his NFL debut) while having another relatively good game against stud Eric Murray in Week 3.

 

Will JuJu Produce At WR1-Level Going Forward? The Verdict

The equation we all want to solve, am I right? And the answer is totally in Pittsburgh's hands, folks.

Why? Because JuJu Smith-Schuster is producing as a WR1, while used as a WR2--at best.

Sometimes in fantasy football, keeping things and analysis simple is the best way to go. And that is just looking at a couple of things related to the five weeks of play already in the books and how JuJu has done in them... only in a couple of simple metrics. That is all we need to have a good idea of what has gone wrong with him.

I'm going to use two numbers here: Expected Points, and Fantasy Points Over Expectation. Here is a plot including every receiver with at least four games played and 20 targets on the 2020 season. JuJu is highlighted in yellow.

As you see, not many receivers have been put in such a position as JuJu in terms of expected points through Week 5. JuJu's EP (39.3) over that span rank 49th among the 70 qualified WRs. His FPOE (20.5), on the other hand, are 11th in that same period. Do you see what's happening here?

We have gone through a lot of stuff in the sections above, and we already knew that JuJu has looked pretty good at catching every ball thrown his way, that he's used mostly in short-pass plays leaving most of the work to him to do after the catch, and that he's been really efficient through five weeks both against bad and good corners.

Looking at EP/FPOE, we can confirm our early takeaways. It is not that JuJu isn't playing as a WR1, it is that Pittsburgh is not putting him in a position where he can rack up WR1 fantasy points. As simple as that.

Here is the chart above, now showing the EP/FPOE per target instead of the raw number over the season (min. 4 games played, 20 targets).

That, my friends, is precisely how you don't use a WR1. Check the names of the players highlighted in the chart. Chase Claypool and Justin Jefferson have had one and two explosive games respectively that have their FPOE marks above the sky. Other than them, only D.K. Metcalf and D.J. Chark are being used as a WR1 and producing at incredible levels of efficiency.

JuJu, while the fifth-most efficient player on a FPOE/TGT basis, is just not used how he should given his dominant production.

While no one is here to argue about Diontae Johnson's viability as the Steelers no. 1 receiver (he very well can play that role), the truth is that JuJu has absolutely overperformed Johnson so far. JuJu is posting up 0.85 more FP/TGT than expected, while Johnson is at -0.17 through Week 5.

All of this gets magnified by JuJu's own work on the field with his impressive yardage after the catch, which makes his "low" usage even more puzzling.

JuJu has the second-highest YAC% among receivers with 20+ targets in at least four games combined. In virtually two of each three catches, he's racking up more yards after the catch than through the air. Imagine if he could add that yardage to longer, downfield completions.

Pittsburgh has a WR1 one in its roster, yet the Steelers are using him in places, situations, and roles akin to those of Larry Fitzgerald, Golden Tate, or Curtis Samuel.

JuJu is the real deal, but Smith-Schuster is just limited in what he can do on the field as far as his usage goes. It's time to #FreeJuJu, and let him pair his own exploits (look at his 10th-best FPOE, and his RACR-rank--Receiver Air Conversion Ratio: how many receiving yards a player creates for every air yard thrown at him--in the figure below, which is the third-best in the NFL) with a better placement of passes prone to generate more fantasy points per target (instead of that putrid 54th rank in EP through W5...).

Conclusion: Consider JuJu a WR1 even if his total FP aren't still there, full stop, and hope he and Pittsburgh can find a common way to benefit from each other and unleash his true upside as we get deeper into the season. Everything is there for the Steelers to exploit, and it's only a matter of time Big Ben comes to his senses, Mike Tomlin schemes more long-ball throws to JuJu and Smith-Schusters amps up his fantasy points for the GMs rostering him.

If you can buy low on JuJu in a trade, go for it. Pittsburgh is already past its bye week and faces the second, eighth, and third-worst defenses against wide receivers (in fantasy points allowed to the position) in three of the next four weeks, and two of those teams (Dallas and Tennessee) have slot-corners ranked among the 16-worst so far this season (Tennesse's Chris Jackson is the absolute worst CB in 2020 through W5, no matter the alignment).

It just can't go wrong.



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Slow Starters Ready to Break Out in Fantasy?

We are now more than a third of the way into the fantasy football season and a seemingly clearer picture is available across the landscape. After a pandemic-shortened offseason and lack of preseason exposure, there were plenty of worries headed into the first month specifically. Thus far, one of the most prevalent topics with regards... Read More


Fantasy Football Warning Signals for Week 7

The warning signals get brighter by the week since we have more data to work from. The larger the sample size the easier it is for us to connect the dots from the latest trends. Football is a game of small samples and many variables, making it one of the hardest sports to predict. How... Read More


How to Value Clyde Edwards-Helaire with Le'Veon Bell in KC

Clyde Edwards-Helaire or Jonathan Taylor? Coming into the season this was the biggest question for fantasy GMs, both dynasty managers who were thinking long-term and redraft managers who wanted to know who would be better for this season. There were many different theories and believe me when I say, both sides thought they were 100%... Read More


NextGen Stats - Quarterback Breakdowns and Takeaways

It's been a month since the last time we took a look at our beloved quarterbacks. Numbers are numbers, and numbers don't lie. You can twist them, but looking at them objectively, numbers say that no matter what, rushing the ball is almost always a worse option than passing it in today's game. That's why... Read More


Fantasy Football Risers and Fallers - Week 7

Whether due to their own play, the play of others, or injuries, players' stock increases and decreases on a weekly basis. Perhaps more than any other, the NFL is a league that experiences ups and downs at a rapid pace. With only 16 games, there’s little room for error and seemingly endless opportunities for improvement.... Read More


Coaching Matters: Offenses That Will Improve From Week 6

This series continues into its sixth week of where I dive into offensive areas that will improve or decline based on coaching in order to glean insight as to fantasy football value. In Week 6, we saw performances such as Ryan Tannehill throwing for 364 passing yards, the Houston Texans running backs combining for 66 rushing yards, and the New... Read More


Tape Tells All: D'Andre Swift's Week 6 Performance

Welcome to another edition of Tape Tells All. I've been thinking of rebranding as just TAPE. All-Caps like that. Probably wouldn't be a good idea for SEO purposes, right? Anyways, this week we'll be discussing Detroit Lions rookie running back D'Andre Swift. Swift set a lot of career highs this week, with bests in carries... Read More


Week 7 Waiver Wire Pickups & Adds

Week 6 was like the 2020 of fantasy football weeks. All those great matchups meant nothing, those studs let you down, and your bench likely went crazy. The good news is that we didn't have any season-ending injuries to running backs or games canceled due to COVID, so in retrospect maybe we shouldn't complain. The... Read More


FAB Bidding - Week 7 Waiver Wire Targets

Whether it's injuries, bye-week blues, or simply poor performance, we've got the waiver-wire cure...but it just might cost you! Alongside our famous waiver wire pickups list and our weekly waiver wire columns by position, this column focuses on suggested waiver wire bidding percentages for fantasy football owners in leagues using a Free Agent Budget (FAB). In... Read More


Waiver Wire Express - Week 7 Lightning Round

Week 6 was relatively healthy and had no coronavirus delays, so let's just take a moment to bask in that. That said, we still saw Miles Sanders (knee) and Zach Ertz (ankle) go down, while Mark Ingram (ankle) has a bye to get healthy. Week 7 byes are Baltimore, Indianapolis, Miami, and Minnesota. Let's get... Read More


Running Back Waiver Wire Pickups - Week 7

Fantasy GMs are to be commended for rising to the unique challenges that have unfolded during this regular season. Injuries to critical players is an unwelcome reality that occurs every year. This is also the case for backs that were expected to operate as RB1s, but have been relegated to committees. However, this season has... Read More


Wide Receiver Waiver Wire Pickups - Week 7

Six weeks of NFL football are behind us, aside from a pair of Monday games, including a late afternoon game between the Bills and the Chiefs. In terms of wide receiver production this week, we didn't have the huge breakouts like we had in Week 5. Chase Claypool didn't score four touchdowns. In fact, only... Read More


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Dissecting Contact Quality In Search Of Fantasy Bargains

Of the 1,015 hitters sampled(1) between 2015 and 2019, there were only 14 instances of hitters making more productive contact against pitches outside of the strike zone than against pitches inside of the strike zone based on xwOBAcon. Based on the same sample, the average hitter was a whopping .116 points better against pitches inside... Read More


Daily MLB Injury Roundup for October 23rd, 2020

RotoBaller has assembled a list of daily MLB injury updates to help you prepare both your seasonal and daily fantasy baseball (DFS) lineups, every day of the MLB season. Below is our updated list of injured MLB players for October 23rd, 2020. Only players on teams that are scheduled to play today will appear below... Read More


Lineup Order Risers and Fallers: AL West 2020 Review

It’s the offseason and there are about to be a bunch of moving parts. This allows for speculation in terms of players gaining or losing playing time, moving up or down a batting order and much more. The idea here is to highlight some lineup situations for each team and some potential winners or losers... Read More


2021 1st & 2nd Year Players with James Anderson - Benched with Bubba (Episode 317)

Bubba (@bdentrek) is joined by James Anderson (@RealJRAnderson) on episode 317. The guys will go over 30+ first and second-year players. They will discuss their current ADP's in the 2 Early Mocks, what to expect of the players in 2021, and much more. They also go over some listener questions, compare Juan Soto to Mike... Read More


Daily MLB Injury Roundup for October 21st, 2020

RotoBaller has assembled a list of daily MLB injury updates to help you prepare both your seasonal and daily fantasy baseball (DFS) lineups, every day of the MLB season. Below is our updated list of injured MLB players for October 21st, 2020. Only players on teams that are scheduled to play today will appear below... Read More


Daily MLB Injury Roundup for October 20th, 2020

RotoBaller has assembled a list of daily MLB injury updates to help you prepare both your seasonal and daily fantasy baseball (DFS) lineups, every day of the MLB season. Below is our updated list of injured MLB players for October 20th, 2020. Only players on teams that are scheduled to play today will appear below... Read More


Bubba and Bat Flip 54: 2 Early Mocks APD Player Debates - Benched with Bubba (Episode 316)

Bubba (@bdentrek) is joined by Bat Flip Crazy (@BatFlipCrazy) to take a deeper look at the 2 Early Mocks ADP. They go over some of the positions and look at players with similar ADPs and debate. Going around the diamond discussing some players people are high on and some they are down on with a... Read More


Daily MLB Injury Roundup for October 18th, 2020

RotoBaller has assembled a list of daily MLB injury updates to help you prepare both your seasonal and daily fantasy baseball (DFS) lineups, every day of the MLB season. Below is our updated list of injured MLB players for October 18th, 2020. Only players on teams that are scheduled to play today will appear below... Read More


Daily MLB Injury Roundup for October 17th, 2020

RotoBaller has assembled a list of daily MLB injury updates to help you prepare both your seasonal and daily fantasy baseball (DFS) lineups, every day of the MLB season. Below is our updated list of injured MLB players for October 17th, 2020. Only players on teams that are scheduled to play today will appear below... Read More


2021 Early Mock ADP Values & Reaches: WPC+ Videocast

Pierre Camus and Nicklaus Gaut prepare for the 2021 fantasy baseball season with a look at early mock draft results from the RotoBaller Expert mock. Like and subscribe to the RotoBaller channel on Youtube to get all our latest podcasts and catch us on iTunes and BlogTalkRadio as well! Be sure to also tune into RotoBaller... Read More


Statcast Season Review: 2020 Barrel Leaders (Hitters)

The 2020 MLB season will always be one for the record books, even if everything that took place will have multiple asterisks attached to it. Evaluating Statcast numbers is a nice way to find hot and cold hitters, as well as underachievers and overachievers. Now that the regular season is over, let's reflect on the... Read More


Daily MLB Injury Roundup for October 16th, 2020

RotoBaller has assembled a list of daily MLB injury updates to help you prepare both your seasonal and daily fantasy baseball (DFS) lineups, every day of the MLB season. Below is our updated list of injured MLB players for October 16th, 2020. Only players on teams that are scheduled to play today will appear below... Read More


Daily MLB Injury Roundup for October 15th, 2020

RotoBaller has assembled a list of daily MLB injury updates to help you prepare both your seasonal and daily fantasy baseball (DFS) lineups, every day of the MLB season. Below is our updated list of injured MLB players for October 15th, 2020. Only players on teams that are scheduled to play today will appear below... Read More


Daily MLB Injury Roundup for October 14th, 2020

RotoBaller has assembled a list of daily MLB injury updates to help you prepare both your seasonal and daily fantasy baseball (DFS) lineups, every day of the MLB season. Below is our updated list of injured MLB players for October 14th, 2020. Only players on teams that are scheduled to play today will appear below... Read More


Bubba and Bat Flip 53: 2 Early Mocks APD Trends & More - Benched with Bubba (Episode 315)

Bubba (@bdentrek) is joined by Bat Flip Crazy (@BatFlipCrazy) to take a deeper look at the 2 Early Mocks ADP. They dig into trends, some interesting risers/fallers, and much more. They also go over some listener questions at the end to keep the Fantasy Baseball information coming even in the offseason. Be sure to subscribe... Read More