Analysis: A fair Year 3 goal (line) for JuJu


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JuJu Smith-Schuster. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

There has long been a theory in NFL fantasy football circles that year three for wide receivers is a magical one, when things finally come together and their talent matches up with their knowledge of the game.

It obviously doesn't go that way for every receiver. But typically if a receiver has a breakout year, it comes in that third season.

JuJu Smith-Schuster obviously is ahead of schedule.

His breakout year came in just his second season and at age 21 -- at least for most of the season. And he did it while sharing time with Antonio Brown.

Now, with Brown to the Raiders, Smith-Schuster will be a true No. 1 receiver at the ripe young age of 22. Sure, he'll get more attention from opposing teams. But he'll also get more targets from Ben Roethlisberger, as well.

Considering he's coming off a season in which he caught 111 passes for 1,426 yards and seven touchdowns, what might this season look like for Smith-Schuster?

"You know what you’re going to get in JuJu," Roethlisberger said early in OTAs this year when talking about his new No. 1 wideout.

But do we really know how Smith-Schuster will adjust to being the center of attention for opposing defenses? He readily admitted last season he benefitted from the extra attention opposing teams gave Brown. It wasn't until about midway through the 2018 season that opponents began shifting their attention to stopping the Steelers' second-year receiver, as well.

Smith-Schuster can expect that added attention from the first snap of the season in 2019.

"We’re not centering off of one person because, you know, everybody can make their plays: Tight ends, running backs, receivers," Smith-Schuster said.

He might not feel that way. But opposing teams certainly will.

From 2013 through last season, Brown averaged 171 targets per year as the Steelers' top receiving threat. That worked out to 11.15 targets per game.

And he typically made them count for big catch and yardage numbers. In that time period, Brown averaged 114 receptions for 1,524 yards and 11 touchdowns. It's the best six-year period for any receiver in NFL history.

Smith-Schuster got 166 targets last season, just two fewer than Brown -- though Brown played in one fewer game. Brown's targets ranked third in 2018, while Smith-Schuster was fourth. Julio Jones of the Falcons led the league with 170 targets, while the Packers' Davante Adams was second with 169.

In his season in which he set the NFL receptions record with 143 in 2002, the Colts' Marvin Harrison got 205 targets. But he also had Reggie Wayne playing opposite him. Brown's career-high with the Steelers was 193 in 2015, when he caught 136 passes, the second most in a single season in NFL history.

So it's highly unlikely Smith-Schuster will get substantially more passes thrown his way than the 166 he got last season.

Smith-Schuster has caught 69 percent of the 245 targets he has received in his first two NFL seasons. That's obviously a nice percentage — if he matches that in 2019, it could set him up for another big season.

Of course, once again, many of those targets and completions came working against single coverage. Now, he'll be forced to deal with additional attention, which could cause that completion percentage to fall.

After all, Brown has seen his catch percentage fall each year since 2014, when he set a career high by pulling in 71.3 percent of the passes thrown his way, to 61.9 percent last season.

Smith-Schuster also has just seven touchdowns in each of his first two seasons, giving him 14 for his career. Brown had 15 touchdown catches in 2018 alone.

And it's not like he wasn't targeted in the red zone. In fact, his 29 red-zone targets in 2018 were second only to Adams, who got 31.

The difference? Adams scored 12 touchdowns on his 31 targets inside the 20. Smith-Schuster scored five. Brown, meanwhile, had six touchdown catches on 24 passes thrown his way inside the 20.

What does all of this mean for Smith-Schuster?

He should once again get somewhere in the neighborhood of 170 passes thrown his way, if he plays all 16 games. And if that happens, he should produce right around 114 receptions for 1,584 yards based on the 13.9 yards per catch he's averaged in his first two seasons.

The touchdowns? That will be a bonus. Roethlisberger and the Steelers will try to figure out ways to free him up inside the 10 better than they did a year ago. Smith-Schuster caught seven of the 11 passes thrown his way last season inside the 10, but only three went for touchdowns.

Brown had four receptions inside the 10. All four went for touchdowns. In 2017, Brown had seven catches inside the 10. Six went for scores.

In that respect, Smith-Schuster needs to emulate Brown's nose for the goal line. It would be the last step in his Year 3 maturation.

"AB and Ben had been together for a long time," Randy Fichtner said. "A lot of touchdowns were made on extended plays, broken plays, made by both guys. Ben’s still going to have an opportunity to make those broken plays. What are going to be the reactions of the other guys to maybe catch the ball? We know that’s going to happen somehow, some way. I think Vance (McDonald), JuJu, James (Washington), Donte (Moncrief), these guys are all going to have to step up. That’s the expectation, that they will."

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