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Projecting JuJu Smith-Schuster’s performance

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JuJu Smith-Schuster. -- MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

JuJu Smith-Schuster is clearly the Steelers’ No. 1 target now that Antonio Brown is generating angst (and … frostbite?) in Oakland. So, who’s poised to generate bigger receiving numbers in AB’s absence?

Football Outsiders’ KUBIAK  projection system offers some hints. KUBIAK forecasts player performance based on projected role, performance over the past two seasons, quality of the player’s offense and opposition, strength of schedule, and historical comparables. Smith-Schuster (1,325 projected receiving yards) is by far the leader of the pack. After that, it’s Donte Moncrief (740 yards), tight end Vance McDonald (668), James Washington (633) and Diontae Johnson (378 yards). Don’t forget about the sure-handed running backs, either: James Conner is projected for 519 receiving yards, and Jaylen Samuels is forecast for 182.

MORE STEELERS

• Red zone mistakes: Ben Roethlisberger did lead the NFL in interceptions (16) last season, but that total requires context. Ben also threw far more passes (675) than any other NFL QB, and on a per-play basis, his interception rate (2.4 percent) was actually league-average and below his career rate (2.7 percent). While Roethlisberger wasn’t a turnover machine overall, you can take issue with where he became INT-prone. He threw four interceptions in the red zone in 2018, with an 84.0 passer rating. During the Steelers’ 13-3 campaign in 2017, Roethlisberger threw just one red zone INT while posting a 94.2 passer rating. Ben could stand to improve his accuracy and decision-making when the Steelers approach pay dirt.

•  A Bud Breakout? Outside linebacker Bud Dupree is huge (6-foot-4, 270 pounds), fast (4.56 40-yard time at the NFL combine) and he entered the league with hype that he could emerge as an elite pass rusher despite never reaching double-digit sacks while at Kentucky. After four years, Dupree has racked up only 20 sacks and ranks 54th among all NFL in that category since the start of the 2015 season. And yet, the Dupree hype train hasn’t completely derailed — at least if you listen to Steelers defensive coaches and GM Kevin Colbert, who brought Dupree back in 2019 for $9.2 million. Why? While he hasn’t flattened QBs often enough, he does generate pressure. Dupree had 27 QB hurries in 2018, according to Football Outsiders. That ranked pretty close to the 33 QB hurries created by T.J. Watt. If you’re an optimist, you see a player who is in position to make big plays and could convert more of them moving forward. If you’re a pessimist, you see a guy who can’t finish the job when he has the chance to swing the game in the Steelers’ favor.

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