Some things are just too obvious, aren’t they? For example, whenever a team loses a significant player, the focus is automatically going to go to the person who is replacing him. This offseason, the Pittsburgh Steelers lost Antonio Brown, who just last year led the league in touchdown receptions, so understandably, a lot of attention has subsequently been paid to third-year wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster.
Smith-Schuster of course has already been a starter for about a season and a half, if you’re talking about working in the number two role, but with Brown gone, he is now being asked to serve as the top target. He already nearly had as many passes thrown his way as Brown did (albeit in one more game), but there’s a lot more to being the number one receiver than just the volume of footballs aimed at you.
Which is why Pro Football Focus, in looking to identify the ‘X-factor’ for every team in the league, cited the 22-year-old Pro Bowler as the Steelers’ for the upcoming season:
Now that Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell have taken their talents elsewhere, this passing attack’s hopes rest on the shoulders of third-year receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster. The USC product had a breakout season last year, as his 384 receiving yards from deep passes (passes of 20 or more yards downfield) were ninth most in the league, while his 660 yards after the catch was the best single-season mark by a receiver since Julio Jones in 2015. It appears that the sky is the limit for Smith-Schuster, and he’ll have to show he can do it as a true No. 1 in 2019.
The note about Smith-Schuster being in the top 10 in receiving yards on deep passes is an interesting one, though of course we have to keep in mind that 97 of those 384 yards came on just one play. And, by the way, Brown was fifth in that category with 486 yards on deep targets. Minus his 97-yard touchdown, Smith-Schuster would have ranked 23rd in this category.
And he still ranked tied for 11th in the league on deep targets with 24, so it’s not like it’s about volume (Brown, however, was second with 36. Only Tyreek Hill’s 41 targets on deep passes was more). Smith-Schuster caught nine of those 24 deep passes with three touchdowns, but it should be noted that PFF only deemed those nine passes he caught to be catchable balls. He wasn’t marked down for any drops (though I believe I personally had him down for one on such targets, albeit a tough play).
Smith-Schuster’s 660 yards after the catch, however, is remarkable. Hill’s 524 yards after the catch was the next-closest in the league last season. In other words, nobody else was even close, and you could spot Hill the 97-yard outlier.