I think it’s fair to say that most by now know to take Pro Football Focus’ player number grades with a grain or two of salt. They have their own metrics by which they judge things, and perhaps with the methods that they use to grade, it has some kind of accuracy, but it doesn’t necessarily mean one player with a higher grade is better than one with a lower grade.
Former Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown, for example, did not even receive an 80.0 grade for last season, when he led the NFL with 15 touchdowns. It might not have been his best or most complete year, but it was certainly his typical above average showing.
JuJu Smith-Schuster, now transitioning into the team’s number one wide receiver role, did get a grade north of 80.0, and the site identified him as one of the young players, alongside O.J. Howard and Myles Garrett, who are on the cusp of elite status, “obviously a golden opportunity now that Antonio Brown has moved on to the Raiders”, as Steve Palazzolo put it in a YouTube video with Sam Monson.
“From everything that we’ve seen from Smith-Schuster so far, it looks like he can succeed, on the outside, because he first broke into the NFL really as a slot receiver for the Steelers, but also outside of the shadow of Antonio Brown”, Monson said.
According to the site’s numbers, Smith-Schuster ran 514 total routes as a rookie in 2017, with 302 of them coming out of the slot and 204 wide. There was some ebb and flow, but their numbers show a fairly close balance in that ratio throughout the year.
Last season, he ran a total of 728 routes, with 444 of them coming out of the slot versus 284 out wide. He opened 2018 between Brown and James Washington, but as Washington fell behind and Ryan Switzer became a bigger part of the offense, he started to play outside more. He saw more snaps outside than in the slot in five of the six final games of the season, and that wasn’t the case for a single game prior to that.
“When you look at some of the more advanced numbers last season, he got open as much as Antonio Brown did, if not more”, Monson argued. “It’s difficult to quantify exactly how much of that is Brown pulling coverage away from him, adjusting the lean of safeties, that kind of thing. But right now, every data point we’ve seen from JuJu Smith-Schuster says that he can be a legitimate number one wide receiver—and he’s still only 22!”
Palazzolo wrapped up the opening segment about Smith-Schuster by recounting the question of whether or not he can successfully and seamlessly transition to a player who spends the majority of his time working against outside cornerbacks. There are good indications that he will, and they expect him to reach elite-level status in the near future.