Last season was one of the biggest in NFL history in terms of offensive production, specifically with respect to yards. One of the clearest indicators of that is the fact that new fewer than 14 different players recorded at least 1200 receiving yards during the 2018 regular season. The Pittsburgh Steelers themselves had two of the 14 in Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster.
Both players are projected to be among the 10 players that Pro Football Focus expects will record 1200 yards in 2019, though of course Brown will have to do that with Derek Carr and the Oakland Raiders, while Smith-Schuster will only have more targets from Ben Roethlisberger in the absence of the former wide receiver.
The site is projecting the third-year wide receiver, who will enter the 2019 season at the age of 22, to record 103.2 receptions for 1232.6 yards and 8.5 touchdowns. Should he reach these numbers, it will be the second year in a row he eclipses 100 receptions, and it would also set a new career high for touchdowns. He recorded seven receiving touchdowns in each of his first two seasons.
Scott Barrett for Pro Football Focus wrote of him that their data “suggest Smith-Schuster is likely to see an increase in volume but a decrease in efficiency in 2019”. He noted that the wide receiver averaged only 0.8 targets per game fewer than Brown last season, and also observed that most wide receivers “fall well short of their career baseline average during their first two seasons”. In other words, he very well could be even better.
The Steelers need him to be even better, because he is now their number one wide receiver. In 2018, he put up 111 receptions for 1426 yards and seven touchdowns, a stat line that I have memorized by heart at this point. He was just the third player in team history to top 100 receptions in a season, and the second to eclipse 1400 receiving yards.
Smith-Schuster was targeted 166 times during the 2018 season, which is obviously slightly more than 10 times per game. That did rank as the fourth-most targets in the NFL last season, with the most targets being to Julio Jones of the Atlanta Falcons.
But given that the Steelers threw the ball more than anybody last season, and that they had two of the five players in the league who were targeted 160 or more times, there is plenty of reason to believe he should receive more passes in his direction in 2019. The Minnesota Vikings are the only other team who had two of the top 10 most-targeted players last season.