The notion of being a ‘contested catch’ guy can be a double-edged sword. If you get a lot of them, it could mean a couple of different things, even multiple things at the same time. On the one hand, it likely indicates that you have a history of coming up with catches in contested situations, which garners trust in you to perform in those situations.
On the other hand, it also indicates that you struggle to separate from coverage, so a lot of your targets are inevitably going to be in situations in which you are in a contested position. And so in that regard, it’s really difficult to gauge what Pro Football Focus’ latest statistic involving JuJu Smith-Schuster means.
Highest contested target rates among WRs since 2015 (min 200 targets):
1. Kenny Golladay – 30.8%
2. Chris Godwin – 26.3%
3. JuJu Smith-Schuster – 23.9%
4. D.J. Moore – 22.3% pic.twitter.com/spdLXxa2SI
— PFF (@PFF) August 14, 2020
According to a graphic that the outlet recently posted on Twitter, the Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver has had the third-highest rate of his targets come in contested situations since 2015 at 23.9% of his targets. The only players who have seen a higher percentage of his targets come in contested situations are Kenny Golladay (who has far more than anyone at 30.8%) and Chris Godwin (at 26.3%).
What we do know about Smith-Schuster is that, like Golladay and Godwin, he has performed well in contested-catch situations, which you can ask Darqueze Dennard among a number of other cornerbacks about. Being a good performer in contested-catch situations will obviously lend itself to receiving more of such targets.
It would be helpful to know where Antonio Brown fits on this list, because he is somebody whom Ben Roethlisberger implicitly trusted on the field and would throw to him with three players covering him—and resulted in a high percentage of his interceptions in recent years, if we’re being honest.
But Brown was also somebody who was among the best in the league in creating separation and getting open, so if we knew that he still ranked high on the list of players who were thrown the ball frequently in contested situations, it would help to inform this statistic about Smith-Schuster.
So what does it say about the 23-year-old that he has been among the most-heavily-targeted players in the NFL over the past five seasons in contested-catch situations? Does it mean that he is one of the better contested-catch players in the game? Does it mean that he disproportionately struggles to provide his quarterback with opportunities to throw to him in space? Somewhere in between?
The middle road is usually safest, but when it comes to Smith-Schuster, I believe it’s also the most accurate on this topic. He is a good contested-catch player, perhaps the best outside of Brown that they’ve had in many years. But he’s not an elite athlete, nor is he an especially nuanced route runner. When he’s gone up against elite cornerbacks, he’s made plays—but they’ve come largely in contested situations.