With the offseason in full-swing and NFL fans patiently awaiting the start of the season, I wanted to dive into an interesting topic being discussed in fantasy football circles concerning the three Steeler WRs that are expected to go in the middle rounds of drafts in the lead up to the regular season. Now all three receivers finished relatively close to one another in 2020 in terms of fantasy points scored, but will that be the case again in 2021?
In this study, we take a look at the statistical production of Diontae Johnson, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and Chase Claypool in 2020, and analyze how several key factors could alter their production in 2021. For the use of this study, all statistics and data were provided via Pro Football Reference. Let’s start with what each receiver accomplished in the 2020 season:
Diontae Johnson 2020 Stats:
144 targets, 88 receptions (61.1 catch %) for 923 yards (10.5 YPR) and seven TDs in 13 games started/15 played
JuJu Smith-Schuster 2020 Stats:
128 targets, 97 receptions (75.8 catch %) for 831 yards (8.6 YPR) and nine TDs in 14 games started/14 played
Chase Claypool 2020 Stats:
109 targets, 62 receptions (56.9 catch %) for 873 yards (14.1 YPR) and nine TDs in six games started/16 played
Now looking at the team statistics, Pittsburgh ran 1,043 plays in the regular season in 2020, attempting 656 passes, which led the league, and ranked near the middle of the league in total passing yards with 4,003. The team tallied 35 passing TDs, a mark that ranked sixth in the NFL. However, it’s well-advertised that this increase in passing volume came at the expense of a bad rushing attack, ranking 28th in the NFL in attempts with 373 and dead last in the league in yards (1,351) and yards-per-carry (3.6).
Now, if we look over the past few seasons, we can start to see a similar trend of high passing volumes and less volume in the ground game, with the offense never ranking lower than sixth in passing attempts since 2017 (excluding the season Roethlisberger missed). During that time, the highest the team ranking in the league in rushing attempts was 15th, back in 2017. So even if the focus of the offseason is to improve the run game, the overall passing volume should take a significant hit, having total attempts hit 590 in 2017, 689 in 2018, 510 in 2019, and 656 in 2020.
Knowing this, if we just average the above numbers out to account for a drop in passing volume and extrapolate the attempts out to 17 games, we get a total of 649 attempts on the season, or roughly a little over 38 attempts a game. Now let’s say Diontae Johnson and JuJu Smith-Schuster retain their respective target shares at 22% for Johnson and 19.7% for Smith-Schuster.
We can think that Johnson’s catch percentage improves with decreased drops this upcoming season compared to leading the league in 2020, staying in the 65% range. This would put Johnson around 94 receptions. If Johnson should increase his best career YPR by a mere 0.5 yards to average 12 YPR, he would tally 1,128 yards. In terms of TDs, should he average a TD percentage between his first two seasons in the league, eight TDs would be a realistic expectation.
Now let’s say JuJu gets utilized more down the field in 2020 with additions to short and intermediate targets like Najee Harris, Pat Freiermuth and the continued use of Eric Ebron, along with being utilized more on the outside by moving around the formation. Because of this, his YPC should go up, but we can expect he catch percentage to decrease due to running more routes down the field instead of near the LOS.
So, if we would average JuJu’s YPR over the past four seasons to account for the career low in 2020 and the career high during his rookie year in 2017, we end up with 12.5 YPR. However, if we do the same and average out his catch percentage, he would come out to a 69% catch rate. This would put JuJu at 88 receptions for 1,100 yards. Should he average his TD percentage totals from his previous seasons, you are looking to get eight TDs from JuJu, as well.
Now on to Chase Claypool. Claypool played in all 16 games as a rookie in 2020, but only started seven of those games and tallied 63% of the snap counts, seeing his snaps decrease during the final stretch of the season in hopes of “keeping him fresh to avoid the rookie wall”. Assuming we are buying Claypool getting an elevated role in 2021 and seeing his snap counts increase, we can likely project him playing closer to that 70-75% range of snaps. As Matthew Marczi pointed out in his article on Claypool, he was second to only Justin Jefferson in rookie receivers in yards per route run, but was tenth in routes per game. Claypool’s efficiency should also steady out in 2021, having crazy efficiency to start the year but bottoming out to close out the season.
Another thing to consider is that Claypool could improve on his catch percentage of 56.9% in 2020, as he has mentioned winning more of those combative catch situations down the field he didn’t convert last season as well as decrease his drops like Johnson. Considering the obvious physical comparisons and the way they are used, I like to look at D.K. Metcalf of the Seattle Seahawks, who had a catch percentage of 58% as a rookie but increased that percentage to 64.3% in his sophomore season.
It’s not unrealistic to project Claypool in the 63% catch range, and if his target share of 16.9% increases to around 18.5% with more snaps played and targets down the field, we are looking at nearly 120 targets with 75 receptions. Should Claypool maintain his YPR total he had in 2020 at 14.1, he should tally around 1,066 yards. Should Claypool’s high TD percentage drop just a little bit, he should still be in line to score eight TDs.
So, after going through the players individually, let’s put my proposed 2021 statistics side-by-side for comparison sake:
Johnson: 94 receptions for 1,128 yards and eight TDs
Smith-Schuster: 88 receptions for 1,100 yards and eight TDs
Claypool: 75 receptions for 1,066 yards and eight TDs
Now the likelihood of all three receivers tallying over 1,000 yards and finishing with the same number of TDs and within 62 yards of each other may be a stretch, but with how each player is utilized on the field and how there isn’t that dominant alpha receiver like Antonio Brown was in the past for the team, I do think it is realistic these three post similar numbers and can all get close to besting the 1,000 mark in a 17-game season. Also, for the sake of rushing stats with WRs, I erred on the side of caution and didn’t project what may happen there due to the variance in that area, although it should be noted that Johnson and Claypool bring the most upside in this area of possible fantasy production.
Based on the stats, Diontae Johnson looks to be the receiver to own with more reception and yards. However, in terms of draft value, Johnson is currently going around 55th overall, or at the 5.07 pick in 12-man based on Fantasy Pros full–PPR Scoring projections from multiple draft platforms. To compare, JuJu Smith-Schuster is currently being taken at the 7.04, or 76th overall, and Claypool is right ahead at 74th overall, or the 7.02 in ADP. While Johnson may have the best overall projection based on volume, JuJu and Claypool project to provide better overall value, going nearly two rounds later.
This goes to show that based off of projections and expected improvement in play for each receiver in 2021, Johnson should likely have the best overall fantasy campaign, but the other two receivers present better value later in the draft should you want to target another position player earlier, with JuJu Smith-Schuster being more suited for full-PPR, and the potential big play upside of Claypool being a better fit in standard leagues. While it may be unlikely that any of the three becomes a top five option at the position in 2021, all three players present solid value based on their projections, and should see improvement in respective areas of their game where they struggled in 2020.
That being said, I would endorse taking your shot on a Steelers WR in your fantasy drafts this summer and enjoy having a potential value pick for your favorite team contributing in your efforts to attain a fantasy football league title.
What do you think of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ WR core heading into 2021 from a fantasy perspective? Do you think one of them will separate themselves from the pack, or do you think that they all will finish relatively close to one another? Are you optimistic in seeing their respective stats improve, or think that they will remain relatively the same? Post your thoughts in the comments section below, and thanks again for reading!