In lead up to the 2021 season, there have been plenty of reports and speculation regarding which wide receiver in Pittsburgh in most likely to “make the leap”. In fantasy football communities, we often hear the name Diontae Johnson floated around as the clear candidate, ranking top ten in the league in 2020 in targets and being Ben Roethlisberger’s go-to guy on many occasions. Should he improve his efficiency and dial back some of the drops that plagued him in 2020, he could be in-line for a big season based on the sheer amount of volume he will see.
Another name that gets brought up often is Chase Claypool. In just his rookie season, Claypool received 109 targets and converted that into 873 receiving yards and 11 total TDs (nine receiving, two rushing). He is a physical specimen that can win plenty of contested catches along the sideline and in the red zone, making him a nice weapon to have on 50/50 balls. Should he continue to progress as a route runner and be used more out of the slot and moved around the formation in Matt Canada’s offense, we could potentially see Claypool have a breakout campaign similar to that of fellow freak of nature D.K. Metcalf of the Seattle Seahawks as I highlighted in a previous post.
Where does this leave veteran WR JuJu Smith-Schuster. Frankly, it seems as he has been cast off as yesterday’s news. He burst onto the scene as a second-round pick back in 2017, starting seven of 14 games played and caught 58 passes for 917 yards (15.8 YPR) and seven TDs. He then had a breakout sophomore season, recording 111 receptions for 1426 yards (12.8 YPR) and seven TDs in 16 games played. In 2019, we saw Smith-Schuster’s production take a nosedive, only playing in 12 games and managed only 42 receptions for 552 yards (13.1 YPR) and three TDs. Last season, we saw Smith-Shuster stay on the field for all 16 games and recorded 128 targets but was relegated more to the slot and had I measly 5.5 ADOT, recording 97 receptions for 831 yards (8.6 YPR) but hauled in nine receiving TDs.
JuJu Smith-Schuster suffered a knee sprain back in November of 2019 on Week 11 vs the Cleveland Browns, causing him to miss four games. He would return to play the final two weeks of the season but made a minimal impact as he was still noticeably hampered by the injury while on the field. Smith-Schuster also sustained a concussion in the same contest vs Cleveland in 2019. This knee issue appeared to have persistent on into the 2020 season as he would often be listed on the injury report during the week with a knee but would be cleared for the game despite being limited in practice.
Smith-Schuster often required regular drainings of fluid from his knee during the course of the 2020 campaign to manage the issue he was dealing with. Apparently, this knee injury was a reason Smith-Schuster sat on the open market in FA as long as he did, only receiving one-year “prove it” deals rather than the long-term guaranteed money he was looking for. He ended up coming back to Pittsburgh on a one-year pact worth $8 million, reportedly being offered more money by the Ravens and Chiefs on similar one-year deals, but cited loyalty to Pittsburgh and the best place to resurrect his value as the reasons he decided to stay for less.
All this being said, have we been too hard on JuJu for his lack of production considering he hasn’t been healthy for over two years? The knee injury coupled with the role the offense had him play last year as a satellite back/ tight end target close to the LOS likely has been the main reasons we have seen his explosive plays down the field deteriorate over the last two years, as he has shown the ability to break off big plays in the passing game having two separate 97 yard TD receptions to his name in his first two seasons.
Should he be healthy and allowed to run more vertical concepts down the field in the slot as well as on the boundary, Smith-Schuster could feast on second-tier defensive backs if the attention in coverage does shift to either Claypool or Johnson. This isn’t to say JuJu is a perineal Pro-Bowl, All-Pro talent, but rather that we should back up and look at what he was able to accomplish in his first two seasons when not dealing with injury and an offense in obvious flux.
Personally, I hope to see JuJu crush it this year and get the bag, whether it be in Pittsburgh or somewhere else. He has been a modern-day gladiator at the receiver position, gutting out injury to get on the field to help his team and be available when they need him. That availability, loyalty, and toughness shouldn’t go unnoticed and honestly should be rewarded should he put together a season Steelers fans should remember from not too long ago.
What are your thoughts on JuJu Smith-Schuster heading into 2021? Do you think he is clearly third in the food chain behind Claypool and Johnson, or do you think that he can revert back to similar production he had prior to his knee injuries? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below and thanks again for reading!