This offseason was spent debating whether or not JuJu Smith-Schuster was ready to step into the role of a team’s top wide receiver. How much did Antonio Brown help in Smith-Schuster putting up 1,400 yards in his second NFL season? Through six weeks, the naysayers of Smith-Schuster are going to feel good about their position.
Smith-Schuster is on track for 66 receptions, 907 receiving yards, and five touchdowns. That is a far cry from 111 receptions, for 1,400 yards and seven touchdowns. Heck, that is closer to his rookie season of 58 receptions, for 917 yards and seven touchdowns.
Has Smith-Schuster regressed this poorly? Obviously it is tough to track and trust his per-game metrics when two games had a quarterback change halfway through, and he has played in two quarterbacks’ NFL debuts.
While it is fair to argue that Smith-Schuster stepping into an alpha role should mean that he is able to produce no matter the quarterback, there still is plenty of reliance on the ball thrower, no matter how good a wide receiver is. Still, something is off. What has been the issue for Devlin Hodges, Mason Rudolph, and Smith-Schuster?
The true difference is just volume. Last season he was targeted 166 times. This season he is on pace to see just 101 balls his way. Smith-Schuster has higher yards per reception and yards per target rate than the year before.
He has created more with less. Smith-Schuster has always been best at creating after the catch. This season he averages 6.5 yards after the catch, which again is up from 6.1 yards last season. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, he creates two more yards per reception after the catch than expected. That number is higher than 0.5 yards above expectation last season.
Smith-Schuster has also been more efficient down the field. The average depth of target on passes to him is 8.7 this year, which is slightly up from 8.4 last season. Smith-Schuster has a RACR of 1.03. RACR measures how many receiving yards a player creates for every air yard thrown at him. Going over one means that you are taking advantage of the passes coming your way. Last season, Smith-Schuster posted a 0.99, meaning he was creating about what was expected of him.
The issue with that is that while the team is targeting him further down the field, he is not getting as many downfield targets. 25% of the team’s air yards have gone to Smith-Schuster. James Washington, Diontae Johnson, Donte Moncrief, and Johnny Holton all have at least 12% of the team’s air yards. Last season Brown had 38%, Smith-Schuster 26 %, and Washington had 15% as the only players over 12.
The Steelers are looking for a complementary piece to Smith-Schuster. They know that an outside threat down the field can open the middle up for Smith-Schuster to do what he does best. In searching for this option, they have taken away from Smith-Schuster seeing more.
That also came down to the trust that Roethlisberger had in Smith-Schuster and Brown. He was willing to force the ball to those two down the field, with confidence in himself and them. While Roethlisberger and Smith-Schuster worked on their timing, Rudolph and Hodges worked with the secondary wide receivers. Last season Smith-Schuster had a 79% catchable pass rate, which is down 74% this year.
It is fair to note that Smith-Schuster has seen his average separation per target drop a bit. He averaged three yards of separation last season which is down 2.5. This is not alarming, as Brown averaged 2.6 yards of separation last season. That is what happens when you have more attention to you. However, while a quarterback like Roethlisberger sees less than three yards of separation and trusts himself, the younger quarterbacks may not have that same confidence. Adding the lack of timing with his quarterbacks to the shifts in coverage and it becomes easier to target Diontae Johnson, getting 3.4 yards of separation and Washington with 3 yards of separation.
So, Smith-Schuster is creating more with the ball in his hands, is creating more downfield, and is creating more than an expected wide receiver would in his situation.
The idea would be that the Steelers take note of this during the bye week with the intention of getting the ball in the hands of Smith-Schuster. After shuffling in wide receivers early, Johnson has taken over the second receiver job. Adding a consistent second threat can help open things up, and as Johnson continues to take advantage of the lesser coverage, safeties will begin to gain respect for the rookie.
On top of that, the team should be set with Rudolph going forward at quarterback. Shuffling three quarterbacks, playing a game with a featured wildcat formation, and seeing a UDFA make his first start on the road is not easy. There should be more consistency moving forward, even if it is not Roethlisberger, trust should form between Rudolph and his receivers.
Rudolph has taken steps in every start, and should only grow with repetitions. Without the shuffling at quarterback, and with a secondary threat emerging, there is still a chance for Smith-Schuster to pick up the volume he was expected to see and finish with a better season than he is on pace for at the moment.
What to Expect from Diontae Johnson in Year 2
You may not know it with the amount of hype heaped upon rookie receivers like Deebo Samuel, D.K. Metcalf and Terry McLaurin, but in 2019, it was Steelers wide receiver Diontae Johnson that lead the league in receptions among first-year players. In 12 starts, Johnson had 59 receptions for 680 yards and five touchdowns. That was good enough for first, sixth and seventh respectively among his rookie class.
So what’s in store in year two? In addition to a year of pro strength training and all the other things that come from being part of a NFL organization, Johnson will have a full year of catching passes from a 17-year vet Ben Roethlisberger, a mild upgrade over Mason Rudolph and Duck Hodges to say the least.
How has an entire season with Roethlisberger worked out for previous Steelers receivers in their sophomore campaigns? Let’s take a look back starting with the rookies he played with and how they improved in their second year.
Nate Washington (2005): 0 targets / 0 receptions / 0 yards / 0 touchdowns / 0 catch % / 0 yards per target
Nate Washington (2006): 69 / 35 / 624 / 4 / 50.7% / 9.04
Washington didn’t have a single catch his rookie year, but was a solid contributor in his sophomore campaign, which was Ben’s third year on the job.
Santonio Holmes (2006): 86/ 49 / 824 / 2 / 57% / 9.58
Santonio Holmes (2007): 85 / 52 / 942 / 8 / 61.2% / 11.08
As a rookie, Holmes had a very productive season. But he improved across the board, especially in touchdowns and yards per target, in his second season.
Mike Wallace (2009): 72 / 39 / 756 / 6 / 54.2% / 10.50
Mike Wallace (2010): 98 / 60 / 1257 / 10 / 61.2% / 12.83
Wallace saw a big increase in receptions (54%) and receiving yards (66%) compared to his rookie season as he became one of the premier deep threats in the NFL.
Emmanuel Sanders (2010): 43 / 28 / 376 / 2 / 56.0% / 7.52
Emmanuel Sanders (2011): 50 / 22 / 288 / 2 / 51.2% / 6.70
Sanders was one of the few players whose production dipped in year two, mostly as a result of the incredible rise of his fellow 2010 draft pick Antonio Brown.
Antonio Brown (2010): 19 / 16 / 167 / 0 / 84.2% / 8.79
Antonio Brown (2011): 124 / 69 / 1108 / 2 / 55.6% / 8.94
After an inauspicious start to his career, Brown exploded in his second season with the Steelers putting up three times the catches and five times to yardage compared to his rookie season.
Martavis Bryant (2013): 48 / 26 / 549 / 8 / 54.2% / 11.44
Martavis Bryant (2014): 92 / 50 / 765 / 6 / 54.3% / 8.32
Bryant nearly doubled his reception total after an incredible rookie campaign that saw him catch touchdowns on more than a quarter of his catches in year two. But Bryant proved that his rookie campaign wasn’t a fluke with a solid 50 receptions for 765 yards.
Markus Wheaton (2013): 13 / 6 / 64 / 0 / 46.2% / 4.92
Markus Wheaton (2014): 86 / 53 / 644 / 2 / 61.6% / 7.49
Wheaton looked like he was on his way to being the next Steelers mid-round receiver find after a nice year two. Unfortunately his 2014 sophomore season turned out to be the high point of his career.
JuJu Smith-Schuster (2017): 79 / 58 / 917 / 7 / 73.4% / 11.6
JuJu Smith-Schuster (2018): 166 / 111 / 1426 / 7 / 66.9% / 8.59
Smith-Schuster certainly showed flashes in his rookie season opposite full-fledged superstar Antonio Brown, but it was nothing compared to what he’d do in year two. With Brown drawing the top corners, Smith-Schuster was virtually unstoppable posting career highs in catches and yardage.
James Washington (2018): 38 / 16 / 217 / 1 / 42.1% / 5.71
James Washington (2019): 80 / 44 / 735 / 3 / 55.0% / 9.19
Washington did not live up to his second round pick status in year one with a paltry 16 catches for 217 yards playing with Roethlisberger. But in year two, even with Roethlisberger on the shelf for most of the season, Washington showed the flashes that made him such a threat in college. His ability to make combat catches was on full display as he more than tripled his receiving yards and posted a huge increase in catches, catch percentage and yards per target.
Diontae Johnson (2019): 92 / 59 / 680 / 5 / 64.1% / 7.39
Johnson really began to excel towards the end of his 2019 season as he gained a report with Rudolph and Hodges. And it wasn’t just on short passes, in the last four weeks of the season, Johnson was the Steelers best down the field option as well. A deft route runner, Johnson was tops in the entire league in target separation, which measures the average yards of separation between the receiver and cornerback at the time of the catch. The Toledo product also finished 24th in the NFL in yards after catch and was 3rd in forced missed tackles among receivers. Perhaps even more encouraging was the amount of targets Johnson had as a rookie. The 92 were most since Ben Roethlisberger became quarterback and second most in Steelers history.
So what will Johnson do in year two? His rookie numbers were most comparable to Santonio Holmes who was the Steelers’ clear number two receiver behind Hines Ward in his second year. Johnson’s numbers will get a boost from being the likely number two receiver–and the increase in targets that accompanies it–when the season opens opposite a presumably healthy Smith-Schuster. Although it’s worth noting that with the recent acquisition of tight end Eric Ebron, a healthy Vance McDonald and a deep, if inexperienced, receiving corps, there’s going to be a lot of competition for targets.
Despite that it’s probably safe to say that with Roethlisberger coming back and the offense more geared towards the passing game, Johnson’s numbers will see a moderate increase from his impressive rookie season.
Johnson’s individual metrics; his impressive separation on catches and his ability to break tackles all indicate that Johnson should continue to progress in 2020. and it certainly wouldn’t be a surprise to see him eclipse 75 catches and 1,000 yards in year two.
Safety Options Abound for Steelers in Draft
After a whirlwind week of free agency, it appears that the safety is becoming a far bigger need for the Steelers than anyone expected back in January.
The Steelers depth had always appeared to be sketchy, but it seemed likely a veteran free agent would be signed to shore up needs. Except, thus far, that has not happened. The Steelers retained Jordan Dangerfield and lost Sean Davis to free agency, leaving at least one spot in the secondary wide open heading into the draft.
The Steelers will almost certainly draft a safety, and they might go safety in the second round. It might even be possible that one of those very good safeties just so happens to fall down to the Steelers pick at 49.
There are players to take in each round that would at least be quality depth. We will only find out on draft day who the Steelers choose to pick, but here are SteelersNow’s top ten safeties in the 2020 NFL Draft.
10. Alohi Gilman, Notre Dame
Gilman is a lot of fun. His athleticism is lacking in some areas, especially his flexibility. Gilman is pretty tight-hipped and should not be playing as a deep safety in the NFL, but that is fine. He plays with his hair on fire and does a great job to read and react to routes and things going down in the box on the second level of the field.
Gilman will play as a box safety or dimebacker at the next level simply because of how good he is at avoiding traffic and playing downhill. He gives a team an impact run defender and tenacious player. Far more limited than a lot of players in this class, GIlman will have to be put into the right position to succeed. He lacks some ball skills, but still, Gilman is a solid chess piece.
9. Brandon Jones, Texas
Jones is another guy who will be a strong safety at the next level. His tackling is super reliable and he rarely misses on tape. He will not miss the chance to lay the boom down if he can and he can absolutely fly downhill too. Jones has impressive closing speed and is a great straight-line athlete. He does not have very smooth feet and will not flip his hips well, but he is physical and can man-up tight ends if needed. I like his instincts as well and he can make some plays undercutting routes. The issue is he is simply stuck in the box and that will depreciate his value.
8. Kyle Dugger, Lenoir-Rhyne
A Division II guy that masqueraded as a single-high on tape because he was the most athletic guy out there. but really is more of a safety and linebacker hybrid. Like both mentioned above him, Dugger is going to be stuck as a box safety at the next level. He is a guy who has incredible length and is quite fluid for his size, so he can fall back in a Cover 2 scheme if need be, but he is at his best when he is reading and reacting and flying downhill. His ball skills are natural with great leaping ability and ball tracking ability. Dugger tracks the ball and high points with ease and good hands. He will be able to man guys up if he can improve his hip discipline and hand usage. He is just an incredibly raw prospect and the issue is he is already 24. There is upside here, but he is not a can’t miss prospect by any means.
7. K’Von Wallace, Clemson
Wallace is a really good football player. He knows how to key in on runs based off the offensive lineman and reads possible route combinations right off the jump. Once he is sure of what he sees, he absolutely flies to make the play. For the most part, he is a pretty good tackler too. The difference with Wallace and the others mentioned, though, is that he can be moved all over the field. He can be trusted in the box, manning up receivers, and he can be a blitzer from the box, too. Wallace is a playmaker. and would have more interceptions if he did not have spotty hands. There is a lot he can and was asked to do at Clemson. Wallace is just a rock-solid player that adds a lot of value to his game. He’s very smooth and a high energy player out there.
6. Jeremy Chinn, Southern Illinois
For a guy ranked sixth at his position, Chinn is a fantastic player who should be a really good football at the next level. Chinn has very good athleticism and in a lot of ways is similar to Isaiah Simmons. He will not drop back into a single-high role at all, but Chinn can fly and make impressive plays down near the line. This dude is a firecracker and will lay the boom with ferocity. His instincts and football IQ is pretty raw in general, However, he is a great tackler and has extremely good ball skills. Chinn can be a deep safety in a Cover 2 scheme due to his range, fluid hips, and ball skills. He plays better down in the box as a downhill guy, however. That is likely where he will thrive as a playmaker in the NFL and a solid player.
5. Grant Delpit, LSU
Delpit did not have a great 2019 season. Marred with missed tackles and gaffes in man coverage, Delpit fell down the board swiftly due to showing all those warts. However, he gets more flak than he deserves from a lot of people. He is still an extremely athletic safety with high football IQ. On top of that, the guy is an absolute ballhawk in the middle of the field and deep. He works so well on that back end of the defense with his range, instincts, and fluidity. If he were a good tackler and could man those guys up, Delpit would be a slam dunk for the top safety. He can still be a dynamic safety who will make a big difference at the next level regardless, but he just is not a perfect safety. Make no mistake, the guy is a Top-50 player in the draft no questions asked.
4. Terrell Burgess, Utah
Burgess is a hybrid cross between a safety and nickel cornerback. As a third safety, he fits in so well. He is sticky in man coverage and has elite awareness in the deep half of the field. His zone coverage instincts are really impressive when you watch how he reads the quarterback. Burgess will fly downhill and has really good closing speed and burst. This is not just a head smart player, but an athletic one at that too. Give him a man coverage responsibility and Burgess delivers. He has great fluidity and discipline to just mirror guys. Burgess is a pretty sure tackler as well. The big question marks will be is can he translate his playmaker traits into ball production and will his lack of length hurt him more in the NFL than it did in college. Those will have to be questions he answers, but he is a solid prospect.
3. Ashtyn Davis, Cal
Davis is a legitimate track star athlete and as such, has really solid range. The guy plays at a million miles per hour and is walking missile on the football field. He has laid guys out with big, legal hits on the field. Add all that in with ball skills and Davis is a really fun prospect to watch play on tape. He was reading Justin Herbert like a book when they played and made numerous plays from that single-high alignment. Davis can also walk down and man guys up from the slot too. His instincts are rather good as well. He could be a more consistent form tackler, but with the upside he has to his game, that can be forgiven.
2. Xavier McKinney, Alabama
McKinney is a walking chess piece. He has played in the box, at slot cornerback, as a sub-package linebacker, and as a single-high safety as well. Nick Saban put all the chips onto this young man’s plate and gave him the whirl at it. Similar to Minkah Fitzpatrick, McKinney’s versatility is a massive asset. McKinney took up Saban’s task with flying colors and is one of the best communicators and instinctual safeties in the class. He is one of those guys that has a knack for finding the football. That counts for in the air, too, as McKinney as very good ball skills. The consistency in his tackling ability is great and he wraps up with ease. He can essentially do it all and be a solid player at the next level.
1. Antoine Winfield Jr., Minnesota
There is so much Winfield can do and he does it all well. His ability to man guys up, even at his smaller stature is really impressive. Winfield has great fluidity and balance in and out of transitions that allow him to stay in phase and blanket receivers. Add in the fact that he has great ball skills and even against bigger tight ends, Winfield is a guy who holds his own. His football IQ has improved dramatically and he recognizes things out of the corner of his eye and makes plays outside of the defensive structure. He can play the box or be a deep field safety, but Winfield is a ton of fun to watch. Winfield brings great value to the field and will be a very good safety in the NFL due to his skillset.
What to Expect from a 38-Year-Old Starting Quarterback
On March 2nd, Ben Roethlisberger turned 38. When the NFL season starts in September, Ben will be 38 years old and entering his 17th year as the starting quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Even at this age, Ben is reaching rarefied air. Since 1969, there have been only 54 quarterbacks that played into their age 38 season. Of those 54, 46 of them started a game and just 22 finished the season with starts in more than half the games that season.
Discounting the fact that Roethlisberger is recovering from elbow surgery, what can we expect from a 38-year-old quarterback? Surprisingly, the answer is plenty.
From 1969-1999 quarterbacks playing in their age 38 season on average threw for 2,665 yards with 15 touchdowns against 14 interceptions. Not gaudy numbers, but some of that has to do with the eras in which these quarterbacks played. Even more encouraging, they had a 63% winning percentage.
From 1969-1999, five Hall of Fame quarterbacks played to age 38. Some experienced more success than others.
In 1978 Fran Tarkenton threw for 25 touchdowns and over 3,400 yards but tossed up 32 interceptions and went 8-7-1 on the season. In 1983, Ken Stabler went 7-7 at age 38, but threw 18 interceptions against only 9 touchdowns and fewer than 2,000 yards. Warren Moon went 9-6 in 1994, but had more interceptions (19) than touchdowns (18). In 1999, Dan Marino went 5-6 at age 38, throwing 12 touchdowns against 17 interceptions.
On the positive side, all-time great Joe Montana had 3,283 yards through the air and a 2:1 TD to INT ratio (18-9) with the Kansas City Chiefs in 1994 and John Elway won a Super Bowl in his age 38 season. Elway may have been relying on Terrell Davis at that time, but still put up nearly 3,000 yards along with 22 touchdowns and only 10 interceptions.
As sports science and training regimes have improved, it’s become more commonplace to find quarterbacks 38 and older still having success, or even dominating in the league.
In 2007, Brett Favre at 38 threw for over 4,000 yards and added 28 touchdowns to only 15 interceptions as the Packers went 13-3. Kurt Warner a year after his Super Bowl loss to the Steelers still had plenty in the tank at 38. The veteran quarterback started 15 games, going 10-5 with 3,753 yards, 26 touchdowns and 14 picks. Even journeyman Josh McCown put up 18 touchdowns to only 9 interceptions and 2,900 yards in his age 38 season.
Peyton Manning, 4,727 yards, 39 TD, 15 INT (12-4)
Tom Brady, 4,770 yards, 36 TD, 7 INT (12-4)
Drew Brees, 4,334 yards, 23 TD, 8 INT (11-5)
However, depending on how you view Roethlisberger, a closer proxy may be former Chargers quarterback Phillip Rivers. Rivers’ age 38 season was statistically one of his worst as the team went 5-11. Rivers threw for 4,600 yards but threw nearly as many interceptions (20) as touchdowns (23).
What will Roethlisberger be like when he comes back? If history offers any clues, there’s no reason to think he can’t be a highly effective player on his return. Quarterbacks at his level in this era– i.e. future Hall of Famers–have historically had success at age 38 and beyond.
It’s impossible to predict when a player will “lose it”. But as long as his elbow is healed and there’s not a significant loss of arm strength, there’s no reason to think that Roethlisberger won’t be able to return to his per-injury, high-level of play.
NFL Quarterbacks at age 38, >7 starts, since 2000
All data from Pro Football Reference