JuJu Smith-Schuster did not have a great 2019. One year after being named team MVP, the third-year receiver struggled through injury, the pressure of being a number one receiver and having Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges as the quarterbacks of record instead of Ben Roethlisberger for much of the season.
His stat line was a very pedestrian 42 receptions for 552 yards and three touchdowns. Career lows, by far, in all three categories. Going deeper, his 26 first downs plus touchdowns, his 60% catch percentage and 7.9 yards per target were all down compared to his rookie and sophomore campaigns. Just as alarming, his drop rate nearly doubled, from 3.6 to 7.1 percent. Compared to his Pro Bowl 2018 year, the only stat he improved upon was yards per touch, which inched up from 12.8 to 13.1.
So what do we expect from Smith-Schuster in 2020? There have been plenty of people expecting a big bounce back year from the popular former-USC product. Hunter Homistek at DKPittsburghSports makes the case that he’s still an elite receiver despite his struggles last season. Pro Football Focus forecasts an 88 / 1005 / 5 slash line for JuJu in 2020, which wouldn’t be too surprising with a presumably healthy Roethlisberger back under center. He’s even a 20/1 favorite to lead the league in receiving yardage, the 16th highest of any receiver.
It would be very challenging to parse out the negative effects on Smith-Schuster’s numbers solely due to the Steelers’ quarterback play in 2018 compared to 2019, but we can at least look at some of his underlying numbers.
In 2018, Smith-Schuster had 111 catches on 166 targets for 1426 yards and seven touchdowns. His advanced numbers weren’t quite as impressive with 8.6 yards per target (38th in the league), an 84.7% true catch rate (41st) and a 50% contested catch rate according to playerprofiler.com. The team’s quarterback rating when he was targeted was 97.6 (50th). Slightly more concerning was his target separation, which ranked only 91st in the league.
2019 was a different story. Without Brown for defenses to concentrate on and with no Roethlisberger, his numbers plummeted.
Smith-Schuster had just 42 catches on 70 targets for 552 yards and three touchdowns.
However, there are a few caveats. First of all, the Steelers were not an offensive juggernaut in 2019. The team’s pass plays per game fell from 44.6 per game (tops in the league) to 33.9, which was 27th. Without Roethlisberger for most of the year, the team only managed to put up 2981 passing yards compared to 5008 the season prior. After having the most passing attempts in the league in 2018 with 689, the team managed just 510 in 2019.
Furthermore, Smith-Schuster battled injuries for much of the season and only participated in 573 (58%) of the team’s offensive snaps compared to 960 (86%) in 2018 and even 704 (64%) his rookie year. That’s 387 fewer snaps from 2019 to 2018. On that metric alone you would expect to see a marked decrease in his production. Running the numbers, that alone would equate to a decrease in catches from 111 to 67 and yards from 1426 to 856. Smith-Schuster also had many fewer opportunities to catch the ball as his targets decreased nearly 58% from 166 in 2018 to just 70 in 2019.
The advanced stats don’t show any large drop off from one season to the next. In 2019 Smith-Schuster yards per target were down as his 7.7 was just 61st in the league and the team’s QB rating when targeted was a paltry 79.1 (82nd) but his 80.8% true catch rate (58th), contested catch rate (50%) were very similar to 2018 and he actually improved in average target separation, from 1.14 (91st) to 1.40 (68th).
Which brings us back to our initial question, what to expect from JuJu Smith-Schuster in 2020? With the emergence of Diontae Johnson and the offseason signing of tight end Eric Ebron, the team should field a very balanced passing game. That should decrease the pressure on Smith-Schuster to be a star. He may not be an elite receiver on par with a player like DeAndre Hopkins or Michael Thomas, but there’s little to suggest that he can’t be a solid first option in the passing game with a healthy Roethlisberger and a bevy of offensive weapons around him.
Look for a bounce back year for Smith-Schuster in year four–it is a contract year after all. Just don’t expect a return the ridiculous numbers he put up in his sophomore campaign.