Free agent wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster has agreed to re-sign with the Pittsburgh Steelers on a one-year, $8 million contract, according to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport. The decision to stay in Pittsburgh comes as a major surprise after he all but said goodbye to the Steelers and their fans on social media, but then again, funny business on social media is nothing new for the talented fifth-year slot receiver.
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JuJu Smith-Schuster is one of the NFL’s premier slot receivers
Smith-Schuster turned in a very respectable 2020 season, with a 97-831-9 receiving line on 125 targets and a No. 16 overall PPR fantasy finish. His counting stats out of the slot were top-notch, too, as he recorded 81 catches (first), 735 yards (fourth) and nine touchdowns (first). The last wide receiver to record over nine slot receiving touchdowns in a season was Doug Baldwin in 2015.
The Steelers altered Smith-Schuster’s role last season and turned him into a short-area pass-catcher with the lowest average depth of target among all wide receivers with at least 50 targets, at 6.0 yards. Despite seeing the 13th-most targets among all wide receivers, Smith-Schuster averaged a paltry 6.6 receiving yards per target, the seventh-lowest mark at the position.
His production was entirely driven by volume, which is not necessarily a bad thing in fantasyland considering he is sticking on an offense that had a hefty 65% pass-play rate, seventh among teams. That figure spiked to a league-high 72% from Week 10 on.
Smith-Schuster’s short-range role should all but guarantee weekly volume, especially with Ben Roethlisberger also re-upping with the Steelers. Big Ben is no spring chicken at 39 years of age, and his deep ball is not what it used to be. He possessed a lowly 7.4-yard average depth of target last season (sixth-lowest) and recorded 30 more short pass attempts (passes thrown less than 10 yards downfield) than anyone else at the position.
Smith-Schuster maintains an average draft position (ADP) in the seventh-to-eighth round range and is a definite value in fantasy drafts where he can be grabbed that late. The Steelers should be expected to continue their pass-heavy ways next season, which can support Smith-Schuster as a weekly high-floor WR2.
What does this mean for Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool?
The hype train on both Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool will start to slow down with Smith-Schuster now back in the fold. They had been previously viewed as prime candidates to make the jump from fantasy WR2 to WR1, but that was under the assumption that Smith-Schuster’s 125 targets would be up for grabs. PFF’s Ian Hartitz pegged Diontae Johnson to follow in the footsteps of 2020 Calvin Ridley and 2019 Chris Godwin as the next breakout wide receiver. Unfortunately, Hartitz has officially canceled that projection.
While Smith-Schuster's return is a definite negative for Johnson and Claypool, I would caution against docking their projections too much. Both players are extremely talented and maintain immense breakout potential regardless of who operates out of the slot. The success of these Steelers receivers is not mutually exclusive, and they already demonstrated the ability to impact fantasy contributors in this exact same situation — Johnson ranked 21st and Claypool ranked 22nd among all wide receivers last season.
Part of the reason why the Steelers had such high passing volume was incredible inefficiency. Even if the Steelers pass the football at a lower rate next season, we should expect positive regression to hit Roethlisberger and the receivers. Big Ben averaged a lowly 6.3 yards per pass attempt, the third-lowest in the NFL. His previous career-low rate was 7.2 all the way back in 2008. What Johnson and Claypool will lose in volume, they should be able to make up in efficiency.
Additionally, both Johnson and Claypool are ascending players entering their third and second seasons, respectively. It is entirely possible that one or both make a leap that demands a larger role in the Steelers offense.
Johnson dropped a league-high 14 passes last season and was even benched because of those struggles. If he can fix those drop woes, perhaps Johnson could unlock that Ridley- or Godwin-level breakout.
Claypool is Pittsburgh’s deep threat and had a whopping 31 targets beyond 20 yards last season (third-most). However, he only reeled in nine of those targets for a poor 29% catch rate (74th). Claypool’s path to a second-year breakout requires a revamped deep-ball connection with Big Ben.
Do not let Johnson or Claypool slip past the fifth round in fantasy drafts, as both remain locked in WR2s with WR1 upside.