DAY 2: JUJU SMITH-SCHUSTER
Juju Smith-Schuster is one of the more intriguing free agents in the 2021 class. He turned 24 this past November, which allows him to potentially prioritize team fit over a long-term high money deal with the ability to hit free agency again still in his prime. We have seen mixed outcomes from Smith-Schuster the last 3 seasons, and the question still stands as to what type of player he is. Is he the superstar that finished as the WR #9 in 2018, the solid 2nd option for a team that produced a WR #18 finish in 2020, or will he struggle with bad QB play like he did in 2019 which saw him end the year as WR #66? There are explanations for all of these results, and I have the confidence that Smith-Schuster is still the player we saw in his first 2 seasons.
For the purpose of this article, the 2018 and 2020 will be the years of focus for Smith-Schuster. The reason the 2019 year will be exculded is because of the pure chaos that existed due to the QB abilities of Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges. According to PFF, in 2018 Smith-Schuster had an average depth of target (ADOT) of 9.3 yards and averaged 3.9 yards after catch (YAC). In 2020, his ADOT was 6.6 yards and averaged 4.0 YAC. He kept the playmaking ability, but he was put in situations where he continuously had to make the plays all by himself. If we take a look at some numbers for Ben Roethlisberger for these same years, they’ll show us what led to the drop in Smith-Schuster’s numbers. In 2018, Roethlisberger had an ADOT of 8.1 yards, meaning his passes on average traveled 8.1 yards. He was sacked on 3.4% of passing plays, resulting in the 2nd best sack percentage in the NFL. However, in 2020 Roethlisberger had an ADOT of 7.6 yards and a sack percentage of 1.9, far and away the best in the NFL. The reason I bring up these numbers is that it shows us that Smith-Schuster still has the playmaking ability in his game if his QB pushes the ball down the field on a more consistent basis. Roethlisberger was so concerned with getting the ball out of his hands quickly to avoid the big hits that it limited the downfield shots.There are a couple of teams that Smith-Schuster could improve his fantasy value with, so let’s get into it.
First off, even though Smith-Schuster would be able to prioritize team fit over money if he chose too, he is still going to get paid in the $11-$14 million range. That rules out about half the league due to the salary cap being lower than previously projected. Now, he fits into a modern NFL offense as an overqualified WR #2 or a slightly below average #1 guy. His best fit would be with the Arizona Cardinals on a 2–3-year deal. Assuming nothing extreme happens with Kyler Murray and the Cardinals pick up his 5th-year option, both he and DeAndre Hopkins are under contract through the 2024 season. Christian Kirk is an unrestricted free agent in 2022, so it makes sense to upgrade at the position early and appeal to the fact that Smith-Schuster could hit free agency at age 27. The Cardinals are looking for a #2 guy and Smith-Schuster is the perfect option for that scenario.
The 2nd option that makes the most sense is if he goes to the New York Jets, but only if the Jets keep Sam Darnold. Darnold and Smith-Schuster were teammates at USC and assuming they have a good relationship, Smith-Schuster could come in and get paid handsomely. The Jets have the 2nd most cap space in 2021 and need to improve everywhere. If you have followed Smith-Schuster over the last 2 years, you may be wondering why he might be considered one of the most intriguing free agents, but he has the talent to be a top-15 fantasy WR making him a potentially huge steal in drafts this year. Stay Dreamin’!