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Countdown to 2021 fantasy football drafts: JuJu Smith-Schuster No. 73

Steelers WR comes in at 73 in our fantasy football rankings countdown to the 2021 NFL season.

Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster (19) warms up before the game against the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium.  Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

JuJu Smith-Schuster had a somewhat disappointing season in 2020 despite catching 97 passes. That seems hard to believe, but with no real rushing production, the Pittsburgh Steelers used Smith-Schuster as an extension of the running game as Ben Roethlisberger peppered him with short passes. Catching 97 balls and only gaining 831 yards is tough. He did find the end zone nine times though, so in the end, his PPR stats landed him WR16. We’ll delve into his 2021 projections here.

To commemorate the 2021 NFL season, we’ll be counting down the 75 best fantasy football players in the league. Picking a Top 75 is subjective, especially when you are projecting a whole season of accumulated fantasy points, but that’s part of the fun. We’ll assume what I see as an average league, which is 12 teams, .5 PPR scoring and a roster of 1QB, 2RB, 3WR, 1TE, & 1RB/WR/TE. Kickers and defenses need not apply.

Change is the nature of the NFL beast, so trades and injuries will likely impact this list as we go along, but hey, this isn’t rocket science. We’re here to have a little fun and build up some much needed anticipation for a league cast in the shadow by baseball, soccer, hockey, etc. Sarcasm aside, the NFL is addictive and we’re here to give your daily fix as we close in on the season.

The official and often updated fantasy football drafting tiers can be found here.

No. 73, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Pittsburgh Steelers, WR

Ranking Smith-Schuster is tough to be sure. The good news is that Roethlisberger goes to him in pressure situations. He tied Eric Ebron for the team lead in red zone targets and was much more efficient. In the end he should get plenty of opportunities, but there will be plenty of competition.

Competition for touches

Last season Smith-Schuster was second on the team in targets with 128 to Diontae Johnson’s 144. chase Claypool came in at 109 and Ebron was fourth with 91. Those four should remain the top targets, but the offense will try not to lean on the pass quite as much this season. The addition of rookie running back Najee Harris will boost an anemic run game and should be able to take some of the pressure off of Roethlisberger’s old arm. That probably means fewer targets to go around, but should also lead to more efficiency per target.

Team offensive expectations

There really is no doubt that the Steelers will run the ball more as long as Harris is healthy. Their offensive line isn’t great, but Harris will help the line out as well. Last season the Steelers had a league worst 3.6 yards per carry, but when James Conner was healthy, he went for 4.3 yards per carry. Not great, but the uptick in ability at the position will help.

In the end, much will depend on Roethlisberger’s arm. His arm strength deteriorated as the season went on. He did have major elbow surgery the season before so maybe another year removed from the surgery will help, but it also could just be that his age and injuries are catching up to him. No matter what though, an improved run game should help the offense not be so one-dimensional.

What’s his upside?

Smith-Schuster’s upside should be higher this season than last, as he hopes to be used more on the outside and his depth of target should be higher. The cliche that the run game sets up the passing game isn’t always correct, but for the Steelers and Smith-Schuster, the run game should allow him to get targets further down the field. Add in his high usage in the red-zone and he could see fewer receptions, but much higher yardage in 2021.

What’s his downside?

If Roethlisberger’s arm strength doesn’t recover this season, the passing game could take an even bigger hit than it did last season. And if the running game is hampered by a less than ideal offensive line, efficiency would take another hit. But in the end, I expect a similar season to last year, at least in fantasy points for the TikTok star.

Projection

80 receptions, 115 targets, 950 yards, 8 touchdowns