In life, things change fast.
Sports, and football in specific, are the epitome of this notion. One day, an athlete can be at the top of the world, and within a few swift moments, it can all disappear. Juju Smith-Schuster had a sophomore year for the ages while at USC. His 1400-plus yards and double-digit touchdowns at age 18 had scouts salivating at his potential. Mock drafts had him going as a first round pick. Some were even calling him the WR1 of the draft class. All he needed to do was back that up in his junior year. However, instead of producing at a greater or even an equal level to his sophomore year, Schuster faltered. His 2016 stat line saw nearly twenty fewer receptions and over five hundred fewer receiving yards.
As a result, both his real-world and dynasty stocks took a hit. Instead of going as a first round pick and a high-first round dynasty rookie pick, Schuster fell to the late second round in real life and a borderline-first round pick. His stock endured this hit despite a rookie class with an alarming lack of talent at wide receiver.
Was Schuster’s middling 2016 a blip on the radar, or was it an accurate representation of who he really is as a player? Let’s dive in and find out.
Although his sub-par final collegiate season definitely puts a dent in Schuster’s value, it’s better that he at least has an elite season on his resume, even if it wasn’t during his final year. Wide receivers who perform earlier on in their careers are known to have a much higher hit rate than those junior or senior year one-hit wonders. Very few can say that they broke out as early as Smith-Schuster. In fact, PlayerProfiler.com says that only seven percent of college wide receiver prospects (since the site started tracking the data) have ever produced so much at a younger age than Schuster. That’s a great silver lining hang onto if you’re a Schuster fan.
Of course, the other positive of Schuster’s early breakout is the time gives him to hone his craft on the pro level before hitting his prime. JuJu will still be 20 years old by the kickoff of the 2017 season. He has a much greater chance of being ready of statistically explode by his prime than his older peers. Here’s a nugget for context: as long as he doesn’t suffer a major injury until 2021, Schuster will have four years of NFL on-field experience at the same age that Kevin White had four games of similar exposure. Many still cling to their belief that White still has time because of his youth. Schuster has that time plus half a decade more. I had to do a double-take when I was conducting the research for this.
College, Year Three
Obviously, Schuster’s 2016 season is the elephant in the room. It’s the only reason his value isn’t in the stratosphere. And his junior year wasn’t just bad in comparison to his amazing sophomore year; it was bad for a prospect, in general. His College Dominator of 31.9% was barely above average. Players with that level of production usually end up being mid-to-late round draft picks. Schuster’s main goal will be proving that his most recent season was a fluke.
Young Age and Old Age
Believe it or not, Schuster’s age is both a positive and a negative. It’s a positive because of the possible longevity of his career. I wouldn’t be surprised to see JuJu suit up for fifteen seasons when it’s all said and done. However, entering the draft at age 20 also means that the prospect is an unfinished product. This is true in his physique and in terms of his polish. This wouldn’t be so bad if his quarterback wasn’t Ben Roethlisberger, someone who seriously considered retiring in 2016. It’s completely conceivable that by the time JuJu is hitting his stride in the NFL that Roethlisberger is far past his playing days.
Tough Competition for Targets
When the team you’re joining already has an All-Pro wide receiver and a top-two receiving running back, there’s going to be a bit of a target squeeze for you and your other teammates. At this point in his career, it’s not crazy to say that there are five other pass catchers on the team better-positioned to make an impact in 2017 than Schuster. Brown and Bell are obvious. Sammie Coates and Eli Rogers both have an experience and an age edge on JuJu. Martavis Bryant is on track to return. With the Steelers going all-in until Big Ben retires, seeing Schuster frequently on the bench could become a common occurrence until he physically matures.
As much as I love Juju’s college profile because of his age-adjusted production, I have to agree with the market correction that his dynasty stock has endured. I have not, and will not touch him with any of the first round picks that I own. He wouldn’t be my first choice at wide receiver in round two, either. Chris Godwin comes to mind as one wide receiver who I’d take before Juju Smith-Schuster.
Even though he’s a decent bet to evolve into a productive NFL player at one point or another in his life, it’s not a given, either. If you’re taking Schuster at or above his ADP, you’re expecting one of a few scenarios to happen:
Scenario 1: Schuster has an age-21 season better than virtually all the players in NFL history, beats each and every one of the Steeler wide receivers previously mentioned, and becomes the team WR2.
S1 Outcome: Schuster becomes Roethlisberger’s third option at best and commands about 120 targets. He produces to the tune of a fringe WR2 season.
Scenario 2: Due to injuries and suspension, Schuster rises up the depth chart by default and is thrown into the fire as a starter.
S2 Outcome: Schuster is rushed into the lineup. With a slow start, his morale could become critically damaged, as could the organization’s–and Roethlisberger’s–trust in him.
Scenario 3: Ben Roethlisberger, despite his serious consideration of retirement in 2016, plays three more seasons.
S3 Outcome: Schuster plays one season with Roethlisberger as a starter. He still is the team’s third-best option behind Brown and Bell, leading to an unstable game log.
Scenario 4: Schuster hones his craft by his third season, but Ben Roethlisberger is already retired. The team quickly finds a passable replacement in the NFL draft.
S4 Outcome: The Steelers quickly find a top-32 NFL quarterback in the draft, despite that being a nearly impossible feat. Unless they pick at the top of the first round, this will only be more difficult. That quarterback takes two or three seasons to acclimate to the NFL. By then, Schuster is in his fourth or fifth year. It’s anyone’s guess on whether he stays or leaves as a free agent.
I hate to throw water on the JuJu train (get it? Juuu Juuu instead of choo choo? I’m sorry, that was bad), but this definitely wasn’t the situation he imagined in the winter of 2015-2016. His landing spot could really ruin his chances of fantasy success early on in his career, but it definitely could be worse. Who knows, it’s possible that some outside factor was the culprit for Schuster’s down season and he’s already taken care of it. Having the prolific Ben Roethlisberger as your QB certainly isn’t the worst possible scenario.
As of now, though, I’m going to remain on the platform as the first-class car of the JuJu train leaves the station.
Want more information about what to look for at Steelers Training Camp and more about JuJu’s competition? Check out this training camp preview.