John “JuJu” Smith-Schuster (@TEAM_JUJU9). I looked at him differently than many of the players I evaluate pre-draft, and it had nothing to do with his hyphenated last name (okay, so I did wonder what that was all about). I was skeptical about how good he actually is. A couple of years ago, Smith-Schuster was commonly the first overall player drafted in developmental (devy) leagues. I wanted to know why. I saw a short wide receiver (WR) who was not very fast and was presumably being publicized because he was playing at USC. I thought the highlight plays were exaggerated and I was not impressed. I committed to watching tape, reviewing stats, and evaluating measurables. Being as objective as possible, I was planning to come up with all the reasons to recommend not drafting Smith-Schuster. Then, that all changed.
Here was another USC WR being hyped – and I had seen it all before going back to Mike Williams in 2005 and Dwayne Jarrett in 2007. That timeframe occurred after a long drought for USC WRs in the NFL. In fact, you probably need to go back to the 1996 NFL Draft of Keyshawn Johnson to find a meaningful fantasy football WR from USC. Unless you wish to consider a success, the “other” Steve Smith in 2007 who had some nice fantasy seasons, but unsustained. More recently, Robert Woods, Marqise Lee, and Nelson Agholor entered the NFL draft with much promise and were rookie draft darlings in their respective classes. However, none has become WR1 material. While Woods became a semi-reliable WR2 for the Bills (and likely just a WR3 for your fantasy teams), only in 2016 was Lee ever healthy enough to stay on the football field and produce in real life – let alone fake football.
Agholor led plenty of dynasty drafters astray, many holding his stock hoping it would increase in value so they could at least get something out of their first-round pick. After many high draft picks had been squandered, and desperate sell-low trades were made, disgruntled dynasty owners were moving on from USC WRs. I received this comment recently from a peer, “I’m not drafting JuJu; I don’t care if he’s a hit, I’d rather miss on the one USC WR that’s great than take that chance.” Here’s DFF’s own John Di Bari (@DiBari22) with that negative perspective.
Fool Me Twice, Shame on Me
The prevailing wisdom about whether Smith-Schuster will be a successful fantasy WR, however appropriate and seemingly well-guided, is as much about previous USC wideouts as it is about Smith-Schuster. Fool me once, shame on you! Like Don Corleone in The Godfather “…I’m a superstitious man, and if some unlucky accident should befall him…” we can blame it on all the other USC WRs, or some byproduct of the USC system.
I was already looking at the glass half-empty when I read things about Smith-Schuster such as: “He arm-catches too much,” “He drops a lot of would-be catches,” and “He doesn’t get separation.” I also read generalizations implying that he’s overrated with the advice to move him down my draft board, maybe even into the second round of my rookie draft.
What about evaluating a player without propaganda, narratives, and superstition? Let’s review Smith-Schuster’s individual accomplishments and see how he compares with NFL WRs.
Rotoviz compared Smith-Schuster with Laquon Treadwell and illustrated some compelling similarities:
|Name||Age||MS Yds.||MS TD||DR||Height (Inches)||Weight||Forty||20 Yard Short Shuttle||Vertical|
According to Rotoviz, Smith-Schuster’s Height Adjusted Speed Score of 90 would place him in the 30th percentile of wide receivers, his short shuttle in the 37th percentile, and his vertical jump in the 17th percentile. Treadwell was generally the first WR selected in rookie drafts last year, and in some scoring systems, the first player overall. People saw something they liked. It took him some time to acclimate to the pros and learn the offense, and he didn’t do particularly well his rookie year. However, one season does not make a trend. There’s still time for Treadwell to pan out. He ain’t dead yet.
Matt Harmon on The Fantasy Footballers website investigates interesting data in his now-famous Reception Perception analyses. While his points of emphasis are certainly not intended to denigrate players, there are both pros and cons revealed through his deep-dives. Expecting Smith-Schuster to readily transition to the pros could be affected by his profound usage on one side of the field in college as shown below (Dataset below from Matt Harmon’s 2017 Reception Perception):
It’s clear that Smith Schuster was used heavily Wide-Right in the USC offense. Harmon stated that over the draft classes of 2014 and 2015, “players who took more than 70% of their snaps from one side of the field largely struggled to transition quickly to the league.” Treadwell could be used as an example here as well, as he was used greatly on the left side in college and struggled in his rookie season.
Further based on Harmon’s analysis, Smith-Schuster primarily ran curl, slant and dig routes – these made up about 60% of his total routes run.
We can see these easy completions on high-percentage throws allowed Smith-Schuster to be productive in the intermediate passing game (Intermediate pass game stats from PFF):
This isn’t all-bad. It’s clear from watching Smith-Schuster play – and illustrated in the data to the left (from PFF) – he’s determined and successful in the intermediate ranges. Only Corey Davis had better production on passes less than 20-yards from the line of scrimmage.
Paraphrasing Harmon, Smith-Schuster ran dig routes at an 81.8% success rate vs. coverage, which is above average. The dig (in-route) generally requires subtle artistry to execute against both zone and man-cover. His consistent success with that pattern points to untapped potential as a route-runner in the pros. Smith-Schuster also had success down-field at 80% on post-routes and 62.5% on corner-routes.
Dig Route vs. Wisconsin (an in-route run from the left side in this case):
Harmon suggests that Smith-Schuster’s best NFL system is one that features him in the middle of the field in the intermediate zones. This aligns well with his college production.
Below, illustrates how Smith-Schuster can turn intermediate passes into TDs with slick moves and physicality:
Arizona – 2016
Another play against Arizona on a long ball, Smith-Schuster makes a contested catch, maintains his balance while losing the defensive back (DB) who grabbed for the ball, and scores like it’s easy.
Smith-Schuster started playing for USC as a 17-year-old kid. He can’t even legally order an adult beverage until late in his rookie NFL season. He made a name for himself in his very first game at USC, catching four passes for 123 yards against Fresno State. Incidentally, that set a record for the most yards by a true freshman WR in his first game in USC history. During his breakout sophomore season of 2015, Smith-Schuster appeared on SportsCenter highlights at 18-years old. He had 89 receptions, 1500 yds, 10 TDs in the PAC-12 that season. That’s a young breakout age and a highly productive breakout season. Rotoviz’s Shawn Siegele, a well-respected thinker/innovator in the fantasy football community, has established breakout season as likely being as meaningful as (or more telling than) final season statistics.
Jon Moore at Pro Football Focus (PFF) developed an interesting metric he calls “Phenom Index” – a tool used to incorporate player age within player evaluation. Of the 2017 rookie WRs, JuJu aggregates to the second highest score, just behind Curtis Samuel (who is really a RB):
|WR||Draft||College||Combine?||msYDS||MSyd Z||Age||Age Z||PHENOM|
|Curtis Samuel||2017||Ohio State||YES||31.1||0.576||20.4||-2.338||2.914|
|Zay Jones||2017||East Carolina||YES||43.5||1.724||21.8||-0.829||2.553|
|Noel Thomas, Jr.||2017||Connecticut||YES||48.7||2.205||22.3||-0.235||2.44|
|Jalen Robinette||2017||Air Force||YES||55.4||2.826||22.9||0.421||2.405|
|Isaiah Ford||2017||Virginia Tech||YES||30.5||0.52||20.9||-1.778||2.298|
|Corey Davis||2017||W. Michigan||YES||42.5||1.631||22||-0.583||2.214|
|Chris Godwin||2017||Penn State||YES||28.1||0.298||20.8||-1.833||2.131|
|Taywan Taylor||2017||W. Kentucky||YES||36.7||1.094||21.8||-0.74||1.834|
|Fred Ross||2017||Mississippi State||YES||34||0.844||21.6||-0.977||1.821|
|Lance Lenoir||2017||Western Illinois||36.9||1.115||21.9||-0.669||1.784|
You can read more about these ranks and the Phenom Index at Rotoviz.
USC won their bowl game last season. Many thought Penn State shoulda, coulda, woulda… but they didn’t. One big reason USC won was a lot of Smith-Schuster, with 7-catches for 133 yards (season high) and a TD (his 25th career touchdown) to put the exclamation point on his career in the Rose Bowl victory.
We’ve established Smith-Schuster’s success in the short to intermediate game with dig routes. We can see from many of Smith-Schuster’s college highlights that he is also capable of being the outside WR in short and long pass plays.
2016/2017 Rose Bowl vs. Penn State
2016/2017 Rose Bowl vs. Penn State
Utah – 2016
The following clips against Notre Dame illustrate Smith-Schuster’s tenacity and drive in the pass-game versus the press:
Notre Dame – 2015
Notre Dame – 2015 (Closeup)
- Very competitive: him or you mentality
- Plays tough over the middle and in traffic
- Strong, and plays to his size/strength: does not play small
- Physical in the pass game
- Press coverage doesn’t rattle him
- Aggressive running with the ball
- Adept at gaining YAC
- Generally, catches with his hands
- Excellent ball-tracking ability
- Uses space very well in zone coverage (knows where defenders are and works around them)
- Consistently beat zone coverage
- Excellent field vision to find soft spots vs. zone coverage
- Uses his body on 50/50 balls to shield DBs, with above-average balance in jumps
- Willing blocker and improved in this area each year
- Maintains awareness of the sideline to stay in bounds on both catches and runs
- Good footwork
- Uses his body to shield the ball from the defender
- Makes a lot of plays
- Large hands
- Strong hands to create initial separation on routes
These 2016 Highlights further demonstrate the explosive moves and catcher’s-mitt-hands of Smith-Schuster.
*Data above per ESPN.com
Total Career Numbers: 40 career games, 213 receptions, 3,092 yards (14.5 avg.), 25 TDs
Smith-Schuster closed out 2016 with 70 receptions for 914 yards and 10 TDs. That’s consecutive 10-TD seasons in 2015 and 2016. He also averaged 14.3 yards per catch over three seasons, and in 2015 he averaged 3.40 yards per route run (6th best among WRs with at least 100 targets), per PFF. Versus Washington, Smith-Schuster created separation with moves, power, and body positioning to win vs. Sidney Jones, who is highly regarded in the 2017 NFL draft. Based on the games I watched and the Draft Breakdown cut-ups (all of them) I have little concern about Smith-Schuster battling pro DBs in press coverage or finding soft spots in zone coverage.
2017 Scouting Combine Measurables
|Arm Length||32 7/8|
|Bench Press||15 reps|
|40-Yard Dash||4.54 sec.|
Comparable NFL Players
NFL.com Analyst Lance Zierlein compared Smith-Schuster to Anquan Boldin. Neither is the fastest nor tallest WR, but they are explosive and physical with DBs. They have a perpetual “my-ball” mentality. JuJu also brings yards after catch (YAC) to the equation.
I’ve heard Terrell Owens, Dez Bryant and Brandon Marshall comparisons made about the way Smith-Schuster plays. The chart below shows close comparables (comp) to Smith-Schuster based on quantifiable factors from his best and final seasons (2015 and 2016):
|Full Name||POS||PICK||HT||WT||Draft||College DR||College YPR|
|Chris D. Harper||WR||4.26||73||229||2013||29.20%||14.8|
|Notes: This is a great comp. group, based on Average of Best and Final seasons. However, one concern is NFL Drafts Scout (NFLDS) via CBS Sports considers Smith-Schuster as a 2nd-3rd round pick. This Data is filtered on rounds 1-4 to get extreme ranges. All the good comps are in the high extreme range (i.e. 1st round picks). We would want Smith-Schuster to be selected in Round-1 of the NFL Draft to expect similar production.|
|Full Name||POS||PICK||HT||WT||Draft||College DR||College YPR|
|Notes: This is promising. Many people prefer Best Season rather than Final Season. This comp. group includes many 2nd Round hits as well as late 1st Round hits.|
Data compiled by #TeamProductiveWR (@ChristipherBean) using PlayerProfiler.com, Pro Football Reference, and NFL Draft Scout.
Comps Calculated as Follows: HT +/- 2″, WT, DR, and YPR +/- 10%. Chart shows similar physical players(HT/WT) who were similarly important to their offense(DR), and were used/contributed similarly(YPR).
Best Comparable Player – aggregates physical attributes, college production, workout metrics, and NFL productivity and efficiency (when available) to find each player’s most similar peer at his position (per PlayerProfiler.com).
College Dominator Rating (DR) – A 35+% dominator indicates that a wide receiver has the potential to be a team’s No. 1 WR and/or a high caliber contributor. 20-35% indicates a mid-level talent with situational upside. Smith-Schuster accounted for nearly 36% of USC’s production (per PlayerProfiler.com).
Ben Natan (@TheBenNatan) compared JuJu to legendary college receiver Justin Blackmon of Oklahoma State. I think it makes a lot of sense: “Blackmon was a big bodied, physical player who was a good route runner, with great hands, ball skills and an ability to create offense after the catch, but he was not necessarily a consistent downfield threat.” Smith-Schuster is virtually identical in height and weight to Blackmon, and you can see from this 2012 NFL Draft Highlights video, they also play similarly. Blackmon was PPR gold with his ability to make tough catches and gain YAC. If Smith-Schuster can approximate Blackmon-level fantasy production, he is worth every bit of your first-round pick as a future WR1 in points. Sure, Blackmon was a possession receiver, which is typically WR2 material, but he became a WR1 in fantasy production since his YAC also resulted in TDs.
Additionally, you could do much worse than having your best comparable NFL player be DeAndre Hopkins on PlayerProfiler.com.
Our own Christipher Bean assembled the following comps. for Smith-Schuster post-combine, and it’s a strong list:
|BMI||Body Mass Index|
|DR||Dominator Rating – Percentage of total team receiving production|
|YPR||Yards Per Reception|
|40T||40 Yard Dash Drill|
|HASS||Height Adjusted Speed Score|
|Data From PlayerProfiler.com Data Analysis Tool|
|Supplementary Data from Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFLDraftScout.com|
Data above: Smith-Schuster +/- 1 STDEV of HT, WT, DR, YPR, 40T. Filtered to Rounds 2-3(Per NFLDS Projection of 2nd-3rd Round Pick)
“Life ain’t no 40-yard-dash. Be in it for the long run.” Smith-Schuster has been a highly rated player since before he lit it up as a true freshman in college. I’m not dropping him in my rankings at this point. I realize he’s not the fastest WR, and he may take some time to become a pro, but I’m betting on him. There are sexier WRs in this draft: There are WRs who are taller and faster, run better routes and jump higher. There are guys that if you don’t press them, they will run right by DBs for wide-open TD catches. There are WRs who made names for themselves at the combine. Likely none of those players has a greater love of the game and greater knowledge than Smith-Schuster, and even fewer have been as productive for a major program like USC.
From the Horse’s Mouth
According to Smith-Schuster, there are reasons an NFL team should draft the Trojan: Toughness, football IQ and playing while injured (admittedly played with a broken hand that included a plate and screws to repair). Five days after surgery, against Arizona, he went 8/138/1 (a 72-yard score). His coaches brag about his work ethic and rumors are he is a great teammate. He also claims to be a “strong Christian man.” And about that hyphenated last name… Smith-Schuster’s biological father was not a part of his life. His stepfather became a key part of his life, and the formerly known as John “JuJu” Smith said he wanted to honor his stepfather by legally taking his last name. His stepfather introduced Smith-Schuster to football where he became a high school star at safety, kick returner, running back and wide receiver. His high school was none other than Long Beach Poly, which has produced more NFL players than any high school in the United States. Smith-Schuster sounds like the high character “baller” NFL coaches love to have on their teams.
In an interview conducted by The Ringer, Smith-Schuster said, “I get a lot of media heat about USC wide receivers not producing in the NFL,” he says. “I tell them, ‘Look, everyone’s different. I’m my own person. And I’m here to prove everybody wrong.’”
Average Draft Position (ADP)
In April, JuJu Smith-Schuster is being selected at an ADP of 1.09 in rookie mock drafts through Dynasty Football Factory (DFF), per @FFBlitz. That is the bottom third and sweet-spot of the round for drafting value. DFF composite rookie rankings have Smith-Schuster as the 8th best rookie WR and the 18th best rookie player available, which presents you with a tremendous value if your rookie drafts follow suit.
My draft advice is to look beyond singular positive or negative aspects when evaluating fantasy potential to find your WR1s. You can compare the current crop of WRs and split hairs all day about which players are slightly better. Review data from various sources to look for WR1s at value. Over the years, this same type of analysis has resulted in my drafting guys like T.Y. Hilton, Donte Moncrief, Stefon Diggs, and Jamison Crowder as value-plays. My number one WR in last year’s draft had an awesome rookie-year. In most of my rookie drafts, I took advantage of those who either could not let go of Michael Thomas’ inability to run the gauntlet drill at the NFL Combine, would not let go of Ohio State angst or refused to acknowledge that his usage at OSU hurt his dominator rating (which was actually pretty good). In one draft, I traded down twice in the first round to select Thomas with the 1.09, watching Treadwell, Josh Doctson, and Corey Coleman be drafted within the first 5-picks, Will Fuller at 1.07 and Sterling Shepard at 1.08. That’s five WRs off the board before I drafted my WR1.
You can get away with similar tactics this year with JuJu Smith-Schuster, as he has become undervalued. NFL Films Analyst Greg Cosell recently stated that Smith-Schuster is a better prospect this year than Michael Thomas was in 2016.
I began my research thinking I could prove Smith-Schuster wrong. Instead, I came away impressed and more convinced he will likely be an asset to my dynasty teams and a future WR1 in fantasy points. While I never viewed Smith-Schuster as worthy of the number one overall selection in my devy drafts, I will not be moving him down my rookie draft board. If you drop him in your rankings based on the mystique of previous USC WRs, or because he’s not quite as fast as other WRs, you’re doing yourself a disservice and creating greater value for dynasty owners like me.
While I was planning to come up with all the reasons to recommend not drafting Smith-Schuster, I discovered not only does he have a great breakout age, but also strong dominator rating, phenom index, and size working in his favor. He beats press coverage, he’s savvy at creating space with his body and using finesse to get open. He’s also physical at the catch-point and aggressive after the catch.
Through research and watching tape of Smith-Schuster, I confirmed that metrics are only part of the equation. What a player takes to the field with them, can be equally important to how they perform. Much like adding a hyphen to his last name to honor his stepfather, I get the impression that by playing WR well, even while injured, Smith-Schuster is honoring himself and the game of football.
- #TeamProductiveWR (@ChristipherBean)
- Draft Breakdown
- Jon Moore and “Phenom Index”
- Matt Harmon and “Reception Perception”
- John Di Bari (@dibari22)
- Andy Singleton (@PeoplezPen) and FanTrax (@Fantrax)
- Michael Cipes (@FFBlitz)
- Ben Natan (@TheBenNatan) and Bleeding Green Nation
- Lance Zierlein (NFL.com)
- Greg Cosell (NFL Films)
- Los Angeles Times
- The Ringer
I hope you enjoyed this article and it helps you in your rookie drafts. Follow me on Twitter: @DFF_Madman