The Return of the Juju
Setting records at such a young age, heaps expectations onto anyone and Juju Smith-Schuster was no different. He was the youngest player in NFL history to get to 1,000, 1,500, and 2,500 receiving yards to start his career. He was the first player in NFL history to record five touchdowns before his 21st birthday, among other records that he set in his young career in Pittsburgh, and with all of the accolades came a lifestyle that few can manage. He was becoming one of the fastest-rising receivers in the NFL and had lofty expectations with the Steelers, but things started to change and the usage he saw to start his career, playing on the outside and inside, began to change.
After starting his career closer to a 60/40 split between being a slot receiver and an outside receiver, the Steelers began to change that. His final three seasons saw his slot percentage increase to a career-high in 2020 at 85 percent. The Steelers were changing and they didn’t feel he could succeed on the outside with Big Ben, the aging quarterback, any longer. Enter Andy Reid.
This season his usage has flipped from what he primarily was in Pittsburgh, a slot receiver, to playing nearly 60 percent of his snaps from a wide alignment. His targets have also been steady with Mahomes gaining confidence and comfort in his skillset with seven targets in four out of the last five games. He finally broke out against the Buffalo Bills and had his first 100-yard game and touchdown as a Chief. He went on to repeat that performance in week seven against the 49ers. In both of those games, he saw the second and third most snaps as an outside receiver in Andy Reid’s offense. The team and quarterback have begun to understand how to use his skill set to their advantage and while he was largely considered just a zone-beating slot receiver, Mahomes disagrees.
Much has been made about Smith-Schuster’s inability to create separation against man coverage quickly. I don’t think there’s any denying that skillset has taken a step back over the last few seasons with injuries popping up. He’s an excellent adjuster and locator to the football when it’s in the air and in the last few games, the Chiefs have taken advantage of that. With defenses more likely to play man coverage with the Chiefs receivers, they’ve catered some of their offense to that fact and these back shoulder throws to Smith-Schuster will be a staple.
Having a mind like Reid’s with a quarterback in Mahomes that can do anything, allows them to alter some of the offense to best fit the skills of their players and Smith-Schuster has some things left in his bag while still only 25 years young.
Once again using man coverage against the defense, the Chiefs run an RPO(run-pass option) with Marquez Valdes-Scantling(MVS) and Smith-Schuster in a stack alignment with MVS as the front man. An easy way to create space underneath against man is running a “pick” play with MVS taking both defenders out of the play and having Smith-Schuster run a slant underneath. Mahomes delivers a strike between the outstretched hands of the defensive end and the linebacker to Smith-Schuster in space and he’s one on one with the deep safety. He angles his path flatter as the safety closes in, makes him miss, then takes it an extra ~30 yards.
He’s still the zone-beating machine most of us saw on tape the last few seasons, but Reid has added more creativity to his usage, schemed him up well, and is extracting the most out of his talents in this offense. He’s also proved to be just as tough as he was in Pittsburgh and it’s afforded him some extra yards and in this case, a touchdown.
Mahomes is famed for keeping plays alive and has the arm to get the ball anywhere he needs. Smith-Schuster hasn’t seen an arm like this and getting used to it can be tricky, especially when the play breaks down. He does a great job locating space on third down and giving Mahomes an option to get the first down. While fighting for that first down, he spins out of a few tackles and finds himself in open space for a touchdown.
He’s been a great addition to Kansas City’s passing attack and has been a reliable option this season with only one drop on 44 targets. I expect the target volume to stay steady and have spike weeks which will be music to fantasy owner’s ears. He’s running a route on 92% of his snaps, that’s the participation we want to see to maximize those fantasy points. Back-to-back weeks with 20+ points and a growing role in an offense where the quarterback is gaining trust in Smith-Schuster as well. It’s not all smoke and mirrors on the fantasy front either, he’s 14th in the NFL in yards per route run(2.09) among players with 39 or more targets and he’s averaging 8.2 yards of YAC/reception as well.
Juju Smith-Schuster might not be the phenom he was when he was drafted in the second round, but he’s far from the disintegrating player many believed him to be when he signed with Kansas City. With sustained usage and involvement in the offense, he could earn himself a nice extension in KC or even a great deal on the open market at the end of the season. One thing remains clear, Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes make the lives of their receivers easier, but Juju is starting to make Patrick’s life easier too. That’s a relationship they’ll look to keep around.