Forecasting JuJu Smith-Schuster's 2020 fantasy outlook

What we're gonna do now is go back. Way back. Back into time.

All the way to the year 2013. Iron Man 3 dominated the box office. Macklemore made thrift shops cool. And we had no clue what a murder hornet was.

We were also wondering if a young receiver named Antonio Brown could step into the void left when Mike Wallace departed Pittsburgh for Miami. At that point, Brown was entering his fourth season and had posted just one 1,000-yard year that was good, but not great. Of course, we all know how things turned out for both Brown and the Steelers offense. (For better and worse.)

Fast forward to last year. Fantasy managers had high hopes for JuJu Smith-Schuster stepping up to replace Brown after the latter forced his way out of the Steel City. Smith-Schuster was coming off a breakout season with 111 catches, 1,426 yards and seven touchdowns. It was logical to think that he could at least duplicate that feat -- and maybe exceed it -- if he was the top target in the passing game.

In short ... things didn't go well.

Some things were out of his control -- notably, the Steelers' poor quarterback play after Ben Roethlisberger went down for the season with an elbow injury. You can spend your time arguing over whether JuJu was better playing with Mason Rudolph or Devlin Hodges, but I have a family and a life, so I'll spend my time elsewhere. Just know that a 42/552/3 stat line wasn't what anyone anticipated going into the season.

While the guys throwing the rock were certainly a problem, Smith-Schuster's hands didn't do him any favors. During his breakout season, Smith-Schuster was charged with six drops on 171 targets (per Pro Football Focus). The following season, the number of drops stayed the same but the target number was cut nearly in half. You can try to do the math on that if you choose to but I'll save you the trouble. That's a bad thing.

There is reason to be optimistic about JuJu in 2020, starting with the return of Roethlisberger. Big Ben being back doesn't just mean more accurate targets, it likely means more targets overall. Roethlisberger's 675 pass attempts in 2018 were an outlier but it shouldn't overshadow how much the Steelers have thrown the rock in recent seasons. From 2015-17, Roethlisberger averaged 37.5 attempts per game.

Pittsburgh's offense was also more uptempo in 2018, running over seven more plays per game compared to last season. But you can do that sort of thing when you're not relying on underperforming backup quarterbacks. It's also what makes Roethlisberger's health so important for both Smith-Schuster and the Steelers' chances for success. There hasn't been this much riding on a right arm since Henry Rowengartner took the mound against the Mets in '93.

Let's not pretend that it's all sunshine and light for JuJu in 2020. There will be challengers for some of those targets. After a strong finish to 2019, Diontae Johnson has become your favorite analyst's favorite sleeper wide receiver. James Washington is hoping to improve after a big progression between his first and second seasons. Plus, the addition of Eric Ebron adds a tight end target who can potentially achieve what we hoped Vance McDonald would have last year.

Smith-Schuster thrived on volume in 2018 and reaching a similar plateau seems a bit far-fetched. Yet if JuJu can see triple-digit throws, he could pay off on an early fourth-round ADP. It won't make up for murder hornets, but it could be a nice distraction for a few months.

Marcas Grant is a fantasy analyst for NFL.com, and a man who can't find enough things to do with his sourdough starter. Send him your carb-heavy baking ideas or fantasy football questions on Twitter @MarcasG.

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