Antonio Brown vs. JuJu Smith-Schuster: Who Will Be More Productive in 2019?
Credit: USA TODAY Sports
- This offseason, Raiders WR Antonio Brown has gotten into a social media feud with former teammate and Steelers WR JuJu Smith-Schuster.
- Matthew Freedman creates player projections for both receivers to see which player is likelier to be more productive in 2019.
Ever since the Pittsburgh Steelers traded wide receiver Antonio Brown to the Oakland Raiders, the mercurial future Hall-of-Famer has been taking shots at former teammates, most recently wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster.
Last year, Brown and Smith-Schuster became just the sixth duo in NFL history to have 100 receptions and 1,000 yards receiving each.
But the good times are gone.
In Week 17, Brown got into an argument with a teammate (reportedly quarterback Ben Roethlisberger) and threw a football at him. He then skipped practice for the rest of the week, including the Saturday walk-through, and as a result he was deactivated for the team’s must-win game against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Meanwhile, with Brown sitting at home, the Steelers very publicly announced that JuJu was the team’s 2018 MVP.
Imagine being Antonio — the NFL’s best wideout over the past half decade and the league leader in receiving touchdowns with 15 — and seeing your franchise say that a snotty-nosed slot receiver whom you’ve mentored is more important than you are.
It’s not hard to see why Antonio dislikes JuJu: Antonio is a diva.
JuJu is the Anti-Antonio
While Antonio is a drama magnet, JuJu has a down-to-earth quality that could easily rub someone like Antonio the wrong way. JuJu’s humility is so +EV that it might seem calculated if it were not so clearly sincere.
In Week 16, JuJu fumbled the ball in the final minute of a 31-28 loss to the New Orleans Saints just as the Steelers were approaching field-goal range. The Saints recovered the ball and won the game after a quick kneel down.
Afterward, JuJu owned up to his mistake.
JuJu accepted responsibility for his actions. As great as Brown has been as a player, humility and accountability have never been virtues of his.
While Brown has been a self-promoting savant for most of his career, JuJu has regularly exhibited a selflessness and generosity of spirit that must simultaneously endear him to teammates and fans and annoy the attention-seeking Brown.
Framed differently: If JuJu and Brown were characters in Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” JuJu would be Adam … and Brown would be Satan. JuJu was created to replace Brown. He’s what Brown isn’t.
Like Milton’s Satan, Brown is driven by one of the most primal of emotions: Jealousy.
JuJu Was Better Than Brown in 2018
And Brown should be jealous: JuJu might already be better than he is.
Last year, by almost any predictive metric, JuJu outplayed Antonio.
- Yards per Route Run: 2.02 vs. 1.94
- Adjusted Yards per Attempt with Roethlisberger: 8.08 vs. 6.89
- Receiver Air Conversion Ratio (RACR): 0.99 vs. 0.67
While his production was inflated with touchdown production, for most of the 2018 season Brown stood on the precipice of a cliff, ready to fall off the very mountain that JuJu was scaling.
Brown has been a top-tier player since 2013, but last year he had his worst season since his injury-impacted 2012 campaign. He’s almost certainly declining.
But JuJu, who turned 22 years old in November, has been preternaturally prolific. No other wide receiver in NFL history has more yards than JuJu before his 22nd birthday, and the list of players who immediately trail him is impressive.
- JuJu Smith-Schuster: 1,783
- Randy Moss: 1,313
- Amari Cooper: 1,070
- Mike Evans: 1,051
- Keenan Allen: 1,046
- Sammy Watkins: 982
- Josh Gordon: 805
- DeAndre Hopkins: 802
JuJu is ready.
Antonio & JuJu’s Social Media Feud
Late in the evening of Mar. 9, the Steelers traded Brown away. Within a day, JuJu let Steelers fans know that he was prepared to play as the team’s No. 1 wide receiver.
Evidently, that didn’t sit well with Brown.
On Sunday, Apr. 7, Brown bizarrely sent this tweet.
When a Steelers fan predictably trolled Brown by reminding him that JuJu was the team’s MVP last year, Brown called out the young receiver.
Within an hour, JuJu responded in kind.
Even when he has Twitter beef with someone, JuJu comes across as a mild-mannered toothlessly friendly herbivore.
JuJu ended his Brown takedown with some words of wisdom from America’s Shakespeare …
… and that seemed to be that.
But then the following day, Brown dug deep into his Instagram archives and took a calculated shot at JuJu.
Brown clearly misfired. Even former NFL players called Brown out for his betrayal of a teammate who had been brutally loyal to him.
Brown rather quickly took down his Instagram post … just as some sportsbooks released head-to-head Antonio-JuJu receiving props.
Which receiver will be more productive in 2019?
Antonio Brown vs. JuJu Smith-Schuster: Most Receptions in 2019 Regular Season
- Antonio Brown: -175
- JuJu Smith-Schuster: +135
In comparing Brown and Smith-Schuster, I’ll be relying on my previously published 2019 projections for Brown and creating new projections for JuJu.
While we should expect Brown to be heavily targeted, it’s still fair to assume that he’ll get fewer than the average of 11.15 targets per game he saw with the Steelers since 2013: Pittsburgh tends to be a fast-paced, pass-heavy team.
Let’s say that Brown gets 10 targets per game. Considering that the Steelers led the league with 689 pass attempts last season and that the Raiders were tied for 16th with 556, 10 targets per game seems generous yet reasonable.
Let’s also assume that Brown will play 15 games.
For his career, Brown has a 65.7% catch rate. But he had what was probably the worst season of his career in 2018, and he’s had a reduced catch rate of just 61.9% since 2017.
But Raiders quarterback Derek Carr did have a career-high 68.5% completion rate in 2018. Let’s assume that with Carr’s newfound accuracy and shorter routes, Brown’s catch rate rebounds to his career mark of 65.7%.
That would give Brown a reception total of 98.6.
Last year JuJu had 10.38 targets per game, and with Brown gone, I think it’s reasonable to assume he’ll hit that number again. He could honestly have more, because the Steelers will need to redistribute Brown’s targets to other players, but we’ll be conservative.
Let’s assume that JuJu will play 15 games.
For his career, JuJu has a nice 69.0% catch rate, but we’ll be cautious and project him for the 66.9% mark he had in 2018.
That would give JuJu 104.1 receptions.
I’d bet on JuJu to have more receptions all the way down to +100.
The Pick: Smith-Schuster (+135)
Antonio Brown vs. JuJu Smith-Schuster: Most Receiving Yards in 2019 Regular Season
- Antonio Brown: -200
- JuJu Smith-Schuster: +150
Brown has had a ridiculous average of 1,524.2 yards receiving per year since 2013. But Brown is clearly starting to slow down.
He had a career-low 79.3 Pro Football Focus grade in 2018. And based on the RACR metric created by Josh Hermsmeyer of FiveThirtyEight, Brown has becoming increasingly inefficient over the past half decade when it comes to transforming targets and air yards into receptions, yards after the catch and ultimately receiving yards.
- 2014: 0.91
- 2015: 0.86
- 2016: 0.80
- 2017: 0.70
- 2018: 0.69
Carr is very much not someone who throws the ball down the field.
With a lower average depth of target, Brown will have fewer air yards to turn into receiving yards, and there’s little reason to expect him to be significantly more efficient than he has been over the past two years.
In 2018, Brown averaged 12.5 yards per reception, but we’ll be optimistic and project him for the 13.3 mark he’s averaged since 2013.
That gives him an impressive 1,313.8 yards.
As for JuJu, he’s averaged 13.9 yards per reception for his career, but we’ll project him for the lower 12.8 mark he had in 2018.
Even with that conservative projection, that would give JuJu 1,336.9 yards.
JuJu has the edge here as well, especially at significant plus money.
I’d bet on JuJu to have more yards all the way to +120.
The Pick: Smith-Schuster (+150)
Antonio Brown vs. JuJu Smith-Schuster: Most Touchdowns in 2019 Regular Season
- Antonio Brown: -150
- JuJu Smith-Schuster: +110
Since 2013, Brown has averaged 11.2 touchdowns per year — but that was with a Hall-of-Fame quarterback and a top-tier offense. Brown is unlikely to approach that number this year.
Last year, Brown was top-three in the league with 168 targets, yet he was just 11th with 1,297 yards. But Brown made up for his yardage shortfall by leading the league with 15 touchdowns receiving thanks to an absurd career-high 8.93% conversion rate of targets into touchdowns and league-high 23 end-zone targets.
Touchdown production is fickle on a game-to-game and year-to-year basis.
Even if Brown were still with the Steelers, he would be a prime regression candidate given that his career touchdown rate is 5.80%. But we should expect even more regression because the Raiders are highly unlikely to score as many touchdowns as the Steelers did last year.
Even if Brown has the same number of targets (and he’ll probably have fewer), a lower percentage of his targets will come in the red zone because the Raiders will have fewer possessions inside the opponent 20-yard line.
But let’s assume that Brown matches his 5.80% career touchdown rate. With that number, Brown would have 8.7 touchdowns.
And that number feels aggressively high, given that in 2013, 2015 and 2017 — all of which were strong seasons — Brown had touchdown rates of 4.79%, 5.18% and 5.52%.
As for JuJu, his career touchdown rate is 5.71%. I expect that number will increase in 2019, as he seems likely to inherit a significant portion of Brown’s vacated high-value end-zone targets, but we’ll project him with his career rate.
That gives JuJu a projection of 8.9 touchdowns — and that’s on the conservative side.
Realistically, I expect Brown to end up with 7-8 touchdowns and JuJu with 9-10.
I’d bet on JuJu to have more touchdowns down to +100.
The Pick: Smith-Schuster (+110)
Antonio Brown vs. JuJu Smith-Schuster: Risk Factors
While I stand by my projections for Brown and Smith-Schuster, I also think that there are some risk factors they don’t take into account.
For instance, Antonio will be 31 years old in Week 1, whereas JuJu won’t turn 23 till late November. Because of his age, Brown is significantly more likely than JuJu to miss multiple games to injury. He’s also likelier to suffer a decline in physical ability.
Brown is also notably smaller than JuJu. Brown is 5-foot-10 and 181 pounds, whereas JuJu is 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds. Because of the difference in size, Brown is (again) likelier to miss multiple games to injury.
On top of that, Brown is likelier (it seems) than JuJu to miss time to a suspension. Brown has had some off-the-field issues over the past few years, and there’s a non-zero chance that his behavior and actions could result in a league-enforced suspension during the season. JuJu, meanwhile, looks like the typical Fortnite-playing millennial who stays at home and keeps out of trouble.
Brown also seems likelier than JuJu to be suspended by his team during the season. It’s not at all hard to envision Brown acting up in Oakland if the season goes sideways, the offense stinks and his production dips. JuJu, though, is familiar with the offense and his teammates and is in a good situation. Even if the Steelers have a bad year, JuJu is likely to continue to play hard and be a good teammate: He’s working for that second contract and the big payday it brings.
And JuJu’s per-game opportunities also seem more stable and projectable. If Brown clashes with the Oakland coaching staff, it’s easy to imagine his role within the offense constricting. And last year the Raiders offense was highly inconsistent, emphasizing different players on a game-to-game basis. But with JuJu we have a strong sense of how he’ll be used by the Steelers and how their offense will operate.
Given these risks, I think JuJu compared to Brown is even more attractive than my projections indicate.
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