Fantasy Football: How the Antonio Brown Trade Affects Juju Smith-Schuster, Pittsburgh Steelers Offense

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Juju Smith-Schuster
PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 30: JuJu Smith-Schuster #19 of the Pittsburgh Steelers runs upfield past KeiVarae Russell #20 of the Cincinnati Bengals towards the end zone for an 11 yard touchdown reception in the third quarter during the game at Heinz Field on December 30, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

It finally happened. After months of buildup, the Pittsburgh Steelers finally sent wide receiver Antonio Brown off to the Oakland Raiders. In terms of fantasy football, this is a game-changing trade with several implications all across the league. We already broke down how Brown’s arrival affects the Raiders offense, but let’s look at how the Steelers offense will look without Brown in town. Pittsburgh had several top fantasy performers in 2018, but can Juju Smith-Schuster, James Conner, and Ben Roethlisberger carry their success over to 2019?

Fantasy Football: Juju Smith-Schuster, Pittsburgh Steelers Offensive Outlook Without Antonio Brown

Juju Smith-Schuster

With Antonio Brown gone, third-year wide receiver Juju Smith-Schuster is officially the top receiver in Pittsburgh. Smith-Schuster had a fantastic 2018, finishing the year with 111 receptions for 1,426 yards and seven touchdowns on 166 targets. Juju finished the season as the WR9 in standard scoring, and should only continue to develop as he gets older. With Brown out of town, Smith-Schuster should see even more targets moving forward.

However, just because he’s seeing more targets doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll be a better fantasy option. Part of the reason Juju was so great is that Antonio Brown was lining up on the other side. Juju was a dangerous weapon, but opposing defenses clearly put their focus on slowing down Brown. Heading into 2019, Smith-Schuster will start facing more double teams and top cornerbacks. Smith-Schuster has the makings of a number one receiver, but he’s going to be less efficient when he’s going up against the best of an opposing defense.

At the end of the day, Smith-Schuster will receive a higher target share and should naturally improve as a player. However, facing off against better cornerbacks will lead to less fantasy points per target. In all, this should level out and Juju should finish 2019 with roughly the same stat line as he did in 2018.

2019 Prediction: 110 receptions, 1,350 yards, eight touchdowns

James Conner

Third-year running back James Conner is the biggest winner of the Antonio Brown trade. Detractors will argue that losing Brown will allow defenses to hone in on the run and try to take away the ground game. While that is true to an extent, the benefits from Brown’s departure far outweigh the added defensive focus.

Pittsburgh was one of the most pass-happy teams in the entire NFL throughout the 2018 season. According to TeamRankings.com, the Steelers threw the ball on 67.4% of their offensive plays, the second-highest rate in the league. Ben Roethlisberger loves to throw the ball, but that rate is going to decrease in 2019. A lower passing rate means more opportunities on the ground for Conner, which means more fantasy production. The icing on the cake is that, with Brown out of the picture, Conner could see an expanded role in the passing game.

The most important factor in a running back’s success is the offensive line, and Pittsburgh has arguably the best unit in the league. Mike Munchak may be gone, but the players are still there. David DeCastro and company will keep plowing over defensive lines, and the Steelers will try to run the ball now more than ever. James Conner should not only repeat his fantastic 2018, but he has good odds of actually improving his numbers if he can stay healthy all season long.

2019 Predictions: 1,300 rushing yards, 700 receiving yards, 18 combined touchdowns

Ben Roethlisberger

Ben Roethlisberger is going to take a big step back without Antonio Brown. The two-time Super Bowl champion finished 2018 as the QB2 in standard scoring, but he won’t do that again in 2019. Roethlisberger can still play, but his stats were artificially inflated to an extent by throwing blind prayers to Brown. It’s hard to blame Roethlisberger for doing this, as Brown typically hauled in any pass thrown his way. However, with Brown out of town, Roethlisberger won’t be able to get away with making those types of passes.

As previously mentioned, the Steelers had the second-highest pass rate in the league in 2018. That’s going to change in 2019, meaning that Roethlisberger’s raw passing totals are going to go down. Roethlisberger led the league in pass attempts, so a lot of his fantasy production was due to high volume. Roethlisberger won’t have as many pass attempts next year, and his receivers won’t be as good. This spells doom for Roethlisberger, who could easily finish 2019 in the QB10-15 range.

2019 Predictions: 4,100 yards, 27 touchdowns, 13 interceptions

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