Ex-teammates Antonio Brown and Juju Smith-Schuster put together two amazing seasons lining up beside each other until the end of last season. Last year alone, they combined for 215 catches, 2,723 yards, and 22 touchdown catches. In the 2018 season, they were able to do the very rare task of having two WR’s from the same team be considered consistent fantasy gold. However, this WR tandem has come to an explosive end and a feud has begun.
Speculation is that the team had voted Smith-Schuster to be the season MVP over their longtime Pro Bowl WR Brown. Now Antonio Brown took this news like a responsible adult and teammate by faking an injury in a must-win game week 17. Then, he demanded a trade from his longtime team and started a social media rant about his ex-teammates and franchise. Brown has started a major rivalry with Smith-Schuster, which has led to many debates: Will Brown be able to continue his status as one of if not the best WR in the entire NFL? Will he struggle without his two-time super bowl champion QB in Big Ben Roethlisberger? Finally, will JuJu Smith-Schuster be able to take on the role as a WR1 for one of the top offenses in the league?
Let’s compare the two in the 2018 season. Smith-Schuster beat Brown by 7 catches and 129 yards. However, Brown made up for those two stat lines losses by dominating in the most important fantasy stat – touchdowns! Brown more than doubled Smith-Schuster’s fantasy value of 7 touchdown receptions by hauling in an incredible 15 touchdowns, leading the entire NFL.
On top of the major touchdown advantage, Brown also played one less game than
Smith-Schuster. If we were to give Brown his season average of 7 catches for 86 yards in the final game of the season that he missed for personal reasons and not injury related, then Brown would have tied Smith-Schuster in catches on the season and would only have trailed him by 43 yards. Adding in that scenario, there appears to be no doubt that Brown had the better 2018 season, even with him taking more attention from the defense.
The week 17 game that Brown missed also gave us a very important look into what Smith-Schuster can do as the Steelers’ lone WR. In week 17 Smith-Schuster faced the Bengals, a team that had nothing to play for and was beat up on defense missing their top cover corner in Dre Kirkpatrick. This is a team that Smith-Schuster will have to face twice next year and this time they will have Kirkpatrick back. In this game, Smith-Schuster was only able to haul in 5 catches for 37 yards and one touchdown, in a 16 -13 win over Cincinnati. This is a very concerning stat line for a game in which Smith-Schuster should have been able to run wild. Although we are able to dig even further back – in the 2017 season, Smith-Schuster’s rookie year, he was given two chances to shine without Brown. In those two games, he combined for 218 yards, 15 catches, 2 touchdowns, and a special team’s touchdown. This is exactly what everyone expected him to do without Brown and is comforting going into the 2019 season (not for nothing, Laundry Jones was his quarterback in the majority of those two games).
Let’s dive into the new scene in which Antonio Brown will be playing. As per just about every year of Brown’s career, he will be the main focus for the defense every week. He will have some help taking the secondary off of his back with the other Raiders addition Tyrell Williams, who has shown some real potential with Philip Rivers and the Chargers over the years. With Williams and other Raiders WR J.J. Nelson, Brown should have a little assistance keeping the defense from double teaming him all game long.
The Raiders have also added the top running back in the draft in Josh Jacobs, which could also give the defense another priority other than Brown. In addition, Brown’s quarterback situation is definitely an interesting one. Derek Carr is coming off a very down year, with a career low of 19 touchdowns, high in turnovers, 21 in total, and high in sacks 51. This is 20 more sacks than any other year of his career. However, he surprisingly had more yards than any other year of his career. Derek Carr and Jon Gruden are both major concerns for Brown’s future. That said, both have shown they can be very successful and Brown’s talent should be good enough to shine even in questionable situations.
Smith-Schuster’s situation is both similar and different from last season. He has the same quarterback and running back as last year. However, with the loss of Brown, he is going to be going up against the defense’s top corner every game, something very new to him. The Steelers have brought on Donte Moncrief, Ryan Switzer, and 3rd round pick, Diontae Johnson, to help fill the void for the loss of Brown. This should help Smith-Schuster open up some space against the defense, but it is not practical to compare them to the league’s top WR. Smith-Schuster will be facing a completely new situation even though he and his QB stayed the same.
In closing, both players have major advantages and disadvantages coming into the 2019 season. Coincidentally, the greatest loss for both of these players in this offseason is each other. They are both missing a great WR lining up across from them splitting the defense. Smith-Schuster’s advantages are that his quarterback and coach are not only better, they have stayed the same. Smith-Schuster is also still progressing as a player and we might not have seen his best work just yet. His disadvantage is that he has no experience against the defensive pressure he will be facing. With Big Ben at the end of his career, he could take a drop off in production or miss some games with injury, leaving young Josh Dobbs or Mason Rudolph to take over. Brown’s advantage is that for his entire career he has been an unstoppable force and we still don’t know what could stop him. His disadvantages are a completely new team and a lack of quarterback consistency.
Antonio Brown appears to be the much safer option going into the 2019 season and should be ranked higher than Smith-Schuster. No matter what happens around Brown, even if he has an off year, he can still be a top WR in the league with the potential of his normal fantasy team-carrying skills. While Smith-Schuster is not as safe an option, we have no idea if he might take on the role as WR1 and continue putting up numbers. Smith-Schuster comes with a lot more risk and reward. If he is able to step up, he could have a monster season. However, if he cannot face the pressure, he could have a devastating season. At the end of the day, with Brown’s talent level, he is as safe as it gets and as long as he suits up for 16 games, he could be the top wide receiver in the league, no matter which of the 32 teams he’s on.