This time a year ago in Fantasy football drafts, JuJu Smith-Schuster was going off the board as a borderline first-rounder, the fifth wide receiver off the board. Flash forward to 2020, and he's right on the border between the third and fourth round, typically something like 11th or 12th wide receiver selected. In between was the worst season of Smith-Schuster's career across the board, so the dip makes sense, right?
Not necessarily. Smith-Schuster didn't blow out his knee, or suffer some kind of other debilitating injury. He didn't get overtaken on the depth chart, or get exposed as unfit for a No. 1 receiver role. His quarterback just got hurt.
As we saw last season, the Steelers' offense was overwhelmingly reliant on Ben Roethlisberger's health, and that turned out to be a mistake. Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges proved woefully ill equipped to run the offense, combining for 6.3 yards per attempt and a 62.5% completion rate despite a steady diet of short throws. The Steelers as a team passed for just 3,214 yards, so there just wasn't much opportunity for Smith-Schuster to thrive, even before he suffered injuries of his own that limited him in the second half.
The Steelers didn't do much to prop up the QB room this offseason either, so a lot still hinges on the health of Roethlisberger's surgically repaired right elbow, which makes Smith-Schuster a risk, to be sure. But he isn't alone in that regard.
Some teams are in great shape to survive an injury to their starter, as the Saints proved in 2019 when Teddy Bridgewater kept things humming in Drew Brees' absence. The same is true for the Saints in 2020, too — in fact, I suspect Michael Thomas might even benefit if Jameis Winston had to play in Brees' absence.
But those teams are the exceptions. Knowing which of the high-end receivers have the worst QB depth chart behind the starter might be one way to assess the risks at the position. We're looking for inexperienced starters or offenses where the quarterback relies especially heavily on the quarterback's brilliance — or, as in the case of Pittsburgh, both. This isn't to say you shouldn't draft these guys, but you should be aware of how things could go wrong.
And, if you want more on the wide receiver position, check out Part One of our wide receiver preview podcast, and subscribe to Fantasy Football Today for all the help you need during draft season:
ARI Arizona • #10
Age: 28 • Experience: 7 yrs.
Backup QB: Brett Hundley
The Cardinals have experience at the quarterback position, but nothing we've seen from Brett Hundley should suggest he'll be a capable fill in. Hopkins has already had a season ruined by subpar QB play, and in a spread-it-out offense like Arizona's, target volume is already at least something of a concern. If Hopkins can't count on 10 targets per game, and we can't count on those targets being high quality, that seems like a pretty obvious risk. Kyler Murray toughed it out as a rookie, but he took a pounding, with 48 sacks and and 93 rush attempts.
Chris Godwin WR
TB Tampa Bay • #14
Age: 24 • Experience: 4 yrs.
Mike Evans WR
TB Tampa Bay • #13
Age: 27 • Experience: 7 yrs.
Backup QB: Blaine Gabbert
Blaine Gabbert has been able to hang around for a while, but it's hard to argue it's because he's even passable as a quarterback. The last time he played with a high-end receiver was in 2017, when he started five games for the Cardinals, and Larry Fitzgerald averaged just 61 yards per game, compared to 77.4 the rest of the season, and his yards per catch dipped from 11.0 t0 9.5. That's a concern, given that the Buccaneers are relying on a 43-year-old quarterback who showed signs of decline last year and is working with his first new head coach since college. Yeah, there's some risk here, guys.
PIT Pittsburgh • #19
Age: 24 • Experience: 4 yrs.
Backup QB: Mason Rudolph/Devlin Hodges
We already saw it last year, though the injuries Smith-Schuster dealt with in the second half of last year played a bigger part than many have acknowledged — he was on a 1,000-yard, seven-touchdown pace through his first seven games. Roethlisberger is a year older and coming off surgery, so there's plenty of risk, especially because it's still Rudolph and Hodges back there behind him.
CLE Cleveland • #13
Age: 28 • Experience: 7 yrs.
Backup QB: Garrett Gilbert
I'm pretty excited for Baker Bayfield's chances of bouncing back, but the Browns QB situation is pretty ugly behind him. Mayfield's backup is Garrett Gilbert, a sixth-round pick back in 2014 who has a whopping six pass attempts in his career. It's actually kind of stunning to see the Browns go into the season with only him behind Mayfield, but that's what happens when you go all-in on a star-studded roster. The Browns are one team where a lack of depth could really prove costly.
Adam Thielen WR
MIN Minnesota • #19
Age: 30 • Experience: 7 yrs.
Backup: Sean Mannion
The riskiest scenarios are the ones where you start stacking red flags right on top of each other. Thielen has his own risks as a 31-year-old coming off a soft-tissue injury, and he plays in a low passing volume offense. Add in that Kirk Cousins' backup is Sean Mannion, a 28-year-old who has started two games with zero career touchdowns, and Thielen could be un-usable if there is an injury. I'm pretty skeptical of the upside, too, so Thielen is one receiver I'm steering clear of.
Cooper Kupp WR
LAR L.A. Rams • #10
Age: 27 • Experience: 4 yrs.
Robert Woods WR
LAR L.A. Rams • #17
Age: 28 • Experience: 8 yrs.
Backup QB: John Wolford
We saw the offense as a whole take a step back in 2019, and Kupp was especially impacted by some changes in offensive philosophy, as he played 61% or fewer of the team's snaps in three of the last four games. A touchdown in each helped cover up for it, but if he's going to start coming off the field in two—tight-end sets, that introduces yet another bit of risk. John Wolford, who spent last year on the practice squad, is the primary QB backup; Bryce Perkins and Josh Love, a pair of undrafted rookies, make up the rest of the room.
SEA Seattle • #16
Age: 28 • Experience: 6 yrs.
DK Metcalf WR
SEA Seattle • #14
Age: 22 • Experience: 2 yrs.
Backup QB: Geno Smith
Geno Smith probably isn't the worst backup QB on this list, but there might be a bigger gap between him and Russell Wilson than anywhere else. Wilson is just that good. Lockett and Metcalf are high-end starters in a low-pass-volume offense in large part because Wilson is a historically efficient passer. Without Wilson's brilliance, they might start to look awfully fringe-y, despite their own prodigious talents.
Which players are poised for breakouts, which sleepers do you need to jump on, and which busts should you avoid at all costs in your Fantasy football league? Visit SportsLine now to get early rankings, plus see which WR is going to come out of nowhere to crack the top 10, all from the model that out-performed experts big time last season.