Antonio Brown’s decision to force himself out of Pittsburgh leaves a gaping 150-plus target void among the Steelers receiving corps. Under head coach Mike Tomlin, Pittsburgh has consistently ranked among the league’s most pass-heavy offenses, so we know those targets are going to be redistributed somehow. JuJu Smith-Schuster is the obvious lock to assume Brown’s previous WR1 role. But who will receive the lion’s share of Smith-Schuster’s previous WR2 targets?
Public Consensus Candidates to Break Out This Season
Initially, James Washington seemed like the safest bet to inherit a large portion of Pittsburgh’s remaining target share. However, some analysts contended that Vance McDonald may be a breakout candidate due to Washington’s inexperience and poor rookie production. Both players have garnered substantial preseason hype, but training camp reports have dampened their fantasy appeal. Instead, free agent acquisition Donte Moncrief reportedly has the inside track for WR2 duties. On the heels of this news, Moncrief’s, Washington’s, and McDonald’s ADPs have converged strikingly over the last two months.
Despite the enthusiasm surrounding these players, I believe there’s another Steelers “receiver” that the fantasy public is overlooking: Jaylen Samuels.
Samuels’ College Profile
While not technically a receiver, Samuels primarily operated as an H-Back at NC State. In his final three seasons, he totaled 167 rush attempts for 964 rushing yards and 195 receptions for 1,755 receiving yards. Over that 39-game span, he had just one game with 10 or more rush attempts, only four games with at least eight rush attempts, and 23 games with four rush attempts or less. Yet, despite his poor rushing volume, he still managed to score 27 rush TDs. His 16.2% TD rate per rush attempt is staggering.
Meanwhile, he boasts 10 games with 7 or more receptions and 22 games in which his reception total exceeded his total rush attempts. On a college team that featured future NFL players like Nyheim Hines, Kelvin Harmon, and Jakobi Meyers, Samuels still led the Wolfpack in receptions in 11 of his 39 games. He may officially play RB in the NFL, but in reality, he’s more like Percy Harvin in a running back’s body.
Possible Expansion to His Receiving Role
As a rookie, Samuels saw limited action. But when he was on the field, Pittsburgh continued to utilize him in a similar manner to his college usage. Samuels ran 20% of his routes as a slot receiver.1 That rate ranked highest among all RBs who ran at least 100 routes in 2018.
While everyone has been focusing on WR reports during training camp, the Steelers’ RB room has provided much more intrigue. Multiple reports suggest that Pittsburgh intends to deploy James Conner and Samuels in 2-RB personnel groups this season. Samuels himself spoke about his 2019 team role during OTAs, as reported by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
“We did a little bit of it [last season], but we didn’t really run it in a game, so I guess this year we’re going to try and put a little more in the offense.
[…] I think that could be kind of special with me and [Conner] in the backfield. […] They will have us start off in the backfield, or I can start out wide or motion out.”
Projecting Samuels’ 2019 Target Share
So, let’s run with this for a second. In the spirit of Matt Jones’ recent Fantasy Football Multiverse series, let’s leverage the RotoViz Projection Machine to explore Samuels’ possible upside in an expanded receiving role.
Let us assume default parameters for Pittsburgh’s projected pass-rate and historical rushing usage. However, let’s also imagine that Samuels operates as a dedicated H-Back or TE2,2 thereby stealing a 2% target share away from the Steelers’ resident tight ends. Let’s also imagine that Samuels operates as the team’s de facto WR4 in empty sets and commands similar usage out of the slot as he did last season.
The potential expansion of his role as a split-out receiver may provide him an additional 2% target share at the expense of Moncrief, Washington, and rookie Diontae Johnson. Altogether, those adjustments result in a 4% increase in his 2019 target share projection.3
Once we make those adjustments in the Projection Machine, he would then project for 70 targets, 56 receptions, 420 receiving yards and three receiving TDs. Combining that enhanced receiving line with his baseline rushing projections yields a season-long PPR projection of 159.7 points. That mark would have ranked 29th among RBs last season and 26th in 2017.
Samuels Offers Standalone Value
Based on his collegiate profile and the news coming out of training camp, these adjusted receiving projections feel fair — or even a bit conservative. Moreover, given his efficiency and TD production at NC State, he may also offer greater upside as a preferred red zone target. Any substantial increase in his TD production would make him a high-upside Flex play on a weekly basis. As a result, I feel confident in asserting Samuels’ standalone value this season.
In addition to his standalone value as a receiver, Samuels also offers excellent rushing upside if or when Conner suffers injury. Filling in for Conner from Weeks 14-16 last season, Samuels averaged 14 rush attempts for 74.3 yards and four receptions for 35 yards.4 His 16.3 average PPR points per game ranked 11th among RBs over that span.
He Is Being Under-Drafted Based on His Upside
Among the league’s handcuff options, Samuels arguably offer higher upside than players like Rashaad Penny (RB34), Latavius Murray (RB37) and Royce Freeman (RB39) — all of whom are currently being drafted ahead of Samuels based on current ADP.
Shawn Siegele tends to agree, highlighting Samuels as one of the five breakout running backs you should be targeting now. Outside of Smith-Schuster, the Steelers remaining wideouts do not offer compelling fantasy upside. Samuels, on the other hand, does. He may be the best answer to the question, “Which Steelers receiver benefits most from Antonio Brown’s departure?” Target him aggressively in the middle rounds in redraft, and avoid reaching for Moncrief, Washington or McDonald.