Each week throughout the season, I’ll cover at least two rookies in the Rookie Report Card and try to always include the biggest performers from that particular week. On top of reviewing my expectations for each player coming into the league and covering how he’s performed at the NFL level to this point, I’ll actually give him a grade in three categories. Those categories are performance to date, 2017 potential and long term upside.
The series continues with a look at JuJu Smith-Schuster and Matt Breida.
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JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR PIT
Week Eight Stats: seven receptions, 193 yards, one touchdown (ten targets)
I watched Sunday Night Football in week eight with my casual football fan of a wife sitting next to me. When Al Michaels and Chris Collinsworth mentioned Smith-Schuster not being old enough to legally drink a beer after he made one of the seven catches in the game, she said something along the lines of, “He’s not even 21 and he’s already this good. I hope you have him on all your fantasy teams.”
Two things came to mind after her comment.
First, I guess she watches closer than I thought.
Second, I have JuJu on a few rosters but she’s right. Any amount short of all of them isn’t enough.
Like many dynasty owners I’m sure, I fell in love with his game a couple years ago when Smith-Schuster was a sophomore at USC. As good as any college receiver at the point of the catch and just 18 years old, he showed a knack for timing his leap perfectly to catch the ball at its highest possible point, use his size (6’-1”, 215 pounds) as a barrier against defensive backs to keep them away from the football, and make contested catches with defenders draped all over him.
Although his killer instinct with the ball in the air was the thing I noticed when I began watching Smith-Schuster, he excels in so many areas. Great at all levels of the defense, he’s as explosive on a short drag route as he is on a go route down the sideline. Also displaying elite run-after-catch ability, he turns into a kick returner as soon as he gets the ball in his hands.
Smith-Schuster was an elite dynasty prospect in late 2015 and early 2016 when he was coming off a season when he posted 89 catches for 1,454 yards and 10 touchdowns. A little over a year later he slipped to the second round of most rookie draft boards due to those numbers dipping slightly as a junior (70 catches, 914 yards, 10 TD) as well as ordinary measurables posted at the combine.
Despite my fandom, I allowed Smith-Schuster’s 4.54 40-time and 32.5-inch vertical as well as the opinions of others sway my view of him during draft season. Originally my number seven prospect in rookie drafts, I let the guy I once thought was the top prospect in the draft class slip all the way down to 11 in the weeks following the NFL draft. That mistake cost me a chance to draft him in a few of my leagues and it haunts me each time I look at those rosters.
Dynasty owners that capitalized on the value that Smith-Schuster’s naysayers and mediocre combine numbers created got excellent value as he settled in as the 2.02 in June’s DLF Rookie ADP. Now, owners that missed a chance to get him during rookie draft season will have to pay a much higher price to add him but he’s still an excellent investment, even if he costs you a first round pick-plus.
Although Smith-Schuster will have to share touches with Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell, which will keep him from regularly seeing double digit targets as he did on Sunday and make him an inconstant fantasy option, he has top-15 long-term upside as a dynasty receiver. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s considered a low-end WR1 in a year or two, around where the likes of T.Y. Hilton and Stefon Diggs are now.
Matt Breida, RB SF
Week Eight Stats: five carries, 17 rushing yards, four receptions, 39 receiving yards, one touchdown
Remember back in early August when you were so thirsty for football that you tuned into week one of the preseason?
I chose to watch the 49ers take on the Chiefs that week, partially because at that time the dynasty community was enamored with the narrative that rookie Joe Williams could push Carlos Hyde for playing time in the San Francisco backfield. I watched Williams that week and shrugged my shoulders despite his running for 60-yards on seven carries. Instead of becoming smitten with Williams, I went to my computer in the fourth quarter of the game to look up another Hyde backup.
That running back was Raheem Mostert, who also flashed by running for 89 yards on 15 carries.
I bet you thought I was going to toot my own horn by saying I knew about Breida’s talent the second I watched him for the first time, didn’t you?
Not even close.
I have to be honest. Coming out of Georgia Southern, I don’t believe I’d ever even heard of Matt Breida until training camp, a few weeks before that week one pre-season game when he carried the ball 11 times for 40 yards. Even after watching him play, it took until Williams went on injured reserve before the regular season and Breida being announced as Hyde’s primary backup before I really did any digging on him.
From what I found, Breida was impressive on film despite his small stature (5-9”, 195 pounds). His 4.38 40-time, 42-inch vertical and 142-inch broad jump at his pro day showed explosiveness that would have ranked among the top-two at running back at the combine, and his highlight film from college includes bursts of quickness, excellent long speed, the ability to break tackles as well as make defenders whiff in the open field, and good hands in the passing game.
Breida profiled as a good fit for Kyle Shanahan’s offense and at the very least, appeared to be a quality handcuff for Hyde so I picked him up in a handful of leagues in the week leading up to opening night.
Since I own him in a handful of leagues, I’ve watched him closely over the first two months of the season. His biggest play of the season so far was nearly a 92-yard touchdown in week five against the Colts. It came late in the third quarter on first down where he line up in the offset I-formation to the left, took a handoff to that side and blasted through a hole off left guard. The play was well blocked as Breida accelerated so quickly that he beat the unblocked backside linebacker to the running lane, got to the secondary in a blink and nearly bolted past fellow rookie Malik Hooker before the safety grabbed him by shoelace. The play went for 14-yards and displayed Breida’s acceleration and playmaking brilliantly.
Unfortunately, those plays have come few and far between for Breida so far in his rookie campaign despite touching the ball 56 times.
On Sunday in Philadelphia, Breida found pay dirt for the first time on a play-action shovel pass from just outside the red-zone. Although he accelerated nicely after making the catch and showed good speed to beat the Eagles’ secondary to the goal line, he went untouched and the score was probably due more to a lapse by the Philadelphia defense than a great play by the 49ers’ rookie.
Although I like Breida’s explosiveness and see his big play potential, it’s difficult to envision him as anything more than a complimentary tailback for an NFL team despite Hyde playing out the final year of his contract. While his burst and quickness will no doubt turn into fantasy production in spurts and could make him useful in short stretches if forced to play a bigger role due to an injury to a starter, his short term and long term upside most likely cap as a high-end RB3 or flex play in standard leagues and low-end RB2 in PPR leagues and he’d need an ideal situation to fall into his lap in order for him to realize that upside.
Personally, I’m comfortable with Breida as a handcuff to Hyde or end of bench stash and I’m willing to hold him into the off-season to see what happens. But expecting anything more than third down back production from the former Georgia Southern Eagle is a tad too optimistic for me.
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