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JuJu Smith-Schuster scouting report: What do you value?

Where the young SoCal pass catcher winds up on teams’ boards truly depends on what they’re looking for in a receiver.

An offense functions best when it is built like an investment portfolio. Diversification is simply better. If you invest all your money in the same stocks, you risk losing in a big way. But if you spread your money out, the risk factor is greatly mitigated.

In the NFL, a successful offense is one where its skill players each bring something unique to the table. It’s why Atlanta’s aerial attack was so consistent. It’s why with a semi-decent quarterback, Houston’s passing game is set up to become lethal. And it’s why in 2015, the Bengals offense was amongst the best in the league.

And somewhere in the league, a team needs a guy like JuJu Smith-Schuster to finish their offense.

In the 40 career games Smith-Schuster has played in, he was a teenager in 38 of them. From starting at one of the most prestigious programs in the nation as a 17/18 year-old true freshman, Smith-Schuster piled up 213 receptions for 3,092 yards and 25 scores, all long before he can buy a six pack at his local gas station.

Now 20, the former five-star recruit out of Long Beach is poised to build his game and continue his maturation into a complete player, but how far off is he and can he eventually get there? Let’s dive into the film.

The first thing I noticed about Smith-Schuster is that he knows when to break off his route and either settle into soft spots in-between zones, or work back to the quarterback. Take these two plays as examples:

On the first play, his route is finished as soon as he establishes himself facing the quarterback in the middle of the field. Recognizing the defenders locking onto the quarterback’s eyes as he shifts to the left in the pocket, Smith-Schuster flows with his quarterback and is able to give him a better path to throw to, and makes a nice diving grab.

On the second play, his quarterback is forced to abandon the pocket all together, so he remains patient, and keeps himself available on the side where his quarterback is rolling towards. On long developing plays where quarterbacks extend their time to throw and coverages break down, this awareness and instinct to know where to be is crucial for moving the chains and avoiding potential 2nd or 3rd and longs, as well as converting them.

While I wouldn’t call him quick or explosive, Smith-Schuster finds ways to generate yards after the catch quite frequently.

Through nuance and raw power, Smith-Schuster is able to create on his own. In the first play, the slight shoulder fake grants him more outside space from the cornerback, and finishes the play with power. That power is very much on display in the second play.

After settling down off a switch route, Smith-Schuster uses good burst down the sideline and piles through would-be tacklers for six points. Smith-Schuster is not the guy who’ll take the easy way out and bail out of bounds, he’s going to earn every yard he gets. And since sheer athleticism isn’t his main asset, it’ll help him in the long run.

As seen by the spider graph above, Smith-Schuster has a thick and long frame with sizable hands. He measured in at only 6’1” when he was listed previously as 6’2”, but size is still one of his biggest assets.

And how he can use it in his route running makes him imposing to contain.

At the bottom of the screen, you can see what I’m addressing. With a little shoulder lean and leverage, Smith-Schuster proves to be too physical for the corner to handle and he establishes inside leverage on his in-breaking route with ease. He also finishes which is great to see.

Here he does a good job of launching the go route off an inside-out release to try and stack the corner, but the one arm extension to push him forwards creates the true separation he needed to haul in the score. This dynamic leads to my next point about Smith-Schuster.

Despite being a productive three-year starter, Smith-Schuster is a below average athlete and has trouble separating against tight man coverage. This is very evident upon releasing on slants, and the vertical aspect of deep posts and go routes. He is simply not explosive enough to garner significant takeoff speed out of his breaks and has pretty much no second gear. This was proven by his average broad jump (120”) and below average 40-yard dash time (4.54) and vertical (32 1/2”) at the combine.

Here he displays solid footwork to establish inside leverage on a deep crosser, but creates very little separation at the top of route while using a speed cut. Granted this route concept isn’t designed to be particularly hard to keep up with for the corner, as its primary function is to use Smith-Schuster’s size to out-body the defender, but he’s going to have to do a lot of that in the NFL if he can’t win with precise route running or explosion.

Again, there’s just no suddenness in his game. If he can’t win on size alone and haul in every catchable pass, he’s going to have a very difficult time dealing with press coverage off the line against No. 1 cornerbacks.

Of course, he may not separate often enough, but he is always a threat to do this regardless:

As a true 4.54 runner, Smith-Schuster isn’t blowing by any competent cornerback on the boundary, but he has the ball skills to time his jumps and the length to overwhelm defensive backs in the air. This applies to intermediate timing routes and in the red zone as well.

It’s pretty clear what Smith-Schuster’s best fit in the NFL is: A possession receiver with the best chance of winning in the slot where he can out muscle nickel corners on primarily in-breaking routes. What does that mean for the Bengals? Well, the pretty much already have that guy in Tyler Boyd.

Boyd was a more precise route runner and could in the small game better coming out of Pitt, but both he and Smith-Schuster have shown to be underwhelming athletes that struggle to win consistently on the outside. We’ve seen the kind of impact a player like Boyd can make when he’s put in the position where he can maximize his ability.

If the Bengals were to add Smith-Schuster in a receiving group that already has Boyd and a similar big body possession-type receiver in Brandon LaFell, they truly wouldn’t be adding a fresh dimension to their attack. They wouldn’t be diversifying as well as they could be.

Smith-Schuster will end up being a solid pick somewhere on day two of the draft, and he has the potential to grow into something more than what he is right now at only 20 years old. But he’s not the type of guy you build your offense around, and he’s not the finishing piece of the offense the Bengals are looking for.