2020 Fantasy Preview: Pittsburgh Steelers

Frank Costanzo continues the 2020 Team Preview series with a fantasy-focused look at the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Pittsburgh Steelers

 

Last season was a grind for the Pittsburgh Steelers. They finished one spot out of the playoffs (would have made it under the new CBA) but it was a fight every week to even get there. Ben Roethlisberger tore a ligament in his elbow and played a total of one and a half games, forcing the Steelers to see what back up quarterbacks Mason Rudolph and Delvin Hodges had. The answer was pretty much nothing (but we will get to that in a bit). Rudolph and Hodges completely tanked the Steelers offense and made it essentially useless for fantasy.

The Steelers did learn in 2019 that they have arguably the best defense in the NFL. Once the Dolphins traded Minkah Fitzpatrick over to the Steelers, the defense became dominant. Mike Tomlin led his defense to a number one overall finish in defensive DVOA and third-place finishes in both rushing and passing defensive DVOA. It is extremely impressive that the defense played this well with the terrible situations that the offense put them in.

The Steelers’ success this season rides on Roethlisberger’s throwing elbow. If he is back to being completely healthy, the Steelers are strong Super Bowl contenders. Without a healthy Roethlisberger, the Steelers would be lucky to make the seventh seed in the playoffs this year after deciding to stay put at backup quarterback (still one of the more perplexing decisions of the offseason). Similarly, the fantasy output for this offense rides on Roethlisberger’s throwing elbow. Without it, you will be looking at a similar season to last year. With a healthy elbow, these players could be the best targets in the draft due to the discount baked into their ADPs.

 

Quarterback

 

Ben Roethlisberger 

ADP: 127.2, QB17

Without a 2019 season to review and use to help project for this year, let’s compare how this passing offense fared with Ben Roethlisberger in 2018 to the combo of Rudolph (eight games) and Hodges (six games) in 2019. In 2018, the Steelers were first in overall pass frequency and first in passing on early downs, first in passing when trailing (81.5% of plays when trailing), and first in passing when within one score (66.4%). Last year, the Steelers dropped down to 25th in overall pass frequency and 24th in passing on early downs. The Steelers threw for 313 passing yards per game in 2018 (Roethlisberger also led the NFL in passing yards) which dropped to 186.3 passing yards per game in 2019. That was the largest decline in NFL history! Don’t worry it keeps getting worse. The Steelers ranked 6th in offensive DVOA with Roethlisberger in 2018 and dead last in 2019. Roethlisberger was 4th in QBR and 8th in passing DVOA, while Rudolph was dead last in QBR (Hodges didn’t qualify) and 33rd in DVOA (Hodges would have been 31st if he qualified).

I can throw more statistics at you to prove the point, but the Steelers offense was dreadful without Big Ben. But if Roethlisberger is healthy, the Steelers have a ceiling of an elite offense which is extremely tempting for fantasy. It is also terrifying because few offenses have as low of a floor. To gently tip the scale towards the ceiling, I will point out that Sharp Football Stats has the Steelers’ passing offense facing the 3rd easiest schedule of opposing pass defenses. Therefore drafting Roethlisberger this season is a worthwhile bet at his QB17 ADP (like a lot of late-round quarterbacks). If Roethlisberger is fully healthy, he will destroy that ADP. If he’s not healthy, then you didn’t waste a high pick on him and you can move on to streaming with little issue. Win-win.

 

Best-Case Scenario

Roethlisberger is fully healthy and participates in all of training camp. He brings the Steelers offense back to 2018 levels, takes advantage of the easy schedule, and ends as a top-5 QB in fantasy.

 

Worst-Case Scenario

Roethlisberger starts the season for the Steelers but doesn’t look right for the first few games putting up duds along the way. Eventually, the Steelers and Roethlisberger agree to shut him down for the rest of the year due to his elbow and other injuries. Rudolph starts again for the rest of the season, cratering the offense.

 

2020 Projection: 580 passing attempts, 371 completions, 4,340 passing yards, 28 passing touchdowns, 13 interceptions; 42 rushing yards, 1 rushing touchdown.

 

Running Back

 

James Conner

ADP: 26.5, RB16

James Conner and the Steelers’ running game was also affected by the loss of Roethlisberger in 2019. The Steelers dropped to 30th in rushing efficiency last year, and the argument can and should be made that the lack of any passing threat allowed defenses to stack the box against the run. But I don’t want to let the line and Conner off easy. The Steelers’ offensive line ranked 30th in adjusted line yards per Football Outsiders. This measures how much an offensive line contributes to rushing yardage. All of the Steelers running backs combined for 26th in both second-level yards and open field yards (both per Football Outsiders). Essentially this means that once any of the Steelers’ backs got past the defensive line, they never capitalized and didn’t create much extra yardage for themselves. Conner also ranked last in EPA per rush.

Now, Conner also sustained five separate injuries last season and that clearly affected him. But the injury concern isn’t going away. Conner has been injury-prone most of his collegiate and professional career, unfortunately, possibly due to his battle with cancer. PlayerProfiler has Conner ranked as the number one injury risk for 2020. So, while the injuries look past him and dampen his production from last season, it’s not something we can completely ignore going into this year.

To end this section on a positive note, Conner was extremely impressive in the passing game in 2019. Conner’s yards per route run was 1.99, which was sixth among all running backs last year. Conner is not known for his receiving prowess but proved last season that it is a strength of his overall game. Additionally, with all the issues the Steelers had passing the ball, the Steelers only had seven rushing touchdowns. This will likely regress to the normal passing to rushing touchdown rates. My final nugget for Conner is the Steelers face the 18th hardest schedule for rushing defenses per Sharp Football Analysis, which shouldn’t scare anyone away.

 

Best-Case Scenario

Roethlisberger’s return is the rising tide to lift all boats, including Conner’s. Conner also puts the injuries behind him and takes a stranglehold on the Steelers backfield after proving his receiving ability last season. Conner beats his current RB16 ADP (per FantasyData) and ends as an RB1.

 

Worst-Case Scenario

Roethlisberger is never 100% and opposing defenses again stack the box against the Steelers. The Steelers’ offensive line doesn’t improve much from last year and Conner can’t make up for their struggles. Eventually, Conner gets banged up and put on IR, ending his season.

 

2020 Projection: 210 carries, 880 rushing yards, 7 rushing touchdowns; 45 targets, 35 receptions, 300 receiving yards, 2 receiving touchdowns.

 

Wide Receiver

 

JuJu Smith-Schuster

ADP: 34.7, WR11

Let’s continue the Steelers offensive trend of injuries and subpar quarterback play with JuJu Smith-Schuster. Entering draft season last year, Smith-Schuster was seen as a top-five wide receiver after coming off a historic sophomore campaign. Smith-Schuster was fourth in the NFL in targets and gained the sixth-most receiving yards all-time for a player’s first two seasons. Without Antonio Brown to compete for targets and after developing fantastic chemistry with Roethlisberger, Smith-Schuster was seen as an easy selection in fantasy drafts.

Regrettably, that was not the case. Smith-Schuster saw a decrease in efficiency and output across the board. He battled a toe injury from week one throughout the whole season. In week 11, Smith-Schuster suffered both a concussion and knee sprain which kept him out until week 16. He also never was on the same page with Rudolph or Hodges. His dropped catches percentage more than doubled without Roethlisberger, going from 5.1% to 10.6%. His yards per route run dropped to 1.68 (61st among wide receivers per FantasyData). Most of the numbers are bad for Smith-Schuster, but just go back and read the Roethlisberger portion to remember why that is.

The hope with Smith-Schuster is the same with both Conner and Roethlisberger. Roethlisberger’s full return would surge the offense and the Steelers’ schedule of pass defenses is 3rd easiest per Sharp Football Analysis. Also, the rise of Diontae Johnson, James Washington, and rookie Chase Claypool allow Smith-Schuster more time in his preferred position in the slot this season. But is it smart to draft Smith-Schuster as your number one wide receiver? This is a question of risk-taking. Are you willing to gamble on Roethlisberger’s elbow and Smith-Schuster’s prior historic pace? I generally am because the discount of last year is already baked into the ADP and Smith-Schuster’s target upside is immense. In fantasy, the goal is to beat 10-14 other teams. The odds are not in your favor, so you need to take calculated risks to get there and I believe Smith-Schuster is a smart one.

 

Best-Case Scenario

Smith-Schuster is reunited with Roethlisberger and it is just like old times. Roethlisberger peppers Smith-Schuster with targets and the easy schedule lets him do plenty of damage. Smith-Schuster soars up with wide receiver rankings and finishes as a top-five receiver in fantasy.

 

Worst-Case Scenario

Smith-Schuster’s decline in efficiency was not only due to Rudolph and Hodges. Roethlisberger isn’t able to resuscitate Smith-Schuster and Johnson becomes the primary target in the offense. Smith-Schuster finishes as a borderline WR3.

 

2020 Projection: 133 targets, 84 receptions, 1,175 receiving yards, 7 touchdowns.

 

Diontae Johnson

ADP: 87.7, WR36

2019 was a strong year for rookie wide receivers. A.J. Brown, D.K. Metcalf, Darius Slayton, Deebo Samuel, and Terry McLaurin all produced right away and were fantasy contributors. Most people forget Diontae Johnson though, who quietly led all rookies in receptions. He also led the entire NFL in target separation with 2.39 yards of separation per target per FantasyData. The second-best receiver was Demarcus Robinson with a 2.03. Robinson was actually closer to the 18th ranked receiver than he was to Johnson. This speaks to Johnson’s natural route-running ability. To dominate this statistic as a rookie is incredibly impressive, especially for a receiver out of Toledo. Johnson’s yards per route run was 1.96, good for 39th among receivers. Oh yeah, all those terrible numbers from Rudolph and Hodges apply to Johnson’s season, but he was able to still show that he belongs in the NFL.

Johnson is a breakout choice for fantasy analysts all over the community and its easy to see why. Looking at his impressive rookie numbers and the idea of a healthy Roethlisberger paint a pretty picture. But I am starting to hate his current price, as Johnson is currently being drafted as the WR36. He is going ahead of players like Will Fuller IV and Marvin Jones, which I cannot get behind as much as I respect Johnson’s ability. If Johnson’s ADP starts to drop as the draft season progresses, I will be drafting him everywhere. But right now he’s a bit too rich for my blood.

 

Best-Case Scenario

Johnson has a true sophomore breakout season following in Smith-Schuster’s footsteps. Roethlisberger plays well enough to support both of them as top fantasy receivers. Johnson becomes one of the best draft picks for the 2020 season and is a fantasy league-winner.

 

Worst-Case Scenario

Smith-Schuster and Roethlisberger’s return to health push Johnson to the outside of the Steeler’s offense. Johnson ends up third on the receiver depth chart battling with Washington. Drafting Johnson ends up burning a lot of fantasy owners due to his steadily rising ADP by the time of most fantasy drafts.

 

2020 Projection: 115 targets, 72 receptions, 835 receiving yards, 6 touchdowns.

 

James Washington

ADP: 179, WR71

If I asked you who led the Steelers in receiving yards last year, would you have guessed James Washington? Probably not, unless you are a degenerate like me or a die-hard Steelers fan. But it is true, Washington had 735  receiving yards in 2019 (which is crazy low for a team leader, but I digress). He also led the team in yards per route run with 2.1 (31st among receivers per FantasyData). It wasn’t an overly strong season for Washington, but after his rough rookie season, it was a welcome sight. Washington leaned on his experience with Rudolph (college teammates) to keep himself in the Steelers’ plans for at least another season.

Washington hasn’t been much more than a deep threat so far in his career and will need to improve the other areas of his game to stay on the field. Even though he was the most productive receiver last year, Smith-Schuster missed time, Johnson was a rookie (and had a much better rookie year than Washington), and the Steelers just drafted Chase Claypool at a similar spot to Washington. Washington is far from guaranteed a large role in the offense and will need to earn the trust of Roethlisberger to see the field. If you are looking for a cheap option for a share of the Steelers’ offense later in drafts, Washington is a decent flier with his current ADP at WR71, but I would not expect a massive return on that price.

 

Best-Case Scenario

Washington beats out Claypool to be the third receiver in three wideout sets. He is able to earn Roethlisberger’s trust which results in some spike weeks when the deep targets connect. Washington is able to break into the WR3/Flex territory.

 

Worst-Case Scenario

Claypool immediately comes into camp and outplays Washington. Roethlisberger doesn’t want him on the filed much and renders Washington out of the offense. Washington stays on the majority of waiver-wires for the season.

 

2020 Projection: 64 targets, 36 receptions, 530 receiving yards, 2 touchdowns.

 

Tight End

 

Eric Ebron

ADP: 159.4, TE20

Eric Ebron was the biggest addition to the Steelers this offseason. This signing to me is as much about Ebron as it is about Vance McDonald. Even with the terrible quarterback situation, McDonald proved he could not be a lead tight end. McDonald’s yards per route run was 0.86 (34th among tight ends). But not only was he 34th, but he was also a distant 34th. Ryan Griffin, who was 33rd, was closer to Greg Olsen, 18th, then he was to McDonald. Meanwhile, Ebron was eighth with 2.19 yards per route run. Ebron was also third among tight ends in target separation with 2 yards of separation per target (per Fantasy Data).

Ebron has come around a bit as a player, but the stigma is still attached. That is partially due to the fact that his touchdowns significantly reduced (14 to three last season) and he can’t shake his drops issue. Ebron dropped 9.6% of his targets, which was the third-highest among tight ends (coincidently McDonald was fourth). But Ebron will see an improvement in quarterback play as well, coming over from Indianapolis with Jacoby Brissett. Ebron currently has an ADP of TE20, which is right in a range of younger and more exciting options. But it would not shock me if he was able to see more targets than many are projecting. Roethlisberger likes throwing to tight ends (that was basically all of McDonald’s appeal last year) and Ebron is one of the more talented that Roethlisberger has had recently. I likely will fall for the other exciting options as well, but I would keep him on your watchlist early on.

 

Best-Case Scenario

Ebron is able to beat out McDonald as the starting tight end. He ends up having a similar season to 2018 when he was paired with Andrew Luck. Ebron dominates the red zone targets on his way to double-digit touchdowns.

 

Worst-Case Scenario

Ebron becomes the next McDonald for the Steelers, another athletic tight end who drops too many passes and never puts it all together. Neither option distinguishes himself in the offense and they both cannibalize each other’s opportunity.

 

2020 Projection: 63 targets, 42 receptions, 495 receiving yards, and 4 touchdowns.

 

 

Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)

 

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