2022 AFC North Preview: Fantasy Football Outlook, Sleepers, and Busts

Drew DeLuca breaks down the AFC North from a fantasy football perspective.

2021 Review

 

Points per Game 20.2 21st
Offensive Snaps 65.5 9th
2021 Record 9-7-1 13th
2022 Vegas Win Projection 7 T-23rd

 

The 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers season was a swan song for future Hall of Famer Ben Roethlisberger, who was a mere shadow of the player he was in his prime. The final campaign at “Heinz” Field also made us appreciate the greatness of Mike Tomlin, who remarkably has served as head coach of the same NFL franchise for fifteen straight seasons, and never posted a losing record in the process.

In addition to Roethlisberger, the team bid adieu to wide receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster, Ray-Ray McCloud, and James Washington, along with tight end Eric Ebron, who was made expendable by the emergence of rookie Pat Freiermuth. Steelers fans are happy to welcome back two key offensive stars: wide receiver Diontae Johnson and running back Najee Harris. Meanwhile, they offer a more lukewarm reception for the mercurial Chase Claypool, who periodically battled maturity issues during a disappointing sophomore campaign. In April, the Steelers also used a high Day 2 draft pick on talented wide receiver George Pickens, who some thought might go off the board in the first round.

Most notably, the Steelers brought in two quarterbacks this offseason to compete for the opportunity to fill the giant shoes left behind by Big Ben. First,¬†Mitchell Trubisky was signed to a 2-year, $14.285 million contract. Then, the Steelers called on the University of Pittsburgh’s Kenny Pickett during the 2022 NFL Draft, the only quarterback selected in the first round.

Unfortunately, the offensive line looks as bad on paper as the well-below league-average unit that held back a high-volume offense in 2021. Only eight teams ran more plays from scrimmage than the Steelers, but 20 franchises scored more points. Even though the Steelers punched a ticket to the playoffs, fans hoped for more from a team with such a star-studded offense.

 

Passing Game

 

Passing Yards per Game 221.1 15th
Passing Touchdowns per Game 1.4 T-14th
Pass Attempts per Game 39.3 4th

 

Despite below-average play from a past-his-prime Ben Roethlisberger, fears of ineptitude and inexperience are causing most fantasy managers to fade both new quarterbacks, at least until one is named the team’s starter. Interestingly, the general fade of both quarterbacks has not made fantasy investors bearish towards the rest of the Steelers’ passing game. Diontae Johnson is going off the board within the first 40 picks (ADP 39), Claypool is viewed as flex-worthy (WR42), and many are taking a flyer on Pickens later in drafts right now.

We’ll get into Pickens and Johnson below, but first…the enigma that is Claypool (ADP 105). He seems to be the consensus choice as the prime bust candidate from this team, and understandably so, as his delusions of grandeur continue to be driven by an unchecked ego. The Steelers offered the self-proclaimed Top Three receiver in the NFL a chance to eat a slice of humble pie by having him read the name of wide receiver George Pickens in the second round this past April, but the message doesn’t appear to have been received.

Claypool, who annoyed many Steelers fans with boneheaded and poorly-timed penalties last year, needs to endear himself to new quarterbacks Mitchell Trubisky and Kenny Pickett through his on-field play. With his impressive speed and 6’4″, 238-pound frame, he’s certainly capable of outperforming his ADP. According to early reports, he’s been impressive, and even took on a leadership role in OTA’s while Diontae Johnson was a no-show. Fantasy managers could do worse with their ninth-round picks.

In a perfect world, Pat Freiermuth, last year’s TE13, would be going off the board earlier. He’s currently being drafted as TE13, which on the surface seems to infer no progression from an impressive rookie season. That seems like a mistake; it won’t take much from Pickett or Trubisky to help Freiermuth take a step forward in his second season.

As far as the backfield is concerned, only Johnson and Claypool saw more targets than Najee Harris, who hauled in 74 receptions. Little has changed with respect to how we should expect Harris to be used in the passing game this year. This makes Harris a no-brainer Top 5 running back for 2022, and a first-round target in redraft leagues.

 

Running Game

 

Rushing Yards per Game 91.1 30th
Rushing Touchdowns per Game 0.6 T-27th
Rushing Plays per Game  23.9 27th

 

Only four teams ran the ball fewer times than the Pittsburgh Steelers last year, and only three teams passed more often. This imbalance has been an ongoing theme over the past couple of years, and it will be interesting to see how much of a shift, if any, we’ll see once a new quarterback takes over the huddle. As things stand, Najee Harris will continue receiving the vast majority of touches, making him a Top 5 running back once again. We don’t anticipate enough rushing volume from a team perspective to make any other running back fantasy relevant, much to the chagrin of those four people with Benny Snell shares.

 

Sleeper

 

George Pickens (WR71, ADP 186)

After overcoming an ACL injury, Pickens took the field for the National Champion Georgia Bulldogs for the final five games of the 2021 season. The Steelers then spent Day 2 draft capital on Pickens, who broke out as a true freshman and was widely admired by scouts for his sure hands and impressive physical profile. If it hadn’t been for his untimely ACL injury, Pickens might’ve taken in Round 1, perhaps before his future quarterback, Kenny Pickett.

Pickens’s combination of 4.47 speed, 6’3″, 200-pound size, and superb route-running ability will make him a handful for opposing defensive coordinators and nickel corners alike. If the Steelers’ pass/run ratio remains high, Pickens will receive a sneaky amount of volume while becoming an excellent bet to smash his ADP as the WR71 in drafts this year.

 

Deep Sleeper

 

Mitchell Trubisky/Kenny Pickett (QB34/26, ADP 217/211)

Understandably, neither Trubisky nor Pickett are being drafted in traditional single QB leagues, due in large part to the unsettled nature of their situations. In superflex formats, both are going off the board late in drafts: Pickett is the QB26, while Trubisky is QB34; anecdotally, I’ve seen Trubisky go before Pickett more often than not. Once a starter is declared, your late-round target becomes clear in all but the shallowest single QB leagues.

Superflex and 2 QB leagues are totally different animals, however. Both players run enough to offer some semblance of a rushing floor, and both are rosterable in all but the shallowest leagues of this sort. Taking both Steelers quarterbacks a couple of rounds early in the bottom half of drafts, especially at or near the turn, is a terrific strategy, and an easy way to secure a sure-fire QB2 with minimal draft capital and opportunity cost.

After all, whoever wins the job is going to benefit from an impressive arsenal of weapons in the passing game, a grinder in the ground game to keep defenses honest, and a first-rate organization that knows how to groom talent. The most likely scenario: Pickett is more likely than not to take the reigns at some point this season from Trubisky, who will tide the Steelers over until the rookie is ready.

 

Bust Candidate

 

Diontae Johnson (WR13, ADP 39)

At first glance, Diontae Johnson, currently going off the board as WR13, seems fairly valued after his finish as the WR8 in PPR leagues last year. However, his performance was largely volume-driven, as only Cooper Kupp saw more targets than Johnson, who was drafted near the 5/6 turn last year.

In order to return value on an early fourth-round investment this year as the WR13, Johnson must once again see an exceptionally high target volume with a new quarterback under center. The rapport isn’t there yet, not like it was with Roethlisberger, who hurled an insane 169 spirals in Johnson’s direction.

Trubisky and Pickett could very well favor Claypool, Harris, Freiermuth, or even Pickens in any given week as the primary option, depending on preference, game script, and other factors. Furthermore, in order to cement Johnson’s status as a Top 12 option, the Steelers must also retain a high pass/run ratio, a trademark of the Roethlisberger era. Suffice it to say, a lot has to go right in order for Johnson to pay off as a Top 40 investment in fantasy football drafts this year.

 

 

Feature image by Michael Packard (@CollectingPack on Twitter) / Photography by Larry Radloff, Frank Jansky, Andy Lewis + Ian Johnson / Icon Sportswire

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