The Steelers barely missed the 2019 playoffs with an 8-8 record, coming down to an all-important game against the Ravens’ backups, which they lost in Week 17. The fact that they were 8-8 was in no thanks to their offense, but rather their defense, which was able to fashion out wins for a lethargic offensive attack.
The Steelers had some big names struggle with injuries last year. Big Ben went down in Week 2 with an elbow injury that forced him to miss the rest of the season, while James Connor and Juju Smith-Schuster both missed time throughout the year. In their stead, we saw a variety of performances. Mason Rudolph and Delvin “Duck” Hodges combined to throw 18 TDs and 17 INTs, in an excruciating circus week-to-week for the two signal-callers. At running back, Benny Snell struggled to create yards on his own, and Jaylen Samuels became a favorite target out of the backfield but wasn’t able to do much damage with the ball in his hands. And for the first time since 2010, the Steelers started a season without Antonio Brown, providing an opportunity to some newer faces, Diontae Johnson and James Washington.
While the 2019 Steelers offense was nothing short of a train-wreck, the 2020 season outlook is much more positive. While the entire show rides on the arm of Ben Roethlisberger, there are some other moving parts in the engine that were able to shine through in 2019.
2020 Off-Season Changes
When the offseason started, the Steelers began making moves in free agency, starting with signing a new TE to compete with a lackluster Vance McDonald. Eric Ebron signed a two year, $12 million deal at the end of March, and likely steps in right away as the starter in Pittsburgh. They also replaced their fullback, Roosevelt Nix, with Derek Watt, brother of TJ Watt, which should prove to be a slight upgrade.
The Steelers did not have a 1st round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft after trading it away to the Dolphins for Minkah Fitzpatrick. In the 2nd round, they selected Chase Claypool, WR, out of Notre Dame. Later, in the 4th round, they selected Anthony McFarland Jr., RB, from the University of Maryland. These are the only fantasy relevant pieces they added through the draft.
The only major departure on the offense was the retirement of Ramon Foster, a guard who had been a starter on the line for the last ten years. Foster was replaced with the free-agent signing of Stefen Wisniewski from Kansas City. Wisniewski, who has started at times for the Chiefs and the Eagles in the past few years.
As I stated previously, this team is currently set up to “ride or die” with Big Ben at the helm. After a horror show in 2019, many expected the Steelers to address a successor at quarterback in the mid-rounds of the draft. They did not select any of the 2020 rookie quarterbacks and seemed content with putting their faith in Roethlisberger’s health. Neither Rudolph nor Hodges seem to be the long-term answer, but that seems to be a problem for another day in the eyes of GM Kevin Colbert.
Roethlisberger, if healthy, is the unquestioned starter for the Steelers. He has been seen on video throwing again for the first time since his surgery. In 2018, Roethlisberger completed a career-high 452 passes on his way to 5129 yards and 34 TDs. With a healthy Roethlisberger, the Steelers were able to support the overall WR2 (AB) and WR9 (Juju). That year Big Ben was the QB3, and while the team no longer has Antonio Brown, there is no reason to believe that Ben’s ceiling is not similar in 2020 if he and his weapons stay healthy.
His 34:16 TD:INT total in 2018 represents Ben’s “gunslinger” tendencies, and while that can sometimes be detrimental to his NFL team, it usually equates to high fantasy scores for him and his teammates. In 2018, he led the league in attempts per game, was third in throws 20+ yards down the field, and was fourth in red zone attempts. This is a perfect combination of efficiency and volume for high fantasy production. As long as Ben can stay on the field, he will produce for himself and the weapons around him. After that, I doubt that even the Steelers front office knows how much longer they can rely on him.
Roethlisberger will project to be a mid-to-low QB1 in 2020. I would project him to finish around QB8-12 by the end of the year. He has great upside based on historical volume, but the Steelers may try to manage how many throws he makes and try to use the ground game more often to keep Ben healthy. The Steelers’ defense finished as the 5th best defense in points and yards allowed, which should lead to fewer shootouts, and therefore less volume for the passing game. For any team that is a quarterback away from a championship, Ben is a cheap buy that could be the edge to push a team over in either 1QB or SF.
The Steelers’ running back room starts with James Conner, and it could quite possibly be the end of the conversation as well, but if history tells us anything, it tells us that Conner is likely to miss at least a game or two in 2020. Therefore we must talk about everybody on the depth chart, but let’s start with Conner.
James Conner, when healthy, is a good bet to be a high-upside RB2 on your roster. In 2019 he finished tied with Todd Gurley in points per game and was ahead of popular names like Joe Mixon, Miles Sanders, and Kareem Hunt. In 2018, James Connor finished as the RB7 overall in PPG. He’s efficient when given touches, and he’s almost always given plenty of touches when healthy. His ceiling is high enough that he could end up as one of the best values of the year, as he’s currently ranked as the RB23 on DynastyNerds Consensus Rankings for PPR.
The Rest of the Pack
Behind him are some familiar faces. Benny Snell, a 4th round pick in 2019, saw some usage on the ground (108 attempts) but didn’t impress too much (3.9 YpC). Jaylen Samuels was used as a pass-catching back last year while Connor was out and ended up with 47 receptions for 305 yards. Neither are players you want to rely on, especially if Conner is healthy, but Samuels offered some high upside in PPR leagues when he was slated to start.
In the NFL Draft this year, the Steelers added another name to their running back core, Anthony McFarland Jr., out of Maryland. McFarland was a 4th round pick and has shown playmaking ability on both the ground and in the air, but struggled with consistency. He joins a crowded backfield, but could likely carve out a role to gain a few touches per game to showcase his breakaway speed.
James Conner is a high upside gamble at RB23, but buyer beware as you may only get a couple of games out of him. Anthony McFarland is likely the second most important dynasty asset out of this backfield. Reports have come out that Conner likely won’t be receiving a contract extension after this year. Jaylen Samuels is a good handcuff/stash in PPR leagues for his upside when involved in the gameplan.
The receiver position with the Steelers is a very murky and complicated picture, both short-term and long-term. While we can pick out the names and likely rank them in order pretty easily, none of them have really “proven themselves” (Juju was incredible in 2018, but struggled with injuries and playing outside in 2019). Then when looking long-term, as I’ve mentioned previously, the health and career length of Big Ben is essential to their current rankings as dynasty assets.
Juju Smith-Schuster was the WR9 in 2018, and even if that’s his ceiling going forward, that’s great. I will take a perennial WR1 any day of the week, especially one that is still only 23 years old. Yes, that’s right, Juju is younger than Van Jefferson, Deebo Samuel, and even James Washington. His ceiling is pretty much unlimited, and even if Big Ben retires and the Steelers move on while Juju is still on the team, he still should produce plenty as a high volume slot receiver for any young signal-caller. One thing to keep in mind is that Juju’s contract is up at the end of this year, and there are rumors that the Steelers may not be able to afford to keep him. I’m sure they will try, but Juju may be calling a new city home in 2021.
Diontae Johnson and James Washington are the next tier of wideouts on this team. They saw plenty of snaps last year while Juju dealt with injuries, and the Steelers tried to make up for the hole that Antonio Brown left. Johnson finished as WR41 while Washington finished as WR53. Johnson plays a style of the high reception/route runner outside receiver, while Washington is more of a boom/bust downfield threat. They both serve their purpose and did well in tandem last year, considering what they were working with at quarterback. If you want a more in-depth look at comparing the two, you can check out this thread I wrote on Twitter a while back. Though Johnson’s position is set for 2020, Washington has some new competition this year.
Enter Chase Claypool, a large athletic freak who many called to switch to TE around the time of the NFL Combine this spring. He posted numbers that haven’t been seen since Calvin Johnson and compares physically to Evan Engram/Vincent Jackson. The Steelers have already come out and said they plan to use him on the outside in Washington’s position as the ‘X’ receiver. While many people were hoping he would see snaps inside as a large slot receiver, it seems he will be used to stretch the field and make contested catches outside. Claypool has all the athletic potential in the world, but he was more of an athlete playing receiver than the other way around in college. With the abnormal preseason this year, he may hit a bit of a learning curve, but going forward, most fantasy teams would be better off with Claypool than Washington.
Juju Smith-Schuster should finish as a WR1 by the end of the year as long as he and Big Ben stay healthy. The chemistry has already been proven, and the talent is too large to expect much else. Diontae Johnson has a ceiling of WR2 as long as JuJu is there but will have to show chemistry with Big Ben before we can count on that high of a finish. I would expect a WR3 finish this year with more upside if JuJu misses any time. Washington should be able to fight of Claypool to take the majority of ‘X’ snaps in 2020, but will likely continue to deal with inconsistency opening the door for Claypool to take over the role by the end of the season.
Eric Ebron and Vance McDonald don’t exactly strike fear into the hearts of opposing defenses, but with Big Ben’s historical love for the tight end position, Eric Ebron will likely be dependent enough to contribute on many fantasy teams in 2020. A year removed from a TE4 finish in Indianapolis, everyone has forgotten about Eric Ebron. In 2018 he caught 13 TDs from Andrew Luck but struggled with injuries in 2019. Another player that will be great value if he can stay healthy, Ebron, is currently ranked as the TE31 by our Dynasty Nerd rankers. McDonald failed to make much of an impact last year when given a shot at the starting job and finished as the TE35, right next to Ricky Seals-Jones. McDonald is signed through the 2021 season but could be a cap casualty next offseason if Ebron plays well, and the Steelers decide to invest elsewhere.
If Ebron is healthy, there is absolutely no reason he can’t finish somewhere among the TE1’s, most likely somewhere around TE8-12. Week to week, Ebron’s upside may be based upon touchdowns, but if he can work out some chemistry with Big Ben, he could become a consistent producer. With the signing of Ebron, there isn’t much value in keeping McDonald around on most of your fantasy rosters.
Living in the Edge
This offseason, the Steelers exercised the fifth-year option on T.J. Watt, locking him in for another two years. A player who took a huge step in 2019, Watt is a sack machine and a great IDP dynasty asset. Last year he made a DPOY attempt with 14.5 sacks, 8 forced fumbles, and 10 TFL. At only 25 years old, he still hasn’t reached his prime, and he benefits from the rest of the defense on the Pittsburgh team. An elite secondary helps him acquire more sacks, and if the offense can get ahead early in games, the pass rush should get more opportunities this year compared to last.
On the other side of the EDGE rushers, Bud Dupree signed the franchise tag to join the Steelers for one more year. While not quite the player that TJ Watt is, Dupree amassed 11.5 sacks last year to go with 49 solo tackles and 4 forced fumbles. As of this article, he has not signed a long-term deal, so this may be his last year in Pittsburgh.
At linebacker, Devin Bush is the most important name to remember for fantasy. He looked solid in his rookie year with 100+ total tackles (72 solos), 2 INTs, and 4 fumble recoveries. Going forward, he will continue to get the most opportunities at that position and could become a top linebacker in 2020.
In the secondary, Minkah Fitzpatrick broke out as one of the top safeties in the league after being traded from the Dolphins for a first-round pick. His partner, Terrell Edmunds, also did well and started every game for the Steelers in 2019 at strong safety. This pairing of young safeties looks very promising for the team going forward and should end up being on the top duos by the end of the 2020 season.
TJ Watt will be the top IDP asset in this defense, and it will depend on your league settings if he is a DE/DL, an OLB/LB, or maybe even an EDGE. Either way, he is quite valuable as he’s still young and in a very stable defense. Dupree isn’t as flashy of a player but ends up with more tackles than Watt, so you could use that to your advantage to ‘buy low,’ as well as him being on the franchise tag. Devin Bush is one of the top young linebackers in the league and currently ranked as the LB8 right now. While defensive backs usually aren’t as valuable in IDP due to scoring, Edmunds is going to be the more valuable due to his tendency to play in the box and collect tackles. Fitzpatrick is a good bet if you have to start a safety/DB, but otherwise will be inconsistent as his upside comes from touchdowns and interceptions.
Many of the players on the Steelers come with an asterisk next to their name. If healthy, a team could be one of the best in the AFC and one of the best for fantasy, but if struggling with injury once again will be one to avoid. Due to the rough patch of 2019 that this entire team went through, many of the players could be considered buy lows, and while they may have ups and downs throughout the year, the WRs look to have enough talent to be good assets long-term, whether on this team or another. By the end of the year, you may be kicking yourself for not acquiring more shares of Conner, Roethlisberger, and Ebron, but buyer-beware… make sure to set up notifications for the Pittsburgh injury report before setting your starting lineup.
Data from Pro-Football-Reference, FantasyData, and DynastyNerds
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