QB Ben Roethlisberger – A slow start to the season (11 TDs and two games with 300+ yards passing over his first nine games) due a tougher than expected schedule led to Ben underperforming his expected value in 2017. His game was much higher over his last six games (16 TDs and 325.5 passing yards per game) highlighted by three strong games (299/4, 351/, and 506/2). Over his last 57 games, Roethlisberger threw 110 TDs while averaging 298 passing yards per game. His lack of a strong fourth and fifth option in the passing hurts his upside in TDs, especially in the red zone. JuJu Smith-Schuster proved to be a nice addition last year (58/917/7), which will be key to the upside of the Steelers’ offense in 2018. Roethlisberger has a floor of 4,500 yards passing with 30+ TDs.
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QB Mason Rudolph – Over the last three seasons at Oklahoma State, Rudolph passed for 12,765 yards with 86 TDs and 22 Ints. He scored 16 rushing TDs over the last two seasons despite gaining only 96 yards rushing on 144 carries. Mason will need time develop as the backup QB for the Steelers.
RB Le’Veon Bell – The Steelers won’t give Bell a new contract, which may turn into a problem this summer. There is no doubt Bell will out touch Gurley if he plays a full season, but he may not offer the upside in yards per touch (4.8 in 2017 and 5.6 in 2016 compared to 6.1 by Gurley in 2017) or elite TD production. Over 62 games in his career, Le’Veon has 42 TDs while never scoring more than 11 TDs in any season. Bell is a great NFL back who can do it all. In his NFL career, he’s averaged 24.9 touches and 129 combined yards per game. Pittsburgh has offensive talent, but Fantasy owners want more explosive scoring from a team that has the top WR in the league and one of the best RBs in the game. His slight injury risk and the fragile nature of Ben Roethlisberger pushes Bell to number two in my early 2018 draft rankings. Workhorse back with a chance at 375+ touches for 2,000+ yards with double-digit TDs and 75+ catches. Last year Pittsburgh’s RB ran the 401 times for 1,630 yards and 11 TDs plus 89 catches for 670 yards and three TDs on 112 targets. Bell has the best opportunity in the game as far as playing time, but he needs to add more TDs to his resume to be considered the top RB in the game in 2018.
RB James Conner – When watching the highlights of Conner, he looked to have the movements of a quarterback running the ball (Steve McNair was my thought) with a fullback’s mentality yet he has deceiving long speed. His footwork is choppy but driving while running with a high style. Over about three seasons at Pitt in college, James rushed for 3,733 yards on 668 carries with 56 TDs and minimal value in the passing game (30/412/4). He missed most of the 2015 season due to a successful battle with Hodgkin’s lymphoma cancer. In his rookie season, Conner has 32 rushes for 144 yards. His season ended in Week 15 with a right knee injury that required surgery. The Steelers will give Conner the top backup role in 2018, which is a minimal opportunity unless Le’Veon Bell has an injury.
Update: 8/17/2018 > James Conner ran the ball well (5/57/1) in the second preseason game for the Steelers to further solidify his handcuff value behind Le’Veon Bell. Jaylen Samuel has a steady game (51 combined yards on 12 touches with three catches and one TD). If Bell had an injury, Samuel would be the top passing catching option while Connor would seize the early down role.
WR Antonio Brown – Over the last five seasons, Brown has 582 catches for 7,848 yards and 52 TDs over 77 games which breaks down to 7.6 catches for 101.9 yards and 0.67 TDs per game or 21.8 Fantasy points per game. Over this span, he’s been the best Fantasy player in the game while offering explosiveness to the WR position. His floor must be 320 Fantasy points with much higher upside if the Steelers ever put together an impactful offensive season. The debate and challenge for a Fantasy owner are finding the outs at RB by starting with a WR in the first round. In the past, the top end RB pool hasn’t been as deep making Brown a huge edge at WR early in the first round. Great player and well worth an early piece to a Fantasy team in the first round. Last year the Steelers’ WRs caught 233 passes for 3,272 yards and 21 TDs on 371 targets. Possible 120 catches for 1,800 yards and double-digit TDs.
Update: 8/14/2018 > Brown has already missed some time in training camp with an undisclosed issue. He left practice on Monday with another issue in the leg area. The Steelers and Brown maintain that each issue is minor. Either way, Antonio has fallen some in the drafts in early August. This thoroughbred can’t be a stud forever, so his minor injuries may be just enough of a sign to avoid his possible down season. Tough call overall as Brown does have special talent and impact upside.
WR JuJu Smith-Schuster – Over three seasons at USC, JuJu caught 213 passes for 3,092 yards and 25 TDs with his best success coming in his sophomore year (89/1454/10). Smith-Schuster adds more power than finesse to the wide receiver position. His size (6’1” and 215 Lbs.) gives him scoring ability, and his game worked well out of the slot in 2017. Over 14 games in his rookie season, JuJu caught 58 of his 79 targets for 917 yards and seven TDs with 12 catches going for 20 yards or more and six catches for longer than 40 yards. His first impact game came in Week 8 (7/193/1) while stepping up big time over the last three weeks (6/114, 6/75/1, and 9/143/1) after Antonio Brown went down with an injury. Smith-Schuster outplayed Martavis Bryant who was shipped out of town in the offseason. His high catch rate (73.4) paired with a WR2 opportunity in 2018, I expect 110+ targets leading to 75+ catches for 1,100+ yards and a chance at double-digit TDs.
WR James Washington – In each season at Oklahoma State, Washington showed growth in his production (28/456/6, 53/1087/10, 71/1380/10, and 74/1549/13). He scored 33 TDs over his last 39 games with ten or more TDs in each of his last three years. Over four seasons at college, James caught 226 passes for 4,472 yards and 39 TDs while gaining an amazing 19.8 yards per catch. Washington is a high cut WR with long legs, which leads to him having deceptive deep speed. He catches the ball with his hands while offering a plus release off the line. His opportunity won’t be high out of the gate in his rookie season, but he’ll be a better fit on the outside than Martavis Bryant was in 2017. The Steelers passing game runs through Antonio Brown, but they need/want a deep burner on the opposite side of him on the field. Last year Bryant caught 50 passes for 603 yards and three TDs on 84 targets for Pittsburgh, but he caught only seven passes for yards or more and one pass over 40 yards. I expect James to double that output in the deep passing game. Washington needs to improve his route running to develop into a complete WR. I’ll set his bar at 50+ catches for 750+ yards and 5+ TDs.
Update: 8/17/2018 > I’m sure there are times when a Fantasy owner contemplates his decisions on which Fantasy site to invest in to help build a Fantasy roster. I point no further than James Washington for the Steelers. He broke out with a big game (five catches for 114 yards and two TDs on seven targets) vs. the Packers while showing great hands on both plays. Back in mid-May, ScoutFantasySports gave Fantasy owners great insight on the direction and opportunity in the Steelers’ offense, which was supported by his great game.
TE Jesse James – Over the last two seasons, James has 123 combined targets leading to two poor seasons (39/338/3 and 43/372/3) from a Fantasy perspective. Last year he had two games of value (6/41/2 and 10/97) while coming up with no catches four other games. Overall, TEs in the Steelers’ offense caught 62 of 96 targets for 592 yards and four TDs. At age 24, James should show growth, but he projects as the fifth option in Pittsburgh’s passing game. Only a bye week fill in or short-term injury cover.
TE Vance McDonald – After showing a spark multiple times (4/65/1, 6/71/1, 5/61/1, 1/75/1, and 3/84/1) in 2015 and 2016 with San Fran, McDonald struggled to stay healthy last year (shoulder, ankle, and knee). Over ten games, he caught 14 of 24 targets for 188 yards and one TD. Vance will come off the bench again with minimal value in the season-long games.
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