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Steelers Fantasy Preview

Evan Silva
A preview of Raymond Summerlin's recap of the Rotoworld Friends and Family draft

Steelers 2014-2017 Offensive Profile

2014-2017 Pass Attempts Rank: 6th, 16th, 9th, 6th
2014-2017 Rush Attempts Rank: 15th, 24th, 16th, 15th
2014-2017 Play Volume Rank: 6th, 22nd, 14th, 9th
2014-2017 Yards Per Play Rank: 2nd, 2nd, 8th, 7th
Unaccounted for Air Yards from 2017 (Rank): 1,501 (9th)
Unaccounted for Carries from 2017 (Rank): 11 (28th)

Projected Starting Lineup

QB: Ben Roethlisberger
RB: Le’Veon Bell
WR: Antonio Brown
WR: JuJu Smith-Schuster
WR: James Washington
TE: Vance McDonald
LT: Ali Villanueva
LG: Ramon Foster
C: Maurkice Pouncey
RG: David DeCastro
RT: Marcus Gilbert

Passing Game Outlook

Ben Roethlisberger followed up finishing 2017 as fantasy’s QB10 by helping to force out longtime OC Todd Haley in favor of Randy Fichtner, Big Ben’s position coach for eight years. Pittsburgh finished top nine in the NFL in pass attempts in three of the last four seasons and is built to throw voluminously with one of the league’s premier quarterback-receiver combinations and the NFL’s top all-purpose back. 2017 was Big Ben’s healthiest and most consistent season since 2014, logging 300 yards and/or multiple touchdown passes in 13-of-17 games, playoffs included. He especially caught fire in the second half with a 26:7 TD-to-INT ratio and 319-yard average over his final 10 starts. Roethlisberger took Jacksonville’s elite pass defense to school in the Divisional Round, passing for 469 yards and five TDs in Pittsburgh’s 45-42 loss. Roethlisberger’s home-road splits are now infamous, but he averaged more yards per attempt (7.80, 7.39) away from Heinz Field last year. The Steelers can replace Martavis Bryant with rising sophomore JuJu Smith-Schuster, rookie James Washington, and underrated pass-catching TE Vance McDonald. Big Ben has finished as a top-10 fantasy passer in just 4-of-14 NFL seasons, but his spiked weeks are as lucrative as any quarterback’s. I personally prefer rostering him in DFS over season long and best ball.

Antonio Brown enters 2018 with four straight overall WR1 finishes in per-game PPR scoring and four straight top-three results in non-PPR. He’s topped 150 targets in five straight years; for perspective, only four other players in the entire league reached the 150-target plateau in 2017. Josh Hermsmeyer’s Next Gen Stats charting did show marked slippage in Brown’s 2017 Game Speed, although he still led the NFL in receiving yards (1,533) and the AFC in Pro Football Focus’ predictive Yards Per Route Run metric (2.87). 30-year-old Brown can compensate for long-speed loss with superb route running and short-area separation skills. He has deserved WR1 overall ranking entering each of the last four seasons, and 2018 is no different. Depending on league type, there are only four players I’d confidently take ahead Brown, and they are all running backs: Todd Gurley, Le’Veon Bell, David Johnson, and Ezekiel Elliott.

JuJu Smith-Schuster overtook Martavis Bryant for No. 2 wideout duties as a rookie out of USC, emerging as the Steelers' primary slot receiver by Week 3 and going on to rank No. 9 among 93 qualifiers in yards per route run (2.16). Only 15 rookies since the 1970 merger have logged more receiving yards per game than JuJu’s 65.5 (minimum 10 games). As Smith-Schuster won’t turn 22 until November, he is nearly two years younger than Falcons first-round pick Calvin Ridley and more than a year younger than Broncos second-rounder Courtland Sutton. The Steelers are missing the league’s ninth-most Air Yards from last year’s roster. Smith-Schuster is one of my favorite fifth-round best-ball/season-long picks for his comfortable floor and league-winning ceiling should Brown miss time.

No. 60 overall pick James Washington should have the inside track to replace Martavis Bryant in three-receiver sets after earning the 2017 Biletnikoff Award as college football’s top wideout and leading the nation in receiving yards (1,549). Washington has an odd-ball build at 5-foot-11, 213 with 4.54 speed, but PFF College credited him with 815 yards on targets thrown 20-plus yards downfield, most in all of Division I last season. Washington will be pushed by sixth-year underachiever Justin Hunter and 31-year-old special teamer Darrius Heyward-Bey. Washington will be a late-round sleeper if he secures the job this August.

Vance McDonald never found his footing after the Steelers acquired him from the 49ers less than two weeks before Week 1, battling an assortment of back, knee, and ankle injuries that limited McDonald to 10 regular season appearances and 29% of Pittsburgh’s 2017 offensive snaps. Finally healthy in the playoffs, McDonald led the Steelers in targets (16) and catches (10) in their Divisional Round loss, out-snapping in-line TE Jesse James 87% to 22%. Martavis’ exit frees up enough passing-game opportunity for McDonald to offer late-round TE2/3 intrigue and in-season streamer appeal as a catch-first tight end in a high-scoring offense. It can only help that McDonald is reportedly a favorite of Roethlisberger.

Editor's Note: The 2018 Rotoworld Draft Guide provides more than 500 extensive player profiles, tiers, projections, Evan Silva’s Sleepers and Busts and much more. Get the NFL Draft Guide now.

Running Game Outlook

Le’Veon Bell again demonstrated his workhorse aptitude by leading the NFL in 2017 carries (321) and clearing 1,850 total yards for the third time in four years. Although Pittsburgh has embraced a pass-first mentality, Mike Tomlin’s team finished in the top half in rushing attempts three times in the last four seasons. Le’Veon’s 2017 yards-per-carry average (4.02) was his lowest since 2013, but he still ranked 11th among 47 qualifiers in Football Outsiders’ rushing Success Rate while setting career highs in targets (106) and catches (85). All five starters return from a Steelers offensive line that finished No. 7 in Adjusted Line Yards. Still only 26, Bell is smart to play the financial game one year after the second-healthiest season of his career, even if it requires another holdout. Last year, Le’Veon reported to the Steelers nine days before Week 1. I think Bell and Todd Gurley are interchangeable picks at 1.01 overall.

2017 third-round pick James Conner struggled with ball security and pass protection last preseason, never earned more than eight snaps in a regular season game, then landed on I.R. with a torn MCL in Week 15. He will face competition from veterans Stevan Ridley and Fitzgerald Toussaint, plus versatile fifth-round pick Jaylen Samuels, who saw time at receiver, tailback, tight end, and H-back at NC State. The Steelers would presumably resort to an RBBC if Le’Veon went down, leaving Bell without a bankable handcuff.

2018 Vegas Win Total

The Steelers’ Win Total opened at 10.5, a mark they’ve beaten in three of the last four seasons. Last year’s club did outkick its Pythagorean Win Expectation by 1.89 games, the NFL’s third-biggest margin behind only regression locks Buffalo (2.97) and Arizona (2.28). Pittsburgh’s 8-2 record in one-score games will be particularly difficult to repeat. The Steelers’ 2017 schedule factors are largely neutral against the No. 14-ranked slate in Warren Sharp’s metrics. A big concern is the state of Pittsburgh’s defense, which fell off dramatically after ILB Ryan Shazier’s career-threatening spinal injury. Including the playoffs, the Steelers yielded 28.0 points per game following Shazier’s Week 13 loss after allowing a 17.8-point average in their first 12 contests. The Steelers maintain one of the highest Super Bowl probabilities in a weak AFC, but I still think the under on their aggressive win total is a slightly better bet.