The Pittsburgh Steelers entered 2019 without one of the greatest players in franchise history in Antonio Brown. While Brown went west, Big Ben was left with a trio of young receivers in JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Washington, and Diontae Johnson. Unfortunately, Roethlisberger’s season was cut short after needing surgery on his right elbow. This effectively torpedoed any chance Smith-Schuster had at that “pie in the sky” season many had hoped for. It also left the young, ancillary pieces of the offense without a true leader under center. Somehow the Steelers salvaged an 8-8 season, good for 2nd place in the AFC North. Even with another year and another injury under Roethlisberger’s belt, he is expected to be ready for the start of the 2020 season. Time for a temperature check on who he might be elevating to fantasy relevance this year.
FORECAST FROM AN ODDS STANDPOINT
There definitely is a theme entering this season, in the sense that the Steeler’s history of being a winning franchise is not to be respected. Even despite a lost 2019 season due to injuries, the Black and Gold are not getting the love from the sportsbooks this Summer. Currently, the Steelers are +350 to win the AFC North. The team’s projected win total is over/under 9.5 wins in 2020, which is only one more win than last season despite a healthy return from Ben Roethlisberger. Not a bad wager if you ask me. If you’re looking to learn how the odds work though, before placing any bet, I would recommend doing some research about sports betting sites. Make sure you find one that matches your interest along with educating yourself about deposits and signup bonuses.
THE HEALTH OF BIG BEN
Before taking a look at some of the exciting skill players the Steelers have, it is important to address one question; can Big Ben stay healthy? It is a big ask at this point in Roethlisberger’s career for 16 games, but if he can play anywhere close to a full season the Steelers should contend for a playoff spot. Under his watch in 2018, the Steelers ranked 4th in plays per game (66.1) and 5th in points per game (26.8) according to teamrankings.com. Both of those numbers regressed dramatically with him on the sideline. Their plays per game bottomed out at 31st in the league (58.6) which in turn, lowered their points per game to 27th in the league (18.1). It’s no question that the combo of Roethlisberger and Brown was the engine that made the Steelers’ offense run for years. While Big Ben might be able to keep things steady this season, the team had no chance of survival in 2019 with neither of the aforementioned pair. Now, if the Steelers’ pace numbers can find some kind of middle ground between the polar opposite stories of 2018 and 2019, then the likes of JuJu-Smith Schuster, Diontae Johnson, and James Conner could be in for valuable seasons.
JUJU SMITH-SCHUSTER and DIONTAE JOHNSON
JuJu Smith-Schuster garnered just about as much hype as one could going into last season. After Big Ben had to be put on the shelf, any chance Smith-Schuster had at matching his 2018 performance was practically dust. Much of what you think about Smith-Schuster hinges on whether you believe he can operate as the go-to guy in the Steelers’ offense. Was his 2018 campaign a product of Brown drawing most of the opposing defenses’ attention? Did JuJu feast on CB 2s and 3s while Brown dueled with premier cover guys? Only a full season of Big Ben and no AB will give us the answer. As of now, Smith-Schuster’s ADP at fantasyfootballcalculator.com is 5.04. That number balloons to the back end of the 3rd round in 12 team, full-point PPR leagues. If you were a Smith-Schuster optimist before last season, it would be beneficial to pounce on his current price.
One silver lining for the Steelers last season was the discovery of another potential stud at wide receiver. Rookie Diontae Johnson was able to produce a solid season even with the rotation of Mason Rudolph and Devlin “Duck” Hodges. Johnson himself has been hyped up a fair amount during this offseason as a second-year breakout could be on the horizon. His ADP on fantasyfootballcalculator.com is 10.3 and around the middle of the 8th round in 12 team, full-point PPR leagues. If defenses give Smith-Schuster the AB treatment this year, Johnson could enjoy the same success his counterpart did two years ago.
JAMES CONNER AND THEN SOME
As it stands now, there are four players in the Steelers backfield who could realistically contribute this season; James Conner, Jaylen Samuels, Benny Snell and 4th round rookie Anthony McFarland. To Conner’s credit, he has posted workhorse-like fantasy outings on numerous occasions during his career. With that said, the drafting of McFarland could spell danger for a running back who has also had his fair share of injuries. Snell and Samuels were both serviceable last season, but neither seems capable of being that bell-cow back the Steelers have a propensity to use. In an interview with CBS’ Tyler Sullivan back in May, Mike Tomlin reiterated that James Conner us due for the lion’s share of carries once again. Tomlin elaborated that “James is a featured guy and a proven runner when healthy”. Emphasis on the “when healthy” If James Conner can remain on the field, he should be able to rack up points on the ground and with his hands. While the Steelers O-line continues to age, they should remain one of the league’s most solid units which is another plus for Conner’s fantasy outlook. His ADP on fantasyfootballcalculator.com is currently the first pick of the 3rd round.
It should be noted that what kept the Steelers kicking last season was the emergence of a dominant defensive unit. If they can play anywhere near the level they did last season, a change in team philosophy could be coming. While the Steelers of old were more run and gun, a ground and pound approach with the occasional flare could be more sensible given Big Ben’s health and age. Something to consider when you’re on the clock, contemplating selecting one of these Steelers this season.
JR Reynolds has covered DFS for the past couple of seasons and look forward to continuing to do so with Gridiron Experts. I am currently in my first year as a Registered Nurse. I get to meet and work with many different people on a daily basis which is one of my favorite parts of the job. While I love the NFL, I also enjoy paying attention to the other sports with a soft spot for the Philly teams. I am also an avid golfer and love to hit the course anytime I can.