By The Hudsonian, Joshua Hudson (with Contributions from Joe Zollo and Chris Tyler)
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For the last few years, the Steelers have been a two-man wrecking crew. Antonio Brown has finished as Fantasy’s number 1 wide receiver for four straight years — 2014 to 2017 — and Le’Veon Bell has ranked as the first, second, or third best running back in fantasy three of the last four years. (Side note: Bell was injured halfway through 2015 and finished as RB42. His 19.53 fantasy points per game would have put him third stretched out over a full season.) The only thing the Steelers have needed offensively outside of those two has been a QB to get AB the ball and an offensive line to open holes for Bell. Good thing they have both. The Steelers offensive line ranked 3rd in 2016 according to Pro Football Focus, but that number fell to 12th in 2017 due to a series of injuries. It mattered not to Bell and his patient running style. The biggest surprise? The emergence of rookie WR JuJu Smith-Schuster. His penchant for big plays — he did have a 97-yard TD reception this past year — and infectious personality on social media endears himself to fans and puts himself on their radar. The Steelers may have one of the best WR tandems in Fantasy in 2018 as a result.
Ben Roethlisberger is a point of contention among many fantasy pundits. His fantasy rankings since 2015 – 22, 8, and 7 — have been on the rise but he’s far from consistent. He’s often banged up, he’s 36, and takes a lot of hits because he feels he can due to his size. He’s also threatened retirement the last few offseasons before declaring this year he plans to play another 3-4 years. The Steelers are calling his bluff apparently with the selection of Mason Rudolph in this year’s draft.
|(Projected Starting Lineup)|
|QB3||(R) Mason Rudolph||N/A||N/A|
|WR3||(R) James Washington||N/A||N/A|
Staying on the subject of Big Ben, there’s still plenty to like from a fantasy perspective even if you aren’t overly impressed. And really, it’s just because he’s been doing it year in and year out that you just get bored with him. He has four total seasons in his career where he’s thrown less than 10 INTs and in only one of those years did he play a full 16 games. In fact, throughout his 14-year career, he has only three seasons in which he’s played a full 16 games. He has only 5 career 4,000 yard seasons and only two years of more than 30 passing TDs. He’s not a rushing threat — he has only 2 rushing TDs since 2011 — and has less than a 2 to 1 TD to INT ratio over his career. If you can’t tell, I’m presenting an argument for why Big Ben isn’t the top 10 QB in 2018 he’s been the last two seasons.
People that are pro-Ben will obviously point to Brown’s presence as to why he should be in the discussion. And you’re right, he should be. Smith-Schuster’s emergence further enhances the argument. Allow me to take you back to 2014 when Martavis Bryant burst onto the scene. Brown was the number one receiver in fantasy and Bryant had 8 TDs on 26 receptions. Not coincidentally, 2014 marked Ben’s most efficient season to date — 67.1% completion percentage, 4,952 yards (career high), 32 TDs (also a career high), and 9 INTs (2nd lowest of career). Bryant had an even better 2015 and Ben’s numbers fell off. Maybe Smith-Schuster’s numbers continue to rise but can Ben, at 36, continue to throw for more than 4,000 yards and approach 30 TDs? History says no. Ben should still throw for 3,800 yards with 26 TDs and 13 INTs. Those are pedestrian numbers at the QB position in 2018 and the only way he approaches top 10 status is if a number of QBs succumb to injury, much like what occured in 2017.
Behind Ben are Landry Jones and rookie Mason Rudolph. Jones is awful and may not make it out of camp as the backup. There’s plenty to like about Rudolph though. He’s one of my favorite QBs coming out of this year’s draft. Yes, he played in a spread offense at Oklahoma State, but NFL teams are implementing more and more spread concepts into their playbook that I have no worries Rudolph can’t pick up the playbook. Plus, Ben says he wants to play a few more years. Can he is another story but the likelihood of Rudolph starting within the next two years is slim. But just so you understand my point with Rudolph, here are his career numbers at Oklahoma State: 63.2% completion percentage, 13,618 passing yards, 92 TDs, 26 INTs, and 17 rushing TDs (16 in his Junior and Senior seasons). He had the 2nd highest passer rating among incoming rookies on 3rd downs and throws one of the better deep balls. It also doesn’t hurt that the Steelers selected his favorite target a round in front of him. (More on that later.) Rudolph is a prime Dynasty stash and someone to keep an eye on in the coming years.
Le’Veon Bell is a top 4 running back in the NFL. It’d be so easy to just leave this section at that and move on but with so much drama surrounding Bell because of the Steelers’ lack of desire to pay the man like one of the best players in the NFL, it’s imperative to spell this out just in case someone from the Steelers organization reads this. (A man can dream, damn it.)
Bell’s accomplishments throughout his career are astonishing. He fell to the 2nd round because of concerns over his lack of top end speed and his patient running style going against everything that coaches teach players. For his career, he’s averaged 128.96 scrimmage yards per game. Oh by the way, that’s the best in NFL history through a player’s first five seasons. (That’s also the best mark to date over one’s career.) He’s had three 1,000 yard rushing seasons and has 35 total rushing TDs. Basically, he’s a top 5 RB year in and year out. Now comes the fun part. Bell’s receiving numbers over the last five seasons — 312 receptions for 2,660 yards and 7 TDs. In terms of receiving yards, he’d be the 53rd most productive WR in the league. In terms of receptions, he’d be the 22nd best WR in the league. He’d also be in the conversation of a top 10 TE in the league if we’re keeping score. He’s also finished 2nd on the Steelers in receptions 3 of his 5 seasons and has topped 80 catches twice.
If you hadn’t gathered by now, he’s been the most prolific receiving RB over the last five years as well. His fantasy totals reflect that. Over the last three years, Bell has averaged 24.16 fantasy points per game. Extrapolate that over a 16 game fantasy season — Club Fantasy doesn’t play in Week 17 and for good reason — that’s 362.4 points per season. That would’ve been 1st in 2015, 2nd in 2016, and 2nd in 2017. Can he sustain that type of production for the next 3-5 years? History would suggest no, but look at backs like LaDainian Tomlinson who were of similar build and production and did just fine over an extended period of time. People talk about the suspensions/injuries that have hampered Bell which to me is a cop out. The games he missed in 2015 we’re due to a torn ACL. That’s like taking an aspirin after a game in this day and age. The suspensions are worrisome but I don’t put much into it as he’s been fine for more than a year and has too much to play for to ruin it. Pay the man. Bell is my RB3 to begin the season but you can easily make the argument he should be number one, two, or four on the list. It all boils down to personal preference.
Behind Bell things are a little worrisome. James Conner enters his second season out of Pittsburgh and while he’s a solid runner, he doesn’t have the hands to be as valuable as Bell. Conner’s a handcuff in the sense you’re downgrading from a top 4 option to a low-tier RB2 in the event Bell misses time. Stevan Ridley has a 1,000 yard season on his resume but has bounced around the league the last few years. Fitzgerald Touissant would likely pick up the slack on passing downs, but he’d be nothing more than a FLEX play as the Steelers would likely go 3- and 4-wide more often with Brown, JuJu, James Washington, and Darrius Hayward-Bey or Justin Hunter.
Antonio Brown is the best WR in fantasy and probably in the NFL. That’s all the convincing you need. Fantasy players tend to get bored with the mundane. That’s why someone might take a DeAndre Hopkins or Odell Beckham Jr. over Brown just to be the person who drafts the player to finally overtake him.
Now let’s get to the more intriguing options on the Steelers. A 2nd year receiver out of USC, JuJu Smith-Schuster has promise. He has fantastic hands, has an edge to him as witnessed by this block on Bengals’ LB Vontze Burfict, and has serious wheels that he showed off on this 97-yard TD catch and run. His WR30 finish in 2017 hardly tells the whole story. He finished as the most efficient WR on passes traveling more than 20 yards downfield, catching 54.5% of his targets. 2 of his 6 receptions went for touchdowns. 58% of his routes were run from the slot. Out of his 36 targets, he caught 27 of them, four of which went for TDs. He had only two drops on the season, both when coming on outside routes. He also averaged 15.8 yards per reception. If JuJu continues to ascend, he should join AB as a second Steelers WR to top 1,000 receiving yards in 2018. I think JuJu leaps into the top 25 at the WR position in Fantasy but he needs to keep his TDs around 7 to do so. He’s a guy that will get yards in chunks, around 15 yards per reception, so he needs the TDs to keep his value as that of more than a WR3/FLEX.
Another intriguing name in Pittsburgh is rookie James Washington from Oklahoma State. He was, by all accounts, the most prolific deep ball threat in college football a season ago. He finished 3rd among incoming rookies in yards per route run (3.48) and had 1,544 yards receiving. He also had only one drop on passes travelling more than 20 yards downfield — he had 19 receptions on those same type of passes. 34.2% of his targets travelled more than 20 yards downfield. It’s not out of the realm of possibility for Washington to light the league on fire in 2018. He could have 25 receptions for 500 yards and 5 TDs. He’s a Dynasty stash at this point because he is, at best, the 4th receiving option on the team. He’ll make his mark when his college QB, Rudolph, becomes the starter in Pittsburgh. Stay tuned!
The Steelers haven’t had anything resembling a consistent option at TE since Heath Miller retired. They tried with the signing of Ladarius Green but that experiment was put to bed after one season. Jesse James has been around but hasn’t lit up the competition. And the Steelers traded for Vance McDonald last year to add some athleticism to the position. They haven’t had a top 20 option at TE the last two years and in 2015, their highest ranked TE in Fantasy was James at WR64. McDonald is big and athletic and was used mainly out of the slot in college. He ran 37.4% of his routes from the slot last year for the Steelers but ran only 115 total routes. James seems to be the Steelers preferred option at TE but the upside belongs to McDonald. For the time being, you’re not rostering James or McDonald in Fantasy. Too many unknowns.
Rookie to Watch
WR James Washington adds yet another dynamic weapon to an already potent offense. It’s easy to question Washington’s route running but what I don’t question is his ability to make plays and get open. Brown and Smith-Schuster are going to have more targets which will provide Washington to do what he does best — get open. Washington will be a forgotten man by defenses as the 3rd or 4th receiver in this offense but he’ll quickly become a household name in the Steel City. – Chris Tyler
He had better stats every single season at Oklahoma State. He played in every single game, every single year in college and now he even has his college QB sitting right behind Big Ben waiting to come in the game. James Washington is the Steelers next big WR. They have seemed to not miss on drafting WR’s, in terms of talent, the past few years with JuJu Smith-Schuster and Martavis Bryant so I have trust that James Washington will turn out alright. He will line up in the third WR spot for Pittsburgh and produce WR4 numbers for your fantasy team by the end of the season. – Joe Zollo
2018 Loose Ends
The Steelers should once again be a top team in the AFC and the reasons they’ll contend are the Killer Bs — Ben, Bell, and Brown. Bell and Brown should continue to be staples at their respective positions while Ben is reliable, if underwhelming, at QB. Smith-Schuster has promise and Washington has serious upside in the future. The Steelers D/ST unit was stout in 2017 — they led the league in sacks — and with continued growth from youngsters like T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree, should be a top 10 option in 2018. If they keep Smith-Schuster as a fixture in the return game, they can hold that ranking. If they limit his touches because he’s more involved in the offense, the unit will fall out of the top 10. Here are some other tidbits I found while researching the Steelers:
- Ben Roethlisberger finished 2nd in the league with 88 pass attempts that travelled 20 or more yards downfield. His Adjusted Completion Percentage on such passes (31.8) ranked 30th in the NFL.
- Le’Veon Bell forced 44 missed tackles while rushing in 2017, 4th best in the NFL.
- Antonio Brown finished 2nd in the NFL in targets last year, 5th in receptions, and 1st in yards. Of all receivers that had over 100 catches in 2017, he had the 3rd most drops with 5.
- WR Rating, according to Pro Football Focus, is a quarterback’s rating when targeting a specific WR. JuJu Smith-Schuster finished with the highest WR rating in the league last year. Antonio Brown finished with the 29th highest.
- James Washington had the most receiving yards on deep passes (20 yards or more) among incoming rookies. He also had 41 targets on such passes, also best among incoming rookies.
|3||9/24 (Mon)||@ TB|
|7||** BYE WEEK **|
|10||11/8 (Thurs)||vs CAR|