Pittsburgh Steelers – 2019 A Look Inside

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Contributions from Joshua Hudson, Chris Molina, Chris Tyler, & Joe Zollo
An aggressive move up the draft board in the first round set the tone for the Steelers’ 2019 draft. Devin Bush is fast, can move sideline to sideline, and cover linebackers — something the Steelers have lacked on defense since Ryan Shazier’s career was (likely) ended. This is a plug-and-play move Pittsburgh needed to make. They proceeded to grab some valuable assets between rounds two and four, snagging offensive play-makers like Diontae Johnson, Benny Snell Jr., and CB Justin Layne to compete in the secondary, where Artie Burns has been something of a disappointment through four years. The Steelers are in something of a transition period with the exodus of offensive stars Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell and the twilight of Ben Roethlisberger’s career upon them. This draft class is (hopefully) the start of the next chapter. – The Hudsonian, Joshua Hudson
James Conner filled in admirably for Le’Veon Bell last year, but clearly wore down towards the end of the season. Fortunately, Jaylen Samuels showed he’s capable of helping out in a pinch (with great pass-catching ability to boot). JuJu Smith-Schuster vaults into Brown’s old spot at the top of the wide receiver food chain. He accumulated a ton of targets last year and is bound to receive even more this year. Can he handle being the number one guy? The Steelers brought in Donte Moncrief to help, have last year’s second round pick, James Washington, waiting his turn, and rookie Diontae Johnson (who moves a lot like Brown) on his way up. Vance McDonald has the moves and the killer stiff arm, but will he receive enough volume? Big Ben had a career high in pass attempts last year and should naturally come back to earth. Can he still carry the offense and be a value for fantasy owners? Stay tuned. – The Hudsonian, Joshua Hudson
After a solid start to his career in Indianapolis gave fantasy owners hope, Donte Moncrief has been something of a disappointment over his last couple of seasons. His last season in Indy (2017) coincided with Andrew Luck missing the season due to a shoulder injury and last season in Jacksonville featured Blake Bortles throwing him footballs. (Not much else is needed to explain that.) Moncrief heads up to the Steel City for a fresh start with an established QB, and is inserted into an offense that threw the ball more than anyone else last season-  by a good margin, I might add. When you also consider the departure of arguably the best receiver in the NFL (Antonio Brown), Moncrief is primed to have the best season of his career. In 2015, Moncrief led the Colts in receiving touchdowns with six. The following season, while playing in only nine games, he again led the team in receiving touchdowns, this time with seven. Moncrief carved out a role as a reliable underneath target to bail out quarterbacks when the safeties play deep and the middle of the field is open. 63.9% of his career receptions have resulted in a first down. (For perspective, Saints WR Michael Thomas had only 60% of his receptions go for first downs.) As Chris mentions below, between the departures of Brown and TE Jesse James, 200 targets are vacated from a year ago. If you factor in some regression, at least 100 of those targets vanish (potentially more if Ben Roethlisberger falls more in line with his career averages). Smith-Schuster is likely to see a small increase of targets due to Roethlisberger’s familiarity and trust in him. This means that Moncrief, James Washington, Eli Rogers, rookie Diontae Johnson, the RBs and TEs are all fighting for the other 70% — assuming Roethlisberger throws only 550 pass attempts in 2019. In Moncrief’s best season he had only 100 targets. That’d be an 18% market share. Conner and Samuels are talented pass catchers who, combined, can hit 20% market share for the Steelers (110 targets). That’s 380 targets between four people, not to mention Vance McDonald, Washington, Johnson, et al. 100 targets should be the goal for Moncrief, which will put him around 61 catches (career catch percentage of 60.8%) for 781 yards (career YPR of 12.8). Add in seven touchdowns (easily reachable given his track record and Roethlisberger needing a new target in the red zone after AB’s departure) and you have 181.1 fantasy points. His current ADP on Sleeper is WR54, below second year man James Washington. 181.1 fantasy points would’ve ranked as WR25 a year ago. If he scores only five touchdowns, he’s still in the top 35 at the position. Top 30-35 WR upside you can find in the fourteenth round? Sign me up, por favor. – The Hudsonian, Joshua Hudson
The 2018 Steelers offense was as good as it has ever been. The offense ranked fourth in total yards, first in pass attempts, second in passing yards, and sixth in points scored. Then, Antonio Brown gathered his belongings and his 168 targets, and headed west to Oakland. In mock drafts, everyone wants a piece of the pie with the remaining weapons on the team, and draft positions reflect this frenzy. That is why this article exists. Do not be blinded by the departure of Antonio Brown and what the Steelers’ offense did in 2018 (as the offense is primed for natural regression), and you’re going to be paying a pretty penny for the potential upside. An expensive upside naturally leads to potential downside. The candidate for fantasy downside on the Pittsburgh Steelers is Vance McDonald. Vance ‘dance’ McDonald had 50 receptions on 72 targets, 610 yards, and four touchdowns last season. That allowed him to squeak by, as TE11 in PPR formats, despite it being a career year. Vance McDonald’s ADP currently sits at the end of the seventh round (7.10) and is the ninth tight end off the board. The general consensus is that Vance will improve on his career best season, despite over 13% of his yards coming from the memorable 75-yard touchdown last season. I disagree. Let’s first explore the first five years of his career to put into perspective how he should be hovering around his ceiling right now. Since Vance broke through in 2013, he had 78 receptions on 142 targets, and eight touchdowns, the five seasons before last year’s breakout. That means 17 receptions on 28 targets, for two touchdowns a year. How should he fare next year? No one knows- we are in uncharted waters. Let’s turn to the numbers for the last five years from the leading target getters among Steelers tight ends. Jesse James was the TE1 in Pittsburgh in 2016 and 2017 with 60 and 63 targets, respectively. The three previous years belonged to Heath Miller (81, 91, and 79 targets). That is a 74.8 target average per year to the Steelers TE1, along with 2.4 touchdowns per. Vance McDonald had 72 targets and four TDs as the TE1 for the Steelers last year. That means, over a six year window, Vance McDonald’s 2018 fell right in line with an average TE1 season in Pittsburgh. Finally, we have to talk about the 200 targets vacated by Antonio Brown and Jesse James. Vance can get 10%-15% of those 200 targets, right? Not so fast. Those 200 targets may or may not even exist coming into the 2019 season. Big Ben threw a career-high 675 passes last year. That’s 197 more passes than his career average. Even if you don’t include his first two years in the league, Big Ben’s average would still only be 509 pass attempts a year. Except a regression to the mean. Let’s say he throws 550. Vance McDonald only had 10.7% of the target share. That would be 58 targets this year, a substantial regression from last year. It is likely that target share goes up, though. Pittsburgh tight ends got a combined 17.7% of the target shares last year. A 3% increase from Vance is reasonable, and that is still only 71.5 targets. Therefore, barring another heavy year in pass attempts from Big Ben, or a substantial increase in Vance McDonald’s target share, fantasy owners should probably expect a repeat of the 2018 season for Vance McDonald. You don’t want to take a fringe top 10 TE in the seventh round. You can get that value at the end of the draft (Mark Andrews, Delanie Walker, Greg Olsen). Vance is being taken in between the TE5, TE6, and TE9 from last year. Don’t let the 200 missing targets blind you. Xavier Grimble and rookie TE Zach Gentry are more than capable of replacing the targets vacated by Jesse James. Donte Moncrief, James Washington, Diontae Johnson, James Conner, and Jaylen Samuels will compete for Antonio Brown’s targets. Finally, even an increase in Vance’s target share will likely be combined with a decrease in pass attempts from Big Ben. For all you 2018 Trey Burton fantasy owners, remember taking him around the same spot and being extremely disappointed despite him finishing as the TE8?  Well, the same thing applies here for the borderline top 10 TE. Tread lightly. – Chris Molina
The best name in football just became the best player on the Steelers’ offense after the departure of Antonio Brown. JuJu Smith-Schuster is an incredible talent out of USC who catapulted his fantasy value in his second season. He jumped from 58 receptions on 79 targets during his rookie season, to 111 receptions on 166 targets in 2018, adding on 1,426 yards and seven touchdowns to his season statistics. He is heading into his third season, and it’s crazy to think that JuJu could eclipse 200 targets with the departure of AB, but that is something I don’t rule out for a single second. Brown took up 168 targets from Big Ben. Let’s say JuJu only takes 40 of them- he will still go over 200 targets. Smith-Schuster’s ADP is currently WR7, making him a round one or round two draft pick. Last year I would have said that was too high, but I am all in on JuJu this season. As much as I hate Ben Roethlisberger, he loves throwing to his number one option, and JuJu is that undoubted guy. If Smith-Schuster is there and you don’t like any of the running back options, draft him. – Joe Zollo
The Pittsburgh Steelers selected an offensive phenom in running back Benny Snell Jr. Standing 5’10’’ and weighing 224 pounds, Snell’s a monster of a bruising back. At Kentucky, he ran for 3,873 yards and 48 touchdowns and chipped in 216 yards on 29 catches. Snell tied, if not broke, a majority of Kentucky’s rushing records against SEC defenses. James Conner is the clear number one in Pittsburgh, but with the talent Snell has, I can see them as one of, if not potentially THE, best duos in the NFL. He will have to beat out Jaylen Samuels this offseason, but he has the ability to do so. Snell is super explosive and has vision like a hawk. He’s a one cut back that doesn’t waste time dancing in the back field, and he makes for an excellent pick up in the later rounds when trying to add depth at running back. – Chris Tyler
The second year deep threat out of Oklahoma State, James Washington, slides into the WR3 role on the depth chart this season and looks to make a mark with Antonio Brown forcing his way to Oakland. Washington didn’t see many meaningful snaps or targets during his rookie season, putting his 2018 numbers at 16 receptions for 217 yards and one touchdown. He is primarily a deep threat, catching the majority of his passes 20+ yards downfield in college. The undoubted number one option in the offense is JuJu, and the second option through the air is up for grabs. I am a big fan of Donte Moncrief this year as the WR2 on the depth chart, but he has had injuries in the past, making that second option spot a possibility for Washington to slide into. I don’t have extreme high hopes for Washington, but I have a feeling he is going to follow along the Davante Adams path to success. He will gradually increase his target share year-over-year and hopefully rise to the number one role in the offense. Look for Washington late in drafts to warm your bench until he finds his role in the offense. – Joe Zollo
I rarely do this, but the Steelers have left me no choice. Their defensive line is not great and their secondary is a load of garbage. The only player that could possibly put up points in 2019 is rookie Devin Bush. He was drafted to fill the role that Ryan Shazier was tragically forced out of due to injury, and he might just be able to do it. Pittsburgh traded up to get him in the draft, even though he had a down year in 2018 compared to 2017. This is going to be short and sweet because there is not much to say about a rookie. Bush should not be drafted as a starter, but if you have a solid LB1 and can afford a risk as a backup, go all in on the Michigan product. -Joe Zollo