Roethlisberger has typically remained on the fringes of high level
fantasy quarterbacks. He’s someone you always begrudgingly
draft, but usually end up happy with the final production. If you
waited on Ben last year, then you got some fantastic value, as he
easily had his best statistical season as a pro, throwing for career
highs in yardage and touchdowns. It’s not often players have
their best season in their 15th year, but Big Ben did just that
despite not having Le'Veon Bell for the season, and dealing with
a perpetually irritated Antionio Brown.
For all the might and majesty Ben had as one of fantasy’s
best quarterbacks, the Steelers missed the playoffs and then shipped
out one of the best receivers of all time. With Bell and Brown
gone, the Steelers offense now revolves solely around the final
Killer B. Can Roethlisberger replicate the big numbers with a
very talented, but inexperienced group of skill position players?
I feel very comfortable in saying that a repeat of last year’s
numbers is borderline impossible. For one, Ben played a full 16
games for only the third time in his career, and no one is going
to make me believe that removing Brown from the offense is somehow
going to make the Steelers better. Yes, the offensive line is
still one of the best in the league, but there isn’t a stud
veteran (Brown, or Bell) that this team can feed the ball to.
I think this offense hits some rough spots as their young guys
learn to deal with the increased attention and pressure and Ben
regresses statistically as he’s guided into a more conservative
gameplan. With Brown gone, I think the Steelers play more “team”
ball and lean on the ground game and defense more than they have
in the recent past.
In a longtime keeper league last season I kept Bell, and then kicked
myself for “reaching” for Conner in the middle rounds
of the draft. I didn’t want to get left with my pants down
should Bell miss the first few games. Well you know by now how things
turned out. Conner went out and set the fantasy world on fire, scoring
13 touchdowns and piling up nearly 1,500 total yards. A late season
injury cost him a few games, but savvy fantasy owners might have
learned a lot during those missed games.
This might be controversial, especially with Conner being a borderline
top-10 pick in early drafts, but I think he is an average player
that had the benefit of being a bell-cow on a team with an elite
line, scheme, and receiving core. While he showed more wiggle and
speed than in his first season, nothing about his running style
or play jumps off the page. He benefited greatly from hogging the
teams running back snaps (83% of the running back touches went to
Connor), and he had the 2nd most goal line carries in the NFL with
13. One of the long standing knocks against Bell was that he was
simply a product of the system. It seems possible, as college h-back
Jaylen Samuels was able to step right in for Conner late in the
season and put up some impressive numbers.
The bottom line here is that Conner remains the RB1 on an offense
that has been dominant for the better part of a decade. I just
think there was a perfect storm of consequences for Conner to
put up the numbers he did last year, and it’s going to be
very hard for him to repeat his top-10 finish.
Samuels falls into a common tier of fantasy backs. He’s a handcuff
that will be a volume driven RB2 should Conner go down, but doesn’t
have the talent or pedigree to truly challenge for meaningful snaps.
Yeah, he was mighty impressive in a late season game against the
Patriots, and was decent in Weeks 14 and 16 when Conner was banged
up, but when the chips were down in a must-win Week 17 game, Samuels
was out-touched 17-9 by a returning Conner. The Steelers added Benny
Snell to the mix in the 4th round of the draft, but he’s a big
effort, limited athlete who projects to be nothing more than a backup.
Samuels should see more early season work this year than last, but
it simply won’t be enough for fantasy relevance short of an injury
JuJu put an end to anyone who thought his 2017 rookie year was
a fluke, as the former USC Trojan finished 6th in the NFL with 111
receptions, 5th in yardage with 1,426, and tacked on 7 touchdowns
for good measure. Smith-Schuster has made a living during his first
two seasons feasting on single coverage as the defense focused on
Antonio Brown. JuJu emerged as a go-to receiver for the Steelers
last year, and has had a historical start to his career. He’s
been as consistent as they come, and now slides into the lead dog
role in this passing game with the departure of Brown. His current
mid-2nd round ADP reflects this, but there is a big question mark
to consider before making JuJu an automatic selection.
He’s played exactly one game in the NFL as the focal point of the
passing game, and that came in Week 17 last season when Brown was
“out with an injury”. It didn’t go well. He caught only half of
his ten targets, and while he did score, he only tallied 37 unexciting
yards. The big unanswered question here is whether the third year
receiver has the route running discipline to get open against the
double coverages once reserved for his temperamental former teammate.
He’s got a good rapport with Big Ben, but I still believe this offense
will spread the ball out more than they have in the past. Young,
highly picked receivers James Washington and Dionte Johnson figure
to be in the mix, and the Steelers also added veteran Donte Moncrief
in the offseason. JuJu’s role and two-year production makes him
an easy WR1 candidate; I’m just not sure he slots into an automatic
replacement for Browns numbers.
Aside for a few 60+ yard games late in the year, Washington had
very little impact in his rookie season for the Steelers, but
that should change in a big way in 2019. Washington could step
into the No.2 role opposite Smith-Schuster, and that would be
an immediate boost to his production and fantasy value. Washington
has the draft pedigree and collegiate production to push Donte
Moncrief for the scraps behind Smith-Shuster. Although he only
saw 38 looks and hauled in 16 of them, Washington flashed in the
preseason, and did score in the season opener. I’m sure
the Steelers are hoping to spread Browns bevy of departed targets
around to a host of guys on the offense, and Washington has a
chance to return WR4 value if he can grab a significant role.
On his third team in three years, the former 3rd round pick of
the Colts had a bit of a career resurgence last year on the Jaguars.
Stuck on a sputtering offense with a bad quarterback, Moncrief still
managed a respectable 48-668-3 line over 16 games. Inked to a fairly
hefty deal in March, Moncrief instantly becomes the elder statesman
in a receiver room packed with young, developing players. While
Moncrief has never jumped off the page in his career, he gives Roethlisberger
a reliable presence, and with the money they gave him, the Steelers
clearly expect him to see plenty of snaps. Although he lacks the
upside of the younger guys on the roster like Washingston and rookie
Diontae Johnson, I feel Moncrief could be the best value pick among
all of the Steeler receivers. With Brown’s 166 targets to be replaced,
Moncrief could be in line for 80+ of them, making 50 receptions
and 700 yards a possibility.
In an effort to be thorough, and because this offense has a boatload
of targets and receptions to be replaced, I want to mention Johnson.
The 3rd round pick from Toledo has a chance to carve out a significant
role on the team this season, but I just don’t think much
of it will result in fantasy production. Johnson has great quicks
and burst, but he’s a raw route runner and will need time
to develop, much like another MAC receiver drafted by the Steelers
years ago. Most of his impact in 2019 will come as a returner
and gadget weapon on offense. Keep an eye on offseason reports,
as he doesn’t exactly have a stable of all-pros ahead of
him on the depth chart, but for now he’s a wait and see.
I could sense last year that this offense was tailor made for
McDonald’s strength and athleticism. Not only did he emerge
as a threat down the seam, his flair for dramatic, punishing runs
after the catch fired up this offense. Now more than ever the
Steelers offense needs a reliable receiver at tight end. With
the departure of Antiono Brown, and with the additional exit of
Jessie James, McDonald has a tremendous opportunity. In 2018,
McDonald was able to play 15 games, and put up career highs in
receptions (50) and yards (610), and I feel like those are his
floor if he can stay healthy this season. He finished just outside
the top-10 at the position last year and is frankly one of my
favorite value picks at tight end in 2019. There are targets to
be had in the Pittsburgh offense, and I think Vance is the biggest
beneficiary, putting him in my TE1 crosshairs.