When I started college way back in the mid 90’s I had a real
junker of a Volkswagen Rabbit. Poop brown, and barely able to
accelerate on the highway, it was a nightmare in several ways.
It was my first ever car, so there was some sentimental value,
and I didn’t have much extra spending money, but I realized it
was time to move on into something that wasn’t going to spontaneously
fall apart. Why start my first player outlook of the 2021 season
with this vehicular-based aside? I see a direct correlation between
that car, Ben Roethlisberger, and the Steelers. Playing the role
of the poop brown Rabbit is Big Ben, who despite finishing with
the 4th 30+ touchdown season of his career, failed to be able
to carry this offense down the stretch. Instead of cutting bait
and trying to retool a deteriorating roster, the Steelers instead
brought back Ben, drafted a running back in Round 1, and seemed
determined to try and keep pace with the young guns in the division.
Will the old vet find his mojo in likely his last season for the
Steelers, or will the wheels truly and finally come off a few
miles down the highway?
Roethlisberger’s surgically repaired elbow was much worse
than many believed, and it was evident he spent 2020 compensating
and slowly getting back into form. He finished 33rd in the NFL
in yards-per-completion with a 9.5 average as the offense transitioned
from a big-play, down the field scheme, to become reliant on slants
and screens. Throw in a complete lack of any running game, and
an offensive line that got old in a hurry, and the Steelers looked
downright pathetic, losing four of their final five games of the
year after starting 11-0. The offense failed to reach 20 points
in a three-game December stretch, and Ben turned the ball over
4 times in the first half during an embarrassing Wild Card loss
to the Browns.
While Brady is a spry-looking 44 year-old, Roethlisberger is a
grizzled, rickety 39. The quick, short passes allowed Pittsburgh’s
offensive line to look better on paper than it might have been,
and they return ZERO players who started Week 1 of the 2020 season.
DeCastro and tackle Kevin Dotson are building block players, but
some younger guys are going to have to step up, as there were
no meaningful additions to this unit in the draft. At this point
in his career Big Ben is a complementary player, and I just don’t
feel great about him completing the season. I think the Steelers
ride Harris to protect a fading defense, and take one more shot
before the inevitable rebuild, making Roethlisberger a low end
Despite becoming a rarity in the 1st round these days, the Steelers
bucked the trend and selected workhorse running back Najee Harris
from Alabama. The ultra-talented Harris dominated in his last
two seasons with the Tide, scorching the NCAA with 51 total touchdowns,
flashing speed, power, and versatility, and joins a Steeler offense
that had a gaping hole at the position. Poor blocking and the
lack of any sizzle from their stable of backs, Pittsburgh was
last in the NFL in rushing yards (1,351) average yards-per-carry
(3.6) , and had the 2nd fewest (81) rushing 1st downs. Letting
James Connor walk in free agency, and spending primo draft capital,
tells me the Steelers plan to be all-in on their rookie back.
With Roethlisberger’s career approaching its expiration
date, and a defense in transition, I expect Pittsburgh to lean
very heavily on their rookie runner. It wasn’t long ago
this offense was run through its backfield, and Harris possesses
the skill-set to be on the field in every situation. His 67 receptions
in his last two years as a collegiate starter was identical to
the 67 receptions Le'Veon Bell had in his final two seasons at
Michigan State. Bigger, stronger, faster, and with a better athletic
profile, Harris has a real chance to push for 325+ touches, a
threshold only two backs reached last year. Even as perfect fit
for this offensive scheme, Harris will need to rely on the line
to gel and improved offensive efficiency if he wants to push his
way into the top-5 at the position, but there are few rookies
in a better spot to make a major fantasy impact than Harris and
on volume alone, is a good bet to be a top-10 runner in all formats.
Snell has peaked as a mediocre backup in his time with the Steelers
since being a 4th round pick in 2018. While reliable in a pinch,
or “breather” situation, Snell just doesn’t
have the tools to threaten Najee Harris’s stranglehold on
this backfield. His 3.6 career yards-per-carry average, and 13
total receptions mean this backfield becomes a messy committee
without Harris. Barring an injury to the rookie, Snell is at best
an end of the draft insurance policy for Harris owners.
2020 was a strange season in many ways for the mercurial JuJu.
Though he rebounded from a disastrous 2019 season with 97 receptions
and a career high 9 touchdowns, his 8.6 yards-per-reception average
was not only a career low, but also ranked 126th in the NFL behind
guys like Jimmy
Graham and Drew
Sample! Partly a product of rising stars Diontae Johnson, and
Chase Claypool, and the passing scheme change to quicker, shorter
completions, Smith-Schuster played much closer to the line of scrimmage
last year. After a mediocre season in a contract year in which he
put his foot in his mouth during the playoff collapse to the Browns,
it seemed all too likely that both he and the Steelers would part
this offseason. But because of “loyalty” and not the reduced cap
situation limiting funds around the league, JuJu spurned offers
from KC and Baltimore to return to the Steelers on a one-year deal.
So what does that mean for his 2021 prospects?
For all intents and purposes Pittsburgh is clearly trying to run
things back one final time before the roster gets nuked. Once considered
the heir apparent to the passing game throne for the Steelers, the
former Trojan has demonstrated he’s not an elite WR1 in the
NFL, and is rather a solid complementary WR2 like he showed early
in his career. And that’s exactly what he’s going to
be on this offense. With Johnson, and the explosive Claypool ready
to ascend into a more consistent role, Smith-Schuster’s upside
is severely capped. With the improved running game surely to slash
the Steelers NFL leading 656 pass attempts from a year ago, I can’t
see a repeat of the 97 receptions he had last year. Hovering in
WR3 territory, squeezing into the top 30 is likely on the high end
of projections for 5th year receiver.
As I understand it, catching the football is an important skill
for the position Diontae Johnson plays and that seemed to be a
major issue for a 2nd year wideout from Toledo. Johnson led the
NFL with 10 drops last season, often catching heat from his coaches,
as he was benched several times for his transgressions. But the
Steelers stuck with their young receiver, and he had a monster
follow-up to his rookie season as he finished with an 88-923-7
line on a team high 144 targets. Johnson became this team’s
No.1 option, but with Smith-Schuster returning, Claypool lurking,
and the Steelers likely to use more two-tight end sets to support
the running game, Johnson is going to find it tough to improve
upon his 2020 numbers.
The 144 targets which were 6th most in the NFL among receivers will
be nearly impossible to replicate, which means the yards and touchdowns
will have to increase for Johnson to be more than a mid-tier WR2.
As with JuJu, baring a repeat implosion of the backfield and defense,
there is just no way the Steelers throw the ball 656 times again.
If he can manage to trim the drops down, he did leave a bunch of
stats on the field, and his talent and upside should give him a
chance to win you a week or two.
As expected with most rookies, especially receivers, Claypool
was highly volatile in his first season, but the Notre Dame alum
flashed game breaking talent on his way to a 62-873-9 first season.
Buoyed by a complete lack of running game, Claypool came out of
nowhere to see 109 targets. While most considered the raw rookie
to be a beast down field with his size/speed combination, Claypool
also showed his run after the catch ability on drag and crossing
routes. After only seeing 9 targets the first three weeks combined,
Claypool won his owners plenty of games with a 7-115-3 explosion
against the Titans in Week 5. The rookie, along with the whole
offense, cooled tremendously in late November and into December,
before finishing strong in the final two games.
Rookie wall, attitude, preparation, or just defenses scheming
better, it seemed the Steelers went away from the potent rookie
even while the offense struggled, and Dionte Johnson dropped everything
on sight. Some maturity issues seemed to pop up, and with a coach
like Mike Tomlin, that isn’t going to fly. As long as Johnson
and Smith-Schuster are healthy, Claypool is going to have to make
do with the leftovers. As I’ve said with the other receivers,
repeating 2020 numbers with all three guys still around, and the
addition of Najee Harris is simply not possible. I’ll take
Claypool as an upside WR3 in standard leagues, and a bench stash
Last season Ebron was one of 4 Steelers to get more than 90 targets,
but with their offseason roster moves, and philosophy shift, repeating
as a top-15 option at the position will be highly unlikely. Signed
to bring athleticism and receiving ability to the position, Ebron
dropped the ball at a ridiculous rate, and offered next to nothing
as a run blocker, hence Pittsburgh drafting Penn State tight end
Pat Freiermuth in the 2nd round. The theme with this offense in
2021 is a return to balance, and with three strong receivers,
and a rookie running back sure to get 60+ targets of his own,
I don’t see a situation where Ebron is draftable outside
of niche fantasy leagues.