The Pittsburgh Steelers are one of the iconic NFL franchises, and they are going the wrong way-fast. With the losses of Ryan Clark, Brett Keisel, and Lamarr Woodley, the Steelers are in the midst of an excruciating rebuilding project on the defensive side of the ball. Even if it works for the D in 2014, their success will certainly come at the expense of the offense.
Jerricho Cotchery and Emmanuel Sanders were allowed to walk away in free agency. Instead of going after a top wideout, they signed Lance Moore and Darius Heyward-Bey for peanuts. Heath Miller will turn 32 and only scored once last year. His backup, Matt Spaeth, caught just one pass (although it was a TD). The offensive line could use some help, too. Yet, no notable free agents of any offensive variety were signed (unless you count an aging Lance Moore and a backup running back in LeGarrette Blount), and their top two picks were used to get younger on defense.
The good news for Pittsburgh is that they play in the AFC North, perhaps the worst division in the NFL. They also have Ben Roethlisberger, who will continue to give the team a shot even if they were better served finishing in the basement. They have an outstanding pass-catching-machine in Antonio Brown, a promising young running back in Le’Veon Bell, and an excellent coach in Mike Tomlin.
If the Steelers want a chance to get back on top of the division, they are going to need some players to step up and surprise. No doubt, there will be opportunity. Cotchery and Sanders leave behind 188 targets and 16 touchdowns, but who will benefit from them is still unknown.
Optimism – Brown finished 2nd in both Receptions (110) and yards (1499). His 163 targets ranked 5th in the league. He was remarkably consistent, catching no fewer than 5 passes in every single game. Despite his smallish size, 5’10” and 186 lbs, he was still able to get in the endzone 8 times. Brown was the unquestioned #1 last year. Now, with Cotchery and Sanders gone, expect an even bigger roll in 2014.
Doubt – Small receivers have a tough time scoring in the NFL. Eight touchdowns might be the ceiling for Brown. Larger receivers can play nicked up and still score, albeit on usually fewer receptions. Brown’s value is attributed to volume. He and Roethlisberger must remain exceptionally healthy if he expects to duplicate last year’s performance.
Forecast – Antonio Brown is the straw that stirs the drink in Pittsburgh. He was one of the most dependable players in the league and is the early favorite to finish #1 in the league for both yards and targets. However, even with the departure of Sanders and Cotchery, we shouldn’t expect an increase in touchdowns. Brown is a great value in any league and format, but gets a boost in PPR fantasy football leagues. At only 26 years old, he also has a bright future. Unless you get an offer you can’t refuse, hold onto Brown in Dynasty Leagues, as he should have another outstanding year and will only keep getting better.
Optimism – It looks like the Steelers have hitched their wagon to Le’Veon Bell. The team invested a 2nd round pick in 2013, and with no serious threat, Bell will get a substantial volume of carries. He is also an adept receiver from the backfield, catching 45 balls as a rookie. Look for an increase to 60 or more receptions for the sophomore back.
Doubt – Don’t put a lot of weight into new offensive line coach, Mike Munchak’s, zone-blocking scheme. Bell averaged only 3.5 YPC in 2013 and a new scheme will not substantially changing anything. Outside of Antonio Brown, the Steelers lack any sort of receiving threat. Defenses will key on Bell.
Forecast – Bell finished strong in 2013 with 4 TDs over his final 5 games, averaging a modest 4.0 ypc. You should expect to see an increase in volume in 2014, perhaps as many as 360 total touches. Bell is not a lock as an RB1, but he is as good a bet as any. Volume speaks louder than words, pun intended. Bell is not a special back. If you own him in Dynasty, let him blow up this year, then consider trading him at his highest value.
Optimism – In 2013, Big Ben logged a career high in pass attempts while amassing 4,261 yards passing. His 28 touchdowns were good for 7th best in the league. During an outstanding four-week stretch (weeks 11-14), he powered savvy fantasy owners to the playoffs throwing for 1190 yards and 11 TDs with no interceptions.
Doubt – Although it appears on the surface that Roethlisberger had a top-10 qb year, he also threw the 9th most picks. He was dominant at times, but over the course of the season he was wildly inconsistent. Big Ben had four games where he threw for at least 349 yards, but he also had five games where he threw less than 192 yards. Receivers Jericho Cotchery and Emmanuel Sanders departed in free agency taking with them over half, 16 of Big Ben’s 28 touchdowns.
Forecast – One of the most underrated fantasy quarterbacks in the league, Roethlisberger does more with less than anybody. He is known for hanging onto the ball and making things happen. While it’s certainly true that waiting longer to throw allows the quarterback more time to find an open receiver, it also accounts for Roethlisberger’s propensity to get sacked. He ended up on his backside 42 times last year, 7th most in the league. However, According to Pro Football Focus, Roethlisberger rated second only to Peyton Manning when he passed the ball in 2 seconds or less. Pssst…pass the ball quicker, Ben.
The bottom line, expect more of the same from Big Ben. He will be consistently inconsistent from game-to-game, but expect his overall numbers to be similar to 2013 at season’s end. His ADP has him coming off the board as QB 16. In redraft, don’t count on him as your QB 1. Grab him in best ball leagues as he always has the chance to drop 400/4. Ben is only 32 years old, 3-6 years younger than Romo, Manning, Brady, and Brees. He a great value in Dynasty Leagues and may fetch a strong trade value if his owner is patient.
LeGarrette Blount – His career may have gone much differently had he not punched that Boise State player in face back in 2009. So much of what players ultimately achieve in the NFL is tied to their draft equity. Blount subsequently went undrafted and is now on his fourth team in five years. Despite his troubles, he has remained relatively productive in the chances he’s had. His career numbers show that he can be the top back, except for one thing. Blount has fumbled 9 times in just 579 carries. Coaches don’t trust running backs who fumble the ball. Hence, the short stay in New England. Nevertheless, he has a new chance with a new team that has an underwhelming young runningback. If Bell falters, gets injured or nicked up, don’t hesitate to scoop up Blount.
Markus Wheaton – Currently being drafted as WR 57, one spot ahead of Greg Jennings. There is a lot to be said about opportunity and the 188 empty targets left behind by Cotchery and Sanders. Supposedly, Wheaton has the inside shot at lining up as the #2 wide receiver. Pittsburgh also has an excellent track record developing smallish mid-late round wide receivers (i.e.: Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders, and Antonio Brown). Even if Wheaton ends up as the #2 on the depth chart, he may only be on the field in 3WR sets. Moore is a crafty veteran, and Bryant has the size to compete for jump balls. Wheaton is certainly worth a flier, but don’t expect a breakout season.
Lance Moore – Moore had an unimpressive season in 2013 grabbing only 37 balls for 457 yards with just 2 scores. There is certainly a vacuum to fill with the departure of Cotchery and Sanders, but who will fill it remains to be seen. Moore is a good bet to earn some of those targets, if not the majority. He is a crafty veteran that knows how to play receiver in the NFL. Although he should go undrafted, look for a bounce-back year for Moore. He could make a nice bye-week flier.
Martavis Bryant – The 4th-round rookie is a real wild card. After final roster cuts, he may be the only legitimate red-zone threat. The problem is, at 6’4” with 4.43 speed, he played as more of a deep threat at Clemson clearing the way for Sammy Watkins. Bryant could be a gem or he could be just another guy. Expect Pittsburgh to find out early what they have in Bryant by trying him out in the red zone.
D. Heyward-Bey – The former #7 overall pick inexplicably started over T.Y. Hilton for most of the season last year. I doubt another team will make the same mistake as
Indy…and Oakland. Look for Heyward-Bey to come in situationally to stretch the field. That’s if he makes the team at all. He is on a one-year contract with only $65k guaranteed.
Dri Archer – Is he a RB or WR? The pint-sized speedster clocked the second fastest 40-time ever (4.26 secs) at the NFL Scouting Combine. At just 5’8” and 173 lbs., Archer doesn’t profile as an NFL Player. Tell that to Darren Sproles, right? Actually, Sproles is built quite a bit sturdier than Dri and has proven to stay reasonably healthy throughout his career. Dri missed time as a junior with an ankle injury and must be at full strength to utilize his speed. A side from special teams, he may see the field a few times each game in a gadget/decoy capacity. Unless your league starts a kick returner, he’s not worth consideration as a fantasy player. Either way, he will be one of the league’s most intriguing players to watch.
H. Miller – He had his best season in 2012, catching 71 balls for 816 yards and 8 touchdowns. However, of his last four seasons, that was the only in which he scored more than twice. Despite his inconsistencies, Miller has no threat to his playing time, and remains a good candidate for a bounce-back year. There are worse options for a bye-week fill-in.