The Steelers parted ways with wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders and signed running back LeGarrette Blount this offseason, which should indicate which direction Pittsburgh prefers to take its offense in 2014.
Ben Roethlisberger remains undersold as a fantasy quarterback, finishing with starter’s points in 2013. Once again, though, he projects as a fantasy backup -- the Steelers look ready to pound the ball with Blount and Le’Veon Bell in the backfield. Late last season, the Steelers ran a lot of no-huddle and had success with it. The question isn’t if they can do it again but more whether they want to.
Bell missed the first three games of his rookie season with a foot injury, but he scored twice in his NFL debut and ended up being a very productive fantasy player. Owners who missed their fantasy playoffs may have missed that Bell scored four of his eight touchdowns in the final five weeks of the regular season. He has great hands out of the backfield, and the no-huddle served him well.
The Steelers’ offensive line should be much better in 2014, with center Maurkice Pouncey back from a torn ACL and MCL. Think about that: Bell has yet to play one snap with the three-time Pro Bowler anchoring the offensive line in front of him. The Steelers ranked 27th in rushing yards per game last season, but they shouldn’t finish in the bottom third of the league in 2014 or at any point in the next five years. Bell has top-10 ability, and of all the 2013 rookie running backs, he looks like the one most likely to sustain that fantasy scoring potential.
One year after capitalizing on the departure of Mike Wallace to Miami, Sanders signed with the Broncos, leaving second-year pro Markus Wheaton and rookie Martavis Bryant to battle for the second starting receiver spot across from Antonio Brown. Lance Moore was brought in from New Orleans to work the slot, but it’s doubtful he’ll see enough targets to make him worthy of fantasy consideration.
Bryant played opposite Sammy Watkins at Clemson, so it’s difficult to project anything from his numbers against afterthought coverage from college defenses. At 6-foot-4, 211 pounds, he makes for a better pairing with Brown on the other side. The winner of the battle between Bryant and Wheaton should see about 80-90 targets from Roethlisberger. Neither player will fully replace Sanders’ 2013 numbers (112 targets, 67 catches, 740 yards and six touchdowns), which came without a healthy Heath Miller or a consistent running game.
Most overvalued player
LeGarrette Blount, RB – Blount became the Patriots’ best option at running back late last season, scoring five touchdowns in the final five weeks, including a 189-yard rushing effort against Buffalo in Week 17. The Patriots let him walk, and the Steelers liked the idea of backing up one battering ram with another.
But Blount has proven to be inconsistent throughout his career, often dancing at the line instead of seeking out the contact he’s best suited for. It’s doubtful he’ll see 150-plus carries in Pittsburgh behind a starter capable of playing all three downs -- the four other Steelers running backs not named Bell in 2013 combined for just 113 carries.
Most undervalued player
Markus Wheaton, WR – Wheaton’s rookie campaign was essentially a lost season, with finger injuries limiting him to just six catches. The Oregon State product isn’t a big guy, but he has great speed. A full season on the team learning from Brown and Sanders should give Wheaton a significant advantage over Bryant entering the season, and fantasy owners can wait until the late rounds to grab what could be yet another breakout second-year wide receiver.
QB: Ben Roethlisberger, Bruce Gradkowski
RB: Le’veon Bell, LeGarrette Blount, Dri Archer
WR: Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton, Lance Moore, Martavis Bryant, Darrius Heyward-Bey
TE: Heath Miller, Matt Spaeth
K: Shaun Suisham
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Entering last season, the Steelers defense had finished first or second in yards allowed in five of the previous six seasons. You won’t find the same amount of superstars on this team outside of the secondary, where veterans Ike Taylor (34) and Troy Polamalu (33) enter the back ends of their careers. Linebacker Ryan Shazier has good sleeper value in IDP formats, but he might need some time before he’s a huge asset to the Steelers DST in fantasy.
History suggests head coach Mike Tomlin will have this defense rebuilt sooner rather than later. The Steelers get to play the Browns twice and face the AFC South this year, which means games against the Jaguars, Texans and Titans. This is definitely a nice defense to use in weekly games or in yearly league matchups, but you’ll want a second defense on your team for the Steelers’ dates with tougher offenses.