A lot may change between now and your fantasy draft, but one thing likely to stay the same is the trio of quarterbacks that has separated itself from the rest of the pack. Most everyone, from the expert you trust the most to the worst owner in your league, has Aaron Rodgers and Andrew Luck first and second, in some order, with Russell Wilson checking in at No. 3. Once your draft gets past that group, however, it could go in a number of directions at the quarterback position.
There are three obvious candidates to be the fourth quarterback off the board, two of whom were seen as rock-solid top-three quarterbacks just last season. Peyton Manning and Drew Brees have both been fantasy superstars for the better part of the last 15 years, and each have at least one more strong year in them (in Brees’s case, likely more than that) before waving goodbye to football fans and fantasy owners. It’s a slightly younger signal-caller, though, who should be considered the top quarterback once Rodgers, Luck and Russell are gone. As he enters the final stages of his career, Ben Roethlisberger has never been in a better fantasy situation than he finds himself in now.
Roethlisberger is coming off the best statistical season of his career, and there's a whole lot more to his numbers than the current offensive environment. With Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant at his disposal, Roethlisberger rode one of the most dangerous caches of weapons in the league to a career-high 4,952 yards and 32 touchdowns in 2014. He threw just nine interceptions and racked up 8.15 yards per attempt, the fifth time in his career he was north of 8 YPA. Add it all up, and Roethlisberger was the No. 6 quarterback in standard-scoring leagues last season.
Just as importantly for 2015, Roethlisberger attempted a career-high 608 passes in Todd Haley’s pass-happy offense. As good as Roethlisberger was last year, he finished behind both Manning and Brees in fantasy points. The Broncos and Saints, however, underwent changes in the off-season that could alter their offenses this year.
Denver fired John Fox, then watched as he and offensive coordinator Adam Gase were hired by Chicago. In Fox’s place they hired Gary Kubiak, who has always been a run-first coach, going back to his days as the offensive coordinator in Denver. Manning is 39 years old and playing behind an offensive line with three new starters. The Saints, meanwhile, traded Jimmy Graham to Seattle and Kenny Stills to Miami while re-signing running back Mark Ingram. No one expects the Saints to be a ground-and-pound team as long as Brees and Sean Payton are around, but fantasy owners shouldn’t be surprised if they run more often than they have in the last 10 seasons.
Roethlisberger, on the other hand, is as safe a bet this side of Luck to throw the ball 600 times this season. He has arguably the best receiver in the league in Brown, potentially the best receiver duo in Brown and Bryant, and at worst the second-best receiver out of the backfield in Bell (only Matt Forte may be more dangerous as a receiver). Roethlisberger will have plenty of options available to him every time he drops back to pass this season.
His numbers from last season are even more impressive when you remember that he wasn’t even playing with a full deck for the entire season. Bryant didn’t even get on the field until the Steelers’ Oct. 20 game with the Texans. He had just two catches in that game, but one went for a touchdown. Bryant would go on to score five more touchdowns in the next three games, finishing the year with 549 yards and eight scores in 10 games. At 6'4" and 211 pounds, Bryant is an absolute handful in the red zone. For all of Brown’s virtues, and they are numerous, his small stature makes him merely good, but not great, near the goal line. Bryant should help give the Steelers an elite red zone offense, and that’s great news for Roethlisberger’s fantasy value.
Pittsburgh returns all five starters on an offensive line that last year ranked fifth in pass blocking, according to Pro Football Focus. Roethlisberger has always been a magician when under pressure, and indeed his 70.2% accuracy rate (completions plus drops divided by attempts) while being pressured was the third best in the league last season, trailing Teddy Bridgewater and Brees. Of course, every quarterback is better when they have time in the pocket, and Roethlisberger figures to be plenty comfortable this season. Only three starting quarterbacks—Rodgers, Manning and Andy Dalton—were under pressure on a smaller percentage of their drop-backs than Roethlisberger was last year. With the same five guys protecting him this season, he should be able to keep his jersey clean more often than not.
There are a couple factors working against Roethlisberger. First, he threw for 37.5% of his touchdowns and 17.4% of his yards in a two-game stretch against the Colts and Ravens in which he had 12 touchdowns and 862 yards. In his 14 other games, he scored fewer than 15 points six times. He’ll also be without Bell for the first three games of the season, and while that may result in him putting the ball in the air a few more times, there’s no doubting he’d be better off with his star running back lined up behind him. Still, if his most significant drawbacks are that he was a touch inconsistent and he’ll have one of the best running backs in the league at his disposal for 13 games instead of 16, it’s clear that he’s in a great position to have another monster season.
As always, the final piece of the puzzle is average draft position. Roethlisberger is the sixth quarterback off the board in a typical draft, 23 picks later than Manning and 10 picks behind Brees. All things being equal, Roethlisberger would be a better pick than both of his fellow Hall of Fame-bound quarterbacks. The excess value associated with waiting for Roethlisberger instead of grabbing Manning or Brees makes it an easy decision.
Roethlisberger is entering the 12th season of his illustrious career, yet he has never been in quite the offensive environment he now inhabits in Pittsburgh. With the best collection of weapons he has ever enjoyed (don’t forget about Markus Wheaton, Heath Miller and rookie Sammie Coates), a top-level pass-blocking line and an offensive coordinator who will let him throw the ball plenty of times this season, Roethlisberger could surpass 5,000 yards for the first time in his career and set a new personal best for touchdown passes in the process.