2020 Pittsburgh Steelers Fantasy Team Outlook: Don't Call it a Comeback, They've Been Here For Years

Injuries derailed the 2019 season for the Pittsburgh Steelers, but the question remains how close will they return to their former glory? High-stakes expert Shawn Childs runs through the roster, coaches and more with fantasy-slanted analysis.
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The Pittsburgh Steelers have been one of the best franchises in the NFL since 2001 while having elite success since 1972. Over the last 19 seasons, Pittsburgh has a 196-106-2 record with 12 playoff appearances, and two Super Bowl wins. Last year they missed the playoffs in 2018 and 2019.

Mike Tomlin returns for his 14th season as head coach. He has a 133-74-1 record with eight playoff berths and one Super Bowl title. Tomlin has an 8-7 record in the postseason, but only 3-5 over his last five appearances. Of all active coaches, he has the second-best winning percentage (.642) behind Bill Belichick (.683).

His road to the playoff lives or dies with the quarterback position. Pittsburgh hopes Ben Roethlisberger has a couple more good seasons in his holster.

Randy Fichtner took over as offensive coordinator for the Steelers in 2018 after spending the last 11 seasons in the Steelers’ system as a wide receiver and quarterback coach.

Before 2019, Pittsburgh ranked in the top four in offensive yards gained in four of five years. Their success in yards hasn’t translated as well in points scored. The Steelers ranked 7th (436), 4th (423), 10th (399), 8th (406), and 6th (428) from 2014 to 2018.

The loss of WR Antonio Brown and Roethlisberger led to the Steelers falling to 30th in yards allowed and 27th in point scored (289). They scored 139 fewer points than in 2018.

Keith Butler will run the defense for the sixth straight season after working as their linebackers’ coach for 12 years.

The Steelers’ defense finished fifth in the NFL in yards allowed in 2019 and fifth in points allowed (303). Pittsburgh has a rising defender, which will help them move back into playoff contention.

Free Agency

On offense, Pittsburgh signed TE Eric Ebron, G Stefen Wisniewski, and FB Derek Watt.

Ebron gives Roethlisberger another scoring option in the red zone. He’s a former first-round draft pick (2014) who played at a high-level in 2018 (66/750/13).

The Steelers expect Wisniewski to compete for the starting left guard job. Last year he missed the first six games after being released by the Eagles in late August. Kansas City had him in the starting lineup over their final five games, with the last three coming in the playoffs. His pass blocking tends to rank better than his value in the run game.

The addition of full back Derek Watt signifies that Pittsburgh wants to put power back in their rushing attack.

DT Javon Hargrove was the top player added to the defense. He’ll pressure the quarterback while also upgrading the run defense.

Pittsburgh lost CB Artie Burns, TE Nick Varnett, LB Mark Barron, S Sean Davis, DE Anthony Chickillo, LB Tyler Matakevich, C B.J. Finney, FB Roosevelt Nix, and DT L.T. Walton. All of these options struggled last year.

Draft

The Steelers didn’t have a first-round draft pick after trading it away last year for S Minkah Fitzpatrick.

In the second round, they invested in WR Chase Claypool. I don’t expect him to outwork any defenders over the short areas of the field due to questionable explosiveness out of complicated routes. His release will be an issue as well when facing physical defenders in press coverage. Claypool is going to present a problem on slants, crossing patterns, and down the seam where his straight-line speed is an edge if given a step or two lead in coverage. Notre Dame used him on many fades as the goal line, but his footwork and ability to make plays will be slowed down if challenged earlier in his release or by adding a second defender to his side.

LB Alex Highsmith was the choice in the third round. Highsmith has the look of a playmaking pass rusher. His wins come from the quickness and variety of moves. He doesn’t have the strength to beat top blockers when engaged or hold them off in the run game. Highsmith should find his way on the field on passing downs while having the base talent to develop into a much better player.

Pittsburgh went with the fun player (RB Anthony McFarland) with their first pick in round four. His speed (4.44 forty yard dash) and quickness separate him from the field. McFarland has a Chris Johnson style of running in the open space. His only gear is full throttle, which is electric if given room to clear the line of scrimmage. He looks to have some fight in his game, with moves to make defenders miss.

Overall, durability and winning in tight quarters are going to hurt his NFL draft value. The Steelers should use him as a change of pace option on early downs. McFarland needs to develop as a pass-catcher while lacking the size (5’8” and 208 lbs.) to be trusted initially in pass protection.

The Steelers added G Kevin Dotson, S Antonio Brooks, and DT Carlos Davis with their final three selections.

Dotson knows the game well with the foundation to have value in a quick-hitting power run game. His lower body needs more strength to help finish and maintain block in the trenches. Dotson will have a limited range outside his blocking window.

Brooks should develop into a viable starting player. His plays with fight, grit, and vision. He gets into trouble when trying to do too much and extend outside his assignment. Brooks works best moving forward, but his game kicks up a notch as the field shortens. Overall, he projects higher vs. the run while expecting to see action on special teams.

Davis has the feel of a run clogger over a run stopper. His range is limited with no chance of being a value to the pass rush. He does win with his quickness, which forces him to beat his man with power and his hands.

Offensive Line

The Steelers ranked low in rushing yards (1,447 – 29th) in 2019, which was their third straight season of regression. They gained only 3.7 yards per carry with seven rushing TDs. Pittsburgh has one run over 40 yards over the past three years while gaining over 20 yards on nine carries.

Their offensive line allowed only 32 sacks and 78 QB hits. The Steelers fell to 31st in passing yards (3,214) with 18 TDs and 19 Ints, after losing their starting quarterback in Week 2. They gained only 6.3 yards per pass attempt.

LT Alejandro Villanueva

Villanueva went from unknown to one of the better offensive linemen over the last four seasons. Last year he continued to play well in pass protection despite the drop off in play at quarterbacks. His run blocking did regress for the third straight season, where Villanueva may be a liability. Better play at running back would also help his value in the run game.

LG Stefen Wisniewski

The Raiders drafted Wisniewski in the second round in 2011. He played well over his five years with his best value coming in pass protection. Over three seasons with the Eagles, Wisniewski allowed minimal sacks, but he lost some time due to injuries. After the worst year of his career in 2018, Philly cut him before the start of last season. With Kansas City, his pass blocking returned with a slight rebound in run blocking. The left guard job is his to lose in 2020.

C Maurkice Pouncey

Pouncey is a former first-round draft pick (2010). Over his career, he’s battled multiple injuries with a couple resulting in surgery. Pass blocking has been his strength over the four seasons before last year. A knee and ankle injuries plus weaker play all around on offense led to significant regression in value in all areas in 2019.

RG David DeCastro

Castro tends to be one of the top players at his position in both run and passing blocking. The Steelers drafted him in the first round in 2012. After posting three elite seasons from 2015 to 2017, Castro struggled in back-to-back seasons as a run blocker.

RT Matt Feiler

Feiler took over as the right tackles in Week 8 in 2018 after seeing minimal snaps in 2017. Last year he started all 16 games while improving slightly in all areas. Feiler will give up pressure and sacks at times, but he could now be considered a league-average player. His path to the NFL (undrafted free agent) invites job loss risk.

Offensive Line Outlook

This offensive line is getting older while lacking the proper depth to plug some holes if they have injuries. Four of their starters have a chance to rank over the league average if Maurice Pouncey regains his form. At the same time, one or two injuries could lead to a significant drop in value. Their run blocking success has a problem over the last three seasons, and a stud running back isn’t going to save them this year.

Offensive Schedule

The data shows the strength of schedule as far as rushing attempts (RATT), rushing yards (YDS), yards per attempt rushing (YA), rushing touchdowns (TDs), completions (COMP), passing attempts (PATT), passing yards (YDS), yards per attempt passing (YA), and passing touchdowns (TDS).

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This information is based on 2019, which will work as our starting point for 2020. We’ll look at all the changes on offense on each team in the NFL plus the upgrades and downgrades on each team on the defensive side. We’ll update this table when we finish the research on all 32 teams.

2019 LG Average = the league average of all stats from all 32 teams in 2019.

2019 Results = this is the results for each team in the NFL.

2019 Adjustment is based on the 2019 league average and the 2019 results for each team, this number will show if each team is above or below the league average in each stat category and the basis for the strength of schedule.

Pittsburgh starts the season with four neutral games for their rushing offense. Over the final 12 contests, they have six winning matchups (WAS, JAX, CIN X 2, and CLE X 2) and three games (PHI and BAL X 2) where they will struggle to run the ball.

On the passing side, they will have the highest success against the Giants and the Texans. The Steelers will be tested throwing the ball in five games (BUF, CLE X 2, and Bal X 2).

Offense

Pittsburgh went from a league-high in passing attempts (689) in 2018 with the second-ranking in passing yards (5,174) to one of the worst passing teams in the league last year. Without Roethlisberger and Brown plus an injury to WR JuJu Smith-Schuster, the Steelers’ offense was a shell of itself.

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Their run game continues to lose value, and RB James Conner may not be the optimal player to right the ship in 2020. He should play well when healthy, but Conner does carry some injury risk (11 missed games over three seasons).

Here’s a look at the early projections for Pittsburgh, which will be fluid all summer after taking in all injury updates and training camp news:

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Quarterbacks

Ben Roethlisberger

The value of the Steelers’ passing offense ended in Week 2 when Roethlisberger went down with a right elbow injury. On the positive side of his injury, WR Diontae Johnson (59/680/5) showed upside down the stretch, and WR James Washington (44/735/3) had growth. Pittsburgh ranked at the bottom of the league in passing, yet they remained in the playoff hunt late in the year thanks to a rising defense. Roethlisberger needs WR JuJu Smith-Schuster to regain his top tier WR form, and newly added TE Eric Ebron should add scoring value in the red zone. Pittsburgh even added another WR (Chase Claypool) in the second round of this year’s draft.

In 2018, Roethlisberger was the third-highest scoring fantasy quarterback (25.74 fantasy points per game in four-point touchdown leagues). He finished that season with 5,129 passing yards and 34 TDs.

At 38, I expect another competitive season. The sum of his parts added up to 4,168 combined yards with 26 TDs and 13 Ints in the first version of his projections in May. Roethlisberger has an ADP of 108 as the 18th quarterback drafted in the early draft season.

Mason Rudolph

Over the last three seasons at Oklahoma State, Rudolph passed for 12,765 yards with 86 TDs and 22 Ints. He scored 16 rushing TDs over his final two seasons despite gaining only 96 yards rushing on 144 carries.

In his second NFL season over ten games, Rudolph passed for 1,765 yards with 13 TDs and nine Ints. Over his first four full starts, he produced eight touchdowns while gaining over 250 yards in just one game.

After the season, Rudolph had left shoulder surgery, which occurred in December.

Other options: Devlin Hodges, Paxton Lynch, J.T. Barrett

Running Backs

Since RB Le’Veon Bell left the Pittsburgh building, their running backs have repeated the same opportunity in targets (112) in 2018 (109) and 2019 (111), but they lost 85 and 48 rushes over the past two years. The Steelers’ running backs have struggled to make an impact in yards per rush for the last three seasons (4.06, 4.10, and 3.77).

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Pittsburgh would like to lean on one running back for a bulk of their touches, but RB James Conner hasn’t been able to secure a workhorse load over the last few years due to injuries.

James Conner

Over the first seven games, Conner scored six TDs with success in three contests (125 combined yards with one TD and eight catches, 119 combined yards with one TD and seven catches, and 150 combined yards with one TD, and three catches). Over his other four weeks, he struggled to make plays (222 yards with three TDs and 11 catches). Conner battled quad and shoulder injuries over the second half of the season. When healthy, he has three-down ability, and the Steelers like to ride one RB if possible. In the early draft season,

Conner is the 22nd running back off the table with an ADP of 43. I’m torn between value and injury risk with Pittsburgh and having RB Benny Snell as a secondary option. With no setbacks, Conner is projected for 1,286 combined yards with nine touchdowns and 45 catches.

Benny Snell

Injuries to RB James Conner and RB Jaylen Samuels created a better than expected opportunity over five games (17/75, 21/98, 16/63, 16/41, and 18/91/1) for Snell. Over these contests, he only had three combined catches for 23 yards.

Over three seasons at Kentucky, Snell gained 4,089 combined yards with 48 TDs and 29 catches while receiving 766 touches.

He runs with patience and vision while lacking the wheels to make big plays. Snell offers minimal upside in the passing game. Viable early-down back if given starting snaps, who will be helped by Ben Roethlisberger returning as the starting QB for Pittsburgh.

Jaylen Samuels

Samuels came to the NFL as an upside pass-catcher, but he failed to take advantage of the RB James Conner injury in 2019. Samuels missed two games early in the year with a right knee injury while battling a groin issue late in the year.

His only game of value came in Week 9 (83 combined yards with 13 catches). In 2018, he flashed over a three-game stretch (328 combined yards with one TD and 12 catches) down the stretch.

The Steelers’ running back situation looks messy, but a healthy Ben Roethlisberger does help the passing game. Questionable handcuff with game flow help in the passing game.

Anthony McFarland

Injuries have been a problem for the development of McFarland early in his career. He missed almost two years (one in high school and one in college) with a broken leg. Last year his production (114/614/8 and 17 catches for 126 yards and one TD) came in less than expected due to a battle with a high ankle issue.

In 2018, McFarland lit up Indiana for 210 yards on 29 carries in early November. The following week, his stock soared after drilling Ohio State for 298 yards and two TDs on 21 rushes. In that game, he had runs of 52, 75, and 81 yards. Even with his success, McFarland only gained 1,034 rushing yards on 131 carries. Almost half of his success (50/508/2) came in his two best contests. He did gain 6.5 yards per rush on his other 81 chances.

Big-play option who may work himself into change-of-pace touches in his rookie season.

Other options: Kerrith Whyte, Trey Edmunds, Ralph Webb

Wide Receivers

The Steelers have been a goldmine for elite WR1s in the NFL over the career of Ben Roethlisberger, thanks to the stud play by WR Antonio Brown. The injury to Roethlisberger led to a sharp decline in wide receiver production and chances. Pittsburgh has depth and upside at the wide receiver, which points to a rebound year. Hopefully, JuJu Smith-Schuster can fit into the glass WR1 slipper after losing his way in 2019.

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JuJu Smith-Schuster

The new kid on the block at wide receiver ended up being a massive bust last year. His first leg was kicked out after the right elbow injury to QB Ben Roethlisberger in Week 2.

After the downgrade at QB, Pittsburgh finished 31st in passing yards (2,981) after finishing second in 2018 (5,008). Smith-Schuster suffered a toe injury in Week 1, followed by foot, concussion, and knee issues over the final two months of the year.

His only game of value came in Week 8 (5/103/1). Over his last five games, he caught only 12 of his 23 targets for 109 yards. With three missed games and a sketchy resume in 2019, fantasy owners need to look past his disaster and focus on his success the previous year.

Look for a rebound with a reasonable chance at 100+ catches with plenty of yards and TDs. Smith-Schuster has an ADP of 42 in the early draft season as the 15th WR drafted. A wise guy play.

Diontae Johnson

Johnson played well in his rookie season despite playing with bottom tier talent at quarterback. The injury to WR Juju Smith-Schuster led to more chances than expected. On the year, Johnson didn’t have a game with more than eight targets. His best success came in four games (6/77/1, 5/84/1, 6/60/1, and 8/81/1).

I’m looking forward to him playing with QB Ben Roethlisberger, but I can only consider him a WR3 in the Steelers’ offense while battling WR James Washington and rookie WR Chase Claypool for looks.

With an ADP of 107 as the 39th wide receiver in the early draft season, Johnson may be overpriced based on the 2020 WR structure on Pittsburgh, but he could be worth the ride.

James Washington

In his second year in the league, Washington worked his way to WR5 status in PPR leagues (134.5 fantasy points) despite the Steelers ranking poorly in passing yards after the injury to QB Ben Roethlisberger.

His season started with six quiet weeks (ten catches for 161 yards on 27 targets) before coming to life over his final eight games (34/574/3 on 50 targets). His bump in chances late was due to the injury to WR Juju Smith-Schuster.

In 2020, he should rank third on the depth chart for Pittsburgh while facing competition from incoming rookie WR Chase Claypool. The Steelers will throw the ball more this year, but Washington isn’t a lock to be rewarded with more upside. His college resume says, “take the gamble,” which makes sense as he has the tools to be a third-year breakout player.

Chase Claypool

Over each season at Notre Dame, Claypool added more value to his resume, highlighted by his success in 2019 (66/1037/13). He finished his college career with 150 catches for 2,159 yards and 19 TDs. Last year his best value came in three contests (8/118, 7/117/4, and 7/146/1) while ending his career with a touchdown in each of his final five games (nine total TDs over this span).

Claypool has exceptional speed (4.42 forty yard dash) for his size (6’4” and 238 lbs.) while also grading well in strength (19 reps in the bench press at the NFL combine).

His blocking skills grade well, and his overall game may transition to a tight end type option in the NFL with the addition of some more bulk. A creative NFL coach with a deep receiving core will be able to get him in favorable matchups vs. linebackers and safeties, where his skill set has a more significant edge.

Other options: Ryan Switzer, Deon Cain, Saeed Blacknall, Amara Darboh, Anthony Johnson

Tight Ends

In 2018, the Steelers’ tight ends delivered a top-ten season (86/1119/6) in fantasy scoring. Last year their tight ends gained only 7.7 yards per catches with a sharp decline in opportunity (75 targets). The signing of TE Eric Ebron should help Pittsburgh regain their lost value.

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Eric Ebron

Fantasy owners ran out of LUCK with Ebron in 2019. After leading the league in tight end touchdowns (13) in 2018, he delivered fewer than 50 percent of his production in catches (31) and yards (375) while falling well short in scoring (3 TDs).

His season started with five short games (1/8, 3/25, 3/47, 1/48, and 1/8 on four targets per game) with a pair of TDs. His only bump in opportunity came in Week 10 (12 targets – 5/56). Ebron missed the final five games with ankle injuries that required surgery.

The move to Pittsburgh should be a win with Ben Roethlisberger back behind center. Sneaky top ten option while being overlooked on draft day (ADP – 162). In the initial projection, Ebron looks to be on a path for 53 catches for 550 yards and five TDs.

Vance McDonald

McDonald was drafted as a top ten option in 2019 after setting career-highs in catches (50), yards (610), and targets (72). His window for fulfilling his expected value left after the injury to Roethlisberger. Last year he failed to gain over 40 yards in any game. With Eric Ebron on the roster, McDonald lacks the pulse to be a week-to-week TE option in 2020.

Other options: Zach Gentry, Kevin Rader, Christian Scotland-Williamson

Kicker

Chris Boswell

After finishing 7th in kicking scoring (10.56 FPPG) in 2017, Boswell slipped to 25th in 2018 (6.13 FPPG) and 12th in 2019 (8.34 FPPG). In his career in the NFL, Chris made 87.0 percent of his field goals with success from 50 yards or more (8-for-11). Boswell made over 30 field goals once in his career (35-for-38 in 2017). Last year Pittsburgh scored only 29 touchdowns with 31 field attempts. Upside kicker who somewhat flies under the radar.

Defensive Schedule

Pittsburgh will be challenged on defense by the Ravens’ run game in two contests. They have three other below par matchups (TEN, DAL, and IND). Their best two games come vs. the Bengals.

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The Steelers have one of the best schedules for their pass defense. They’ll have an edge in six games (DEN, WAS, BUF, IND, and Bal X 2). Their only tough contest is against the Cowboys.

Defense

Pittsburgh fell to 14th in the NFL vs. the run (1,753 yards) with seven TDs and six runs over 20 yards. Their regression came from allowing only 28.9 rushing attempts per game. The Steelers allowed 3.8 yards per carry.

They ranked 3rd in passing yards allowed (3,113) with 23 TDs and 20 Ints. The Steelers’ defense had 54 sacks with QBs gaining only 6.7 yards per pass attempt.

DT Cameron Heyward

Heyward posted a career-high on tackles (83) while maintaining his edge in sacks (9). Over his last 47 games, he has 29 sacks. Heyward played at an elite level in 2019 against the run. Pittsburgh drafted him in the first round in 2011.

DE Stephon Tuitt

Last year Tuitt missed ten games with a pectoral injury. His play improved over his previous three seasons, where he can now be considered an asset against the run. Tuitt showed growth in the pass rush in his limited playing time last year.

No other player stands out as an option on the defensive line.

LB T.J. Watt

Despite a step back in tackles (55), Watt remained an elite pass rusher. He finished with 14.5 sacks with two Ints, eight defended passes, eight forced fumbles, and four fumble recoveries. Watt is also a top player vs. the run while needing to improve his tackling.

LB Devin Bush

In his rookie season, Bush picked up 109 tackles with one sack, two ints, four defended passes, and one touchdown. His game did have risk in pass coverage while ranking below the league average in run support.

His game is built on plus speed and quickness while being undersized (5’11” and 235 lbs.). Bush will be a plus player in pass coverage with an edge filling gaps vs. the run. His vision is favorable, but his first step is trailing. Even with strength, Bush will struggle to beat big bodies if he gets caught in traffic.

LB Bud Dupree

The stars aligned for Dupree in 2019, which led to a career-high in tackles (68) and sacks (11.5) while forcing four fumbles. His game was much improved against the run. The Steelers drafted him in the first round in 2015.

LB Vince Williams

As a part-time player in 2019, Williams continued to add value to the pass rush. His tackle production (55) remains when considering his lower number of snaps.

CB Joe Haden

Haden played at a high level in coverage, but he still allowed five touchdowns. He finished with the most interceptions (5) since his rookie season (6) with 17 defended passes.

CB Steven Nelson

Nelson had his best season in coverage last year while seeing the pass attempts against him drop by almost 50 percent. He only has five interceptions over 68 career games with four Ints coming in 2017.

S Minkah Fitzpatrick

After the trade to Pittsburgh, Fitzpatrick made 57 tackles in 14 games. He intercepted five passes and defended nine passes while scoring two touchdowns. His run support now ranks highly for his position. The Dolphins drafted him 11th overall in 2018.

S Terrell Edmunds

Over his first two years in the NFL after getting drafted in the first round in 2018, Edmunds had 183 tackles with one sack and interception. His game is trending up against the run while needing growth in both the pass rush and in pass coverage.

Team Defense

Pittsburgh has two dynamic players at linebacker (Watt and Bush) with strength in their secondary. Heyward remains a top defensive lineman. This defense should get plenty of sacks while creating turnovers. They do need someone to step up at linebacker and on the defensive line if they want to be considered the top defense in the league. I have the Steelers ranked number one in the fantasy market at the defensive position.