Pittsburgh Steelers Fantasy Football 2017 Preview: Brown, Bell Lead the Pack
For the last two years, the Steelers have seemingly been on the verge of fielding one of the most lethal offenses in recent memory, but injuries and suspensions have kept them from having all the pieces in place at once. In 2015, running back Le’Veon Bell missed 10 games with a knee injury, stud center Maurkice Pouncey missed the entire year with a broken ankle, left tackle Kelvin Beachum missed 10 games with a torn ACL, and QB Ben Roethlisberger missed four games with a sprained knee. Last year, wide receiver Martavis Bryant was suspended for the entire season, Bell was suspended for three games, and Roethlisberger missed a pair of games with a torn meniscus.
If the Steelers—with their embarrassment of riches at the skill positions and an offensive line that should be among the league’s best—can stay healthy and keep their problem children on the straight and narrow, they could have one of the best offenses of the Super Bowl era, and Pittsburgh could be the land of milk and honey for fantasy leaguers.
|LeVeon Bell||RB2||RB1||You should be so lucky|
|James Conner||RB67||RB62||Slap on the ’cuffs|
The aforementioned Bell is an electrifying playmaker who runs with the patience of a kindergarten teacher, He’ll come to almost a dead stop on some of his runs, waiting for his blockers to engage defenders before he bursts decisively upfield. Bell has averaged 128.7 yards from scrimmage over 47 career regular-season games. Since 2014, he’s cranked out 100 or more yards from scrimmage in 28 out of 34 regular-season games, hitting the 200-yard mark five times. Bell’s touchdown totals are less impressive than his gaudy yardage numbers: He’s scored 31 regular-season TDs since entering the league. Bell is heavily involved in the Pittsburgh passing game, averaging 4.8 receptions per game for his career and 8.8 yards per catch.
With a career average of 24.1 touches per game, Bell is a true beast of burden, but that workload is a double-edged sword. Fantasy owners love to see their players get oodles of touches, but the more touches a player gets, the greater the injury risk. Bell tore his MCL in 2015, hyperextended his knee in 2014 and had a Lisfranc sprain in 2013. Injuries and suspensions have sidelined Bell for 17 of a possible 64 regular-season games. He served a two-game suspension in 2015 after being arrested for marijuana possession and DUI, and he was suspended for the first three games of 2016 for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy. The league would surely come down hard on Bell if he committed another transgression.
There are risks, but Bell’s track record is too good to pass up. I’d take him first overall, although David Johnson is the consensus No. 1. I think there are good arguments for both players, but I slightly prefer Bell based on the strength of the Steelers’ offensive line.
Bell’s primary backup is rookie James Conner, a third-round pick from the University of Pittsburgh who was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma while recovering from a torn MCL in 2015 but now has a clean bill of health. The 6-1, 233-pound Conner is a slow (4.65) but punishing runner who scored 56 touchdowns in 39 games at Pitt. I didn’t think he was among the brightest prospects in this year’s RB class and was surprised to see him go in the third round. Handcuffing is a dubious strategy in average-sized redraft leagues, but I’d be willing to make a rare exception for Conner, even though I’m not crazy about his skill set. Bell is such a valuable asset that it makes sense to take out an insurance policy when you can acquire one inexpensively, and at RB66, Conner is affordable.
|Ben Roethlisberger||QB9||QB8||Ponder the upside|
Early drafters have been tepid on Ben Roethlisberger, giving him an ADP of QB9. I get it. Roethlisberger gets hurt a lot because he’s so willing to buy time for his receivers to get open, even if it means getting slobberknockered. He’s made it through a full 16-game regular season only twice since 2008, and in those two seasons he finished QB10 and QB6 in fantasy scoring. Also, he used to be kind of a jerk.
But, man, this offense could be incredible. Roethlisberger has three phenomenal pass catchers at his disposal, and he’ll be protected by an offensive line that ranked fourth in Football Outsiders’ adjusted sack rate metric last year. In 2014, Roethlisberger made it through all 16 games, throwing for a career-high 4,952 yards and tying a career high with 32 touchdown passes. If his body cooperates, Roethlisberger could equal or better those numbers this season. He’s typically coming off the board early in the eighth round of 12-team drafts, and I’ll be tempted if I can get him in that neighborhood.
|Martavis Bryant||WR22||WR25||Pray he behaves|
Could even the most argumentative contrarian make a decent case for anyone other than Antonio Brown to be the first receiver off the board in redraft leagues? Over the last four seasons, Brown has averaged 120 catches, 1,579 receiving yards and 10.8 TDs. He turns every game he plays into a route-running clinic, and at 29 he’s at the height of his powers. About the only nit you could pick here is that Roethlisberger takes a lot of hits and sometimes misses games, and Brown hasn’t been his typically dominant self in games started by backups. Uh … that’s pretty much it. Brown is the clear WR1.
If goodwill with the league office were measured in poker chips, Martavis Bryant would be down to the felt. He served a four-game suspension in 2015 for violating the league’s substance abuse policy, then had to cool his heels for the entire 2016 season after another violation. The risk to drafting Bryant is that he could do something stupid and you’d wind up with bupkis. The potential reward is this: In 24 career games (playoffs included), Bryant has averaged 7.1 targets, 4.0 catches, 64.9 receiving yards and 0.67 touchdowns per game, which works out to 114 targets, 64 catches, 1,038 yards and 11 touchdowns over a 16-game regular season. Those yardage and TD totals are similar to Davante Adams’ 2016 numbers, and Adams ranked WR7 fantasy scoring. Weighing the risk, I think Bryant is fairly valued at his ADP of WR22.
If Brown and Bryant stay healthy (and in the latter’s case, unsuspended), there won’t be much room for other Pittsburgh receivers to make meaningful contributions. The Steelers invested a second-round pick in USC’s JuJu Smith-Schuster, perhaps reflecting a lack of trust in Bryant. Smith-Schuster won’t turn 21 until November, but this precocious talent had at least 54 catches in each of his three college seasons and had 89 catches for 1,454 yards and 10 touchdowns as an 18-year-old sophomore playing in a Power Five conference. Smith-Schuster is probably too young and unpolished to make an impact this year, but his dynasty league owners should be excited.
Eli Rogers proved himself a competent little slot man last year, but it’s hard to imagine him being fantasy-relevant in 2017.
You could say that Sammie Coates has hands like cast-iron skillets, except cast-iron skillets don’t break or tear. Coates fractured the ring and index fingers on his left hand early last season and also sustained tendon damage. Early last year, Coates was doing a pretty good Bryant imitation, with 19 catches for 421 yards in his first five games, including six catches for 139 yards and two touchdowns against the Jets in Week 5, which is when he got hurt. What happens when a receiver who has suspect hands to begin with sustains a gruesome hand injury? Coates had two catches on 18 targets the rest of the way. His hands will always be an issue, he’s not adept at tracking deep throws, and he’s not even assured of making the team, but Coates has good size (6-1, 212) and speed (4.43), he’s an explosive athlete with a big catch radius, and we saw him play well for a full month last year. I’m not saying you should draft Coates, but get ready to grab him if Bryant runs afoul of the league office.
|Jesse James||N/A||TE24||Maybe late|
It seems absurd to consider spending a late-round pick on Jesse James based on the idea that “Ben loves throwing to his tight ends.” Surprisingly, though, in the first year following the retirement of longtime Steelers TE Heath Miller, Pittsburgh tight ends were targeted more times (126) than in any other season during the 13-year Roethlisberger era. Jesse James had 59 of those targets, finishing with 39 catches for 338 yards and three TDs. Those numbers could tick upward now that Ladarius Green has been released. In the 10 games that Green missed last year, James played 86% of the Steelers’ offensive snaps. Granted, the Steelers have much higher-value targets, but James might be able to fall ass-backward into 500 yards and five TDs. One Steelers beat writer suggested that Xavier Grimble might be able to beat out James for the starting job, but Grimble is smaller and less athletic than James and put up lesser numbers in college.