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  • Jameis Winston could be poised for a breakout season but should you ever bet against Big Ben?
By Michael Beller
August 12, 2017

The Debate Series of the SI/4for4 Fantasy Football Draft Kit will pit two top minds in the fantasy industry against one another. They will take opposing sides of a decision many fantasy owners will face during their drafts, and make the case for their guy. In this installment, 4for4’s Chris Raybon and SI’s Michael Beller debate Ben Roethlisberger vs. Jameis Winston.

Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Steelers (ADP: 93.5)

Chris Raybon makes the case for Roethlisberger over Winston…

In the 1946 hit musical Annie Get Your Gun, Annie Oakley sings, “anything you can do, I can do better,” to fellow gunslinger and husband, Frank Butler. Seventy-one years later (and marital status notwithstanding), Ben Roethlisberger should be singing the same tune to Jameis Winston.

Last season, Roethlisberger was a better passer than Winston by nearly every conceivable measure. With a sturdy 34-year-old arm that has shown no signs of wear, Roethlisberger outclassed Winston in per-game passing yards, 272.8 to 255.6, and passing touchdowns, 2.1 to 1.8. The 13-year veteran also played cleaner football, tossing just 0.9 picks per game to Winston’s 1.1 picks per game. In terms of efficiency, Roethlisberger decidedly bested Winston in both completion percentage (64.4% to 60.8%) and yards per attempt (7.5 YPA to 7.2 YPA). Roethlisberger’s on-field superiority translated to the fake football gridiron. His fantasy point-per-game average of 17.6 exceeded Winston’s 15.7 mark by nearly two full points per game.

If Winston is going to be a better fantasy pick than Roethlisberger in 2017, he’s got some improving to do—especially since the prior season’s stats have a significant amount of predictive value. The best case to be made for Winston this year is an improved supporting cast. But that’s a tough one to get behind, because Roethlisberger’s supporting cast is still better.

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Pittsburgh’s No. 1 receiver is the league’s best separator, Antonio Brown. Over the past three years, the First-Team All-Pro has caught 70.3% of his targets and averaged 9.1 yards per target. Tampa Bay’s No. 1 receiver, Mike Evans, is no slouch himself, but over that same span, he caught just 53.7% of his targets while averaging a full yard less per target than Brown.

Pittsburgh is also better in pass protection. The Steelers offensive line allowed just 21 sacks last season, while the Buccaneers line allowed the pass rush to get home 35 times.

Roethlisberger will have the prodigy of patience, Le’Veon Bell, in the backfield, who kept defenses honest to the tune of 4.9 yards per carry last year, catching 6.3 passes per game along the way. Meanwhile, Winston’s running game trudged its way to just 3.6 yards per carry, and will be without presumed starter Doug Martin for three games.

The main reason Winston-over-Roethlisberger has even become a debate at all is Tampa Bay’s signing of field-stretcher DeSean Jackson, who added an entire yard per attempt to Kirk Cousins’ average during their time together in Washington. Jackson will assuredly help an offense whose second- and third-leading receivers in 2016 went undrafted, overachieving tight end Cameron Brate and run-of-the-mill slot man Adam Humphries.

Barring a hitch in Martavis Bryant’s reinstatement process, however, Roethlisberger will get a game-changing deep threat that wasn't at his disposal last season. In case you forgot, Martavis Bryant is really good. At 6’4” and more than 210 pounds, Bryant ran a 4.42 40-yard dash and averages a career 17.3 yards per catch—almost as good as the diminutive Jackson’s 4.35 40 time and career 17.9 yard-per-catch average.

The fantasy impact of Bryant on Roethlisberger could very well be greater than that of Jackson on Winston. While Jackson has caught 14 touchdowns over his past 40 games, Bryant has already hit paydirt 14 times over just 21 career games. When Bryant suits up, Roethlisberger has averaged 336.6 yards and 2.1 touchdowns passing per game, which equates to a silly 16-game pace of 5,385 yards and 34 touchdowns.

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Coaching tendencies often fly under the radar in fantasy, but Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Todd Haley’s aggressive vertical attack is yet another plus for Roethlisberger, who uncorked 86 deep balls (20+ yards downfield) in 14 games last season. Winston threw deep just 69 times in 16 games under Dirk Koetter’s more conservative approach. As you may have easily guessed, a deep throw is the most valuable type of pass attempt in fantasy football.

Even Roethlisberger’s biggest flaws—a tendency to miss a few games and confoundingly diminished road-game production—aren’t too problematic in fantasy because there will always be quarterbacks available to pick up and stream based on matchup.

Ultimately, Jameis Winston still has a considerable leap to make if he wants to enter the ranks of a Ben Roethlisberger, and I wouldn’t bet against him. But for at least one more year, the familiar tune is unlikely to change: Anything Jameis Winston can do, Ben Roethlisberger can do better.

Jameis Winston, QB, Buccaneers (ADP: 99.5)

Michael Beller makes the case for Winston over Roethlisberger…

The NFL is an ever-changing league. Stars rise and fall. Players hand the torch to the next guy in line. When Father Time starts to get the best of once-elite performers, someone younger is always ready to take their place. As Bill Belichick has taught us time and time again, you’d rather turn the page a year too early than a year too late.

Despite what that intro might suggest, I’m not totally out on Roethisberger this year. It’d be silly to completely fade a quarterback who has averaged 4,560 yards and 31 touchdowns per 16 games, to go along with 7.7 yards per attempt, over the last five seasons, and plays in an offense with Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell. If a draft or auction funnels Roethlisberger in my direction, I will happily take him. What I am saying, though, is that Winston’s star is on the rise, and that he’s ready to take the “quarterback in a 3-4 outside linebacker’s body” torch from Roethlisberger this season.

Winston’s didn’t break out in his second season, but he clearly improved on his rookie year. He threw for more yards and touchdowns, increased his touchdown rate by nearly a full percentage point, and completed a larger share of his passes, all while leading the Buccaneers to the brink of the playoffs. Still, his YPA dipped to 7.2 from 7.6, and his interception total and rate ticked up to 18 and 3.2%, respectively. The Buccaneers were clearly a better team, and Winston was one of the drivers of that. They’re a chic playoff pick this season, and, again, Winston has a lot to do with that status. If that’s going to happen, the improvement in year three from year two will have to be much greater than it was over the first two seasons of his career. There’s good reason to believe it will be.

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Let’s start with the simple fact that Winston is 23 years old and in the third year of his career. Given his pedigree, he should be getting better year after year as he transitions into his mid- and late-20s. Last year may not have been a giant leap forward in his development, but it certainly was a small step. We don’t want to simply assume improvement, but a 23-year-old former first overall pick who won a Heisman trophy at a top-flight program, is entering his third season, and made noticeable strides in the second year of his career is a pretty sound player on which to bet.

Next, look at what Winston has around him. Few, if any, intelligent football observers would say that the Buccaneers have the best collection of weapons heading into the season. Fewer still, though, would be surprised if that were proved true by year’s end.

Mike Evans is one of the most dangerous receivers in the league. He’s lethal on the deep ball, and uses his 6-foot-5, 231-pound frame to bully defensive backs in the red zone. Over the first three seasons of his career, he has 238 receptions for 3,578 yards and 27 touchdowns. He’s seventh in the NFL in receiving yards since entering the league, and only Antonio Brown and Odell Beckham have more receiving touchdowns in that time.

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Even with Evans on the outside, the Buccaneers offense stalled too often last year because of a lack of weapons. That shouldn’t be an issue this season. GM Jason Licht made a big splash in free agency, signing DeSean Jackson on the first official day of the new league year. Jackson is the perfect player for the Buccaneers offense, a deep threat for whom defenses must always account, alleviating some of the pressure on Evans. In terms of complementary skill sets, it’s hard to find a pair of receivers better for one another than Evans and Jackson. Winston will reap the rewards.

Licht didn’t stop there, using the 19th overall pick on Alabama tight end O.J. Howard. While the rookie’s fantasy value is hard to peg thanks to the presence of the underappreciated Cameron Brate, there’s no doubting what he can do for Winston. He can be a seam stretcher, especially with Evans and Jackson demanding attention out wide. He can line up in the slot, with Brate inside as a traditional tight end. He can keep Brate fresh and bump inside, with Adam Humphries (who quietly caught 55 passes for 622 yards despite starting just four games) or fellow rookie Chris Godwin manning the slot. There’s no shortage of formations, and composition within those formations, at Dirk Koetter’s and offensive coordinator Todd Monken’s disposal.

There comes a time in every future star’s career arc when the word “future” drops away. The time is nigh for Winston. This is a bet on him, not one against Roethlsiberger. 

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