- The Steelers and Titans seasons ended in the Divisional Round. What will the two teams have in store for fantasy football owners in 2018? An early look.
A thrilling weekend in the NFL ended with the Titans, Steelers, Falcons and Saints waving goodbye to their 2017 seasons. All that’s left now is the exit interviews. For our purposes, that means looking ahead to the fantasy prospects of their players in 2018. We’ll tackle the AFC teams in this column. Click here for the NFC teams.
Let’s start with the Steelers. Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown, two of the very best players in the league, could be the top-two picks in fantasy drafts, and no one would have reason to argue. In my way-too-early 2018 rankings, I ranked Bell first and Brown third, with Todd Gurley between them—few, if any, players in the league match what Bell and Brown do, both in terms of consistency and ceiling. For what it’s worth, I feel safe betting that Bell isn’t retiring or sitting out a season if the Steelers apply the franchise tag again. These two will be back, single-handedly making fantasy teams championship contenders.
There's less certainty for the rest of the offense. Ben Roethlisberger, who already said he’ll be back for 2018, threw for 4,251 yards, 7.58 yards per attempt and 28 touchdowns against 14 interceptions this season. Those aren’t elite numbers, but they were enough to make him the No. 10 quarterback in standard-scoring fantasy leagues this season. With the weapons he has around him, he should be right back in that low-end QB1 group next season. Roethlisberger isn’t someone you’ll want to trust every single week, but you can win a fantasy championship with him as your primary quarterback.
Juju Smith-Schuster is the most interesting player in Pittsburgh, from a 2018 fantasy-value perspective. He was a revelation for receiver-needy owners in the middle of the season, finishing the year with 58 grabs for 917 yards and seven touchdowns. He’ll enter next season as the No. 2 receiver in Pittsburgh’s offense, a spot that the right player can easily turn into a lucrative fantasy position, as he did this year. But what about his consistency? With Bell and Brown hogging so much of the offense, will Smith-Schuster develop into a regular starter? Or will he be more of a boom-or-bust type whose season-long numbers translate to WR2 production, but is liable to give his owners as many duds as start-worthy weeks? My bet is on the latter, though that should still have him in the top-25 receiver discussion.
For now, the rest of the Steelers carry no fantasy relevance.
The Titans thankfully parted ways with Mike Mularkey, despite the team’s upset win over the Chiefs in the wild-card round of the playoffs. The next coach will be hired with one objective in mind: get Marcus Mariota to play to his full potential. If that happens, the Titans quarterback could be a top-five fantasy option.
Of course, Mariota will not, and should not, be considered in that class during 2018 drafts and auctions. There’s a lot of potential in Tennessee’s offense, with Mariota, Derrick Henry and Corey Davis all shy of their 25th birthday at the start of next season. The team’s next coach must embrace a youth movement that could completely change the effectiveness of the team’s offense. DeMarco Murray remains under contract through 2019, but there’s good reason to believe the team will turn to Henry as its primary back next season. He was the better back this year, especially late in the season, and is ready for a real shot at a featured role in the offense.
Thanks to that, the Titans could be one of the best return-on-investment teams in 2018. Henry is going to be a high draft pick in all fantasy formats, but he’s not going to run his way into the first or early-second rounds. More likely, he’ll have an average draft position that places him in the late-second or third rounds in most leagues. That’s where we found players like Todd Gurley and Leonard Fournette this season, and while it’d be ambitious to project Henry to equal what either of those backs did in 2017, the fact remains that finding a true RB1 at that stage of a draft can lead to a fantasy title. Henry will have that ceiling next year.
Mariota and Davis, meanwhile, will both have affordable price tags. Davis could end up turning into one of the more popular targets at wide receiver, given his pedigree and the explainable reasons for his rookie-year malaise, most notably an injury that cost him nearly all of training camp and half the regular season. He’ll likely be atop the depth chart in 2018, though Rishard Matthews will be back for another season in Nashville. They should be the top-two receivers in the offense, with Taywan Taylor potentially earning himself more of a role, depending on what he shows in the summer. Eric Decker is a free agent and unlikely to be back with the team.
Finally, the song should remain the same with Delanie Walker. He’s about as known a commodity as is possible in the fantasy game. Walker should settle in between the elite tier at tight end and the touchdown-dependent stream tier, making him one of the most underrated fantasy players in the league. If the offense as a whole, particularly Mariota, takes a step forward in 2018, Walker will be one of the primary beneficiaries, simply by doing what he always does, but this time in a more explosive offense.