Sunday, August 14, 2022

2022 Steelers Fantasy Football Preview: Can life get better in the post-Ben Roethlisberger era?

The last few seasons of the Ben Roethlisberger era were hard to watch, but the combination of Mitchell Trubisky and Kenny Pickett isn’t necessarily guaranteed to be much better. There’s talent here at the skill positions still, but the QB question hangs over everything.       

2021 Review

Record: 9 – 7 – 1 (13)

PPG: 20.2 (21)

YPG: 315.4 (23)

Pass YPG: 222.2 (15)

Rush YPG: 93.1 (29)

PAPG: 39.1 (4)

RAPG: 24.2 (28)

2021 Fantasy finishes

QB: Ben Roethlisberger* QB21

RB: Najee Harris RB3

WR: Diontae Johnson WR8, Chase Claypool WR38

TE: Pat Freiermuth TE13

Number to know: 2.26

That was Roethlisberger’s average time to throw in 2021, the quickest in the league. Now, being quick to release the ball obviously isn’t an inherently bad thing — Tom Brady had the second quickest average time to throw, for instance — but in Roethlisberger’s case, it wasn’t necessarily because he was making the right pre-snap decisions and finding holes in the defense. More often than not, it was simply because he just didn’t want to face a pass rush. Here’s an illustrative example:

The Steelers needed to get to the 1-yard line on fourth down, down by two scores, with 3:09 left on the clock, and Roethlisberger dumped it off to Harris in the flat with 1.5 seconds of the snap, leaving plenty of time for four Bengals to converge on him well short of the line to gain. You can see what the play call was trying to achieve — the receivers on the right clear out, so they’re looking to get Harris the ball in space with one guy to beat — but because Roethlisberger dumps it off so quickly, Harris just doesn’t have a chance. 

But the thing is … it wasn’t a bad play for Harris’ Fantasy value! He got a point in PPR leagues. And there were a ton of situations like that where Harris and Johnson picked up what were essentially meaningless receptions for a few yards because Roethlisberger wasn’t willing or able to sit in the pocket and let plays develop further. But those plays were pretty important for Johnson and Harris’ value.

Which is not to say Harris or Johnson aren’t good players and didn’t earn their targets. But they saw a tremendous volume of targets at least in part due to the dysfunction of the offense with Roethlisberger at the helm. Roethlisberger’s limitations held the offense back, of course, and I think the fact that defenses knew they didn’t have to worry about him taking shots over the top especially made things tough for Harris as both a receiver and runner. But would they have had the kind of volume they did with a guy like Trubisky who is a capable scrambler, or even Kenny Pickett, who figures to be more mobile than late-period Roethlisberger if nothing else.

Johnson and Harris can both still thrive without Roethlisberger, and you can make a case that both might even be in a better position to succeed if the offense as a whole is better. Of course, that’s no guarantee with Trubisky and a rookie QB, which makes them, if nothing else, a bit more questionable than their gaudy stats from last season indicate. 

2021 Offseason

Draft Picks 

1. (20) Kenny Pickett, QB

2. (52) George Pickens, WR

3. (84) DeMarvin Leal, DT

4. (138) Calvin Austin, WR

6. (208) Connor Heyward, TE

7. (225) Mark Robinson, LB

7. (241) Chris Oladokun, QB

Additions

OL James Daniels, LB Myles Jack, DL Larry Ogunjobi, OL Mason Cole, CB Levi Wallace

Key Departures

QB Ben Roethlisberger, CB Joe Haden, LB Joe Schobert, TE Eric Ebron, OL Zach Banner, WR JuJu Smith-Schuster, OL Trai Turner, WR James Washington

Available Opportunity 

12 carries, 7 RB targets, 138 WR targets, 18 TE targets 

2022 Preview

Rankings

Chris Towers’ projections

QB Mitch Trubisky PA: 575, YD: 3968, TD: 23, INT: 14; RUSH — ATT: 67, YD: 267, TD: 2
RB Najee Harris CAR: 289, YD: 1156, TD: 9, TAR: 86, REC: 65, YD: 485, TD: 3
RB Benny Snell CAR: 67, YD: 267, TD: 2, TAR: 23, REC: 17, YD: 86, TD: 1
WR Diontae Johnson TAR: 138, REC: 97, YD: 1118, TD: 8
WR Chase Claypool TAR: 113, REC: 55, YD: 769, TD: 5
WR George Pickens TAR: 71, REC: 49, YD: 560, TD: 3
TE Pat Freiermuth TAR: 86, REC: 65, YD: 647, TD: 4

Biggest Question

How does the QB switch change the offense?

Roethlisberger’s unwillingness to hang on to the ball and let plays develop led to some pretty ugly play — he averaged 6.2 yards per attempt over the past two seasons — but it also led to some pretty huge target numbers for Diontae Johnson and Najee Harris. It’s not unreasonable to think the combination of Trubisky and Pickett might make the Steelers offense more functional as a whole, but the targets may be distributed in a way that makes it harder for those two, in particular, to stand out.

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One sleeper, one breakout and one bust

I’m not buying the notion that a year spent with Brian Daboll and the Bills organization magically made Trubisky much better just because Josh Allen took a big step forward with them — I think that suggestion takes too much credit away from Allen and the work he did to get better. That being said, we’ve seen Trubisky put together stretches of solid Fantasy player in the past, including as recently as the final six games of 2020 when he averaged 20.1 PPR points per game. Trubisky is capable of for 400-plus yards in a season, and the Steelers figure to still feature plenty of short, easy throws to give Trubisky a decent floor. He’ll have to hold off Pickett, but I could see Trubisky being a viable low-end starting option. 

I have fewer concerns about Harris than Johnson because this Steelers offense has historically generated so much value for running backs. Harris may be talking about getting a few more plays off than he did as a rookie, but when push comes to shove, Pittsburgh is going to do what they always do, which is lean on their No. 1 running back. I expect his efficiency to be better in year two, and Harris should still have a solid role in the passing game — especially if the less-mobile Pickett ends up winning the job ahead of Trubisky. Harris has No. 1 overall RB upside if this offense is even pretty good with the amount of work in both facets of the game he’s expected to get, and I’m expecting a step forward. 

There’s much more risk in drafting Johnson, given the dramatic gap in cost — Claypool is going off the board 108.61 in NFC ADP — but I think there’s a non-zero chance Claypool ends up being a non-entity, more or less. Claypool stumbled down the stretch when he got more opportunities, catching up 15 of 31 targets over his final five games for 132 yards and one touchdown, and the addition of Pickens with a second-round pick indicates the team may not be totally pleased with what they’ve gotten from Claypool so far. I could see him ending up third on the team in WR snaps before long, coming off the field in two-WR sets, and if the offense doesn’t generate more deep opportunities, he could be pretty useless for Fantasy. 

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