Pittsburgh will have their usual high-end RB1 and high-end WR1 in 2018, but who else should fantasy owners target this summer?
Before the Steelers’ Week 9 bye last season, Ben Roethlisberger threw for 258 yards per game with a 10:9 touchdown-interception ratio (12.25 fantasy points per game). After the bye, he threw for 313 yards per game with an 18:5 touchdown-interception ratio (22.14 fantasy points per game), which would have made him the No. 1 overall fantasy player over 16 games. Roethlisberger has now thrown for 28+ touchdowns in four of the past five years and returns with arguably the best supporting cast in the league.
Plus, Pittsburgh has a soft early-season schedule (including @ CLE, v KC, @ TB for the first three weeks), so Big Ben might be able to get hot and keep it going. Because of the depth at the position, I’m lower on basically every fantasy quarterback in terms of overall ranking, but that’s not the case with Roethlisberger, who is right in line with his Round 11 ADP and a borderline QB1 for me. That said, fantasy owners that need a run from Week 11 to Week 13 should keep in mind that the Steelers will go @ JAX, @ DEN, and v LAC for that stretch, and it’s never too early to look ahead.
I think Le’Veon Bell has been the most consistent fantasy running back in recent memory, and last year was our most recent example when he had at least 8 fantasy points (non-PPR) in every game last year besides the season opener—a game he was limited after holding out—on his way to an overall RB2 finish with 1,946 total yards and 11 scores. Now, Bell will repeat what he did last year when he reported a few days before the start of the regular season, but this time is different because it’s almost certainly going to be his last year in Pittsburgh since they won’t franchise tag him again in 2019 at around $20+ million. There are concerns—overall durability, playing through injuries with free agency on the horizon, potentially being limited again in Week 1—but Bell is a no-doubt top-five pick in all leagues and could be tough to pass on at the top of drafts.
It’s a longshot, but we could also see the Steelers decide to trade Bell in the coming weeks if James Conner shows enough in training camp and preseason action. If so, the second-year back would immediately be in the RB1 conversation as the starter on one of the best offenses in football. However, it’s much more likely that Conner is just a top-end handcuff with limited standalone value while the team rides Bell with another 400+ touches. As a rookie, the Pittsburgh product rushed 32 times for 144 yards (4.5 YPC); he’s a top-200 player for me.
Fitzgerald Toussaint and Steven Ridley will both get extended run in the preseason with Bell out, but neither is a threat to James Conner for No. 2 duties, and they aren’t on the fantasy radar barring injury. Between the two, Ridley would have the higher ceiling as a former 1,200-yard, 12-touchdown rusher with New England. 2018 fifth-round pick Jaylen Samuels could also impress next month as a versatile offensive weapon, but I think he will end up being a better real-life player than fantasy option.
Entering his age-30 season, Antonio Brown has averaged a 116/1,570/10.4 line over the past five years (from most recent to earliest: 101/1,533/9 > 106/1,284/12 > 136/1,834/10 > 129/1,698/13 > 110/1,499/8) and has shown absolutely no signs of slowing down.AB will once again be an elite, matchup-proof WR1 and, in my opinion, probably a favorite over the field to finish as the No. 1 player at his position in 2018. Brown should be the top receiver off the board in both standard and PPR leagues.
2017 second-round pick JuJu Smith-Schuster burst onto the scene with 58 receptions for 917 yards and seven touchdowns last season, which was good enough to finish as a top-15 receiver in standard leagues. More impressively, he did it while starting just seven games and playing half the season as a 20-year-old, which included his breakout 7/193/1 line in a primetime win against the Lions in Week 8. Now, the former USC standout will have a stable role as the team’s clear No. 2 wideout, so JuJu should be a higher floor WR2 with weekly WR1 upside in Pittsburgh’s offense after averaging 15.8 yards per reception as a rookie. He’s worth selecting at his early Round 5 ADP.
The Steelers made deep threat James Washington the No. 60 pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, and he should immediately start in three-wide sets with Brown and Smith-Schuster. The rookie was my No. 37 overall prospect as a dynamic field-stretcher that does an excellent job tracking the ball, and he is also tough to bring down in the open field in a thick, running-back-like body. I think he’s worth considering at the end of fantasy drafts in non-PPR leagues, so Washington is being severely undervalued at his current ADP of 234th overall.
Veterans Justin Hunter and Darrius Heyward-Bey will look to push for the No. 3 job, but I think the former will just be a role player as a six-foot-four target that the team lost when they traded Martavis Bryant, and the latter will be a core special-teamer with little offensive value.
After being acquired in a trade with the 49ers last August, Vance McDonald appeared in ten regular season games and caught just 14 passes for 188 yards and one touchdown for Pittsburgh, but he was unleashed in the playoffs with ten receptions for 112 yards against the Jaguars. A second-round pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, McDonald is an athletic, well-rounded target that can make plays down the seam and is an effective blocker. He is unlikely to turn into a consistent TE1 on an offense that’s centered around AB and Le’Veon Bell, but the 28-year-old is a top-20 option for me and could reach his potential with a full offseason in the system.
Jesse James was the starter for the Steelers last year, and he will still have a role after catching 43 passes for 372 yards and three touchdowns in the regular season. However, with McDonald as the projected starter, James isn’t on the fantasy radar entering the final year of his rookie contract.
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