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Player Outlooks (2021)
QB Ben Roethlisberger: Roethlisberger and the Steelers definitely crashed back to earth following a hot start in 2020, but talk of the veteran passer being “washed” is unfair, and Big Ben looked really good for the first three months of last season. Taking his health/fitness more seriously can only be a good thing, so Roethlisberger—still throwing to a stacked receiving core (plus rookie Najee Harris out of the backfield)—can again put up big numbers coming off a year in which he threw 33 touchdowns. Consider him a borderline top-20 option that might get pushed down by a bunch of ascending quarterbacks.
RB Najee Harris: Some might be skeptical about a rookie runner being drafted as a clear first-round pick, but Harris is a top-tier talent and enters an ideal situation with a Pittsburgh team that is playing to win now. Basically, the former Alabama standout is going to be fed, and we could see a role very similar to the one that Le’Veon Bell was utilized in when he had a 16-game average of 2,063 total yards over 62 starts for the Steelers. Harris should be at least a low-end RB1 option in Year 1.
RB Anthony McFarland Jr.: McFarland only had 113 yards on 33 rushing attempts as a rookie, but it sounds like he could be the No. 2 runner as a possible home-run hitter behind Najee Harris. That said, we fully expect Harris to be a workhorse, and Pittsburgh would likely turn to a full-blown committee if anything were to happen to their new starter. McFarland isn’t a highly recommended handcuff.
RB Benny Snell: A 19-carry, 113-yard game in the 2020 opener had Snell looking like the future feature back for the Steelers, but he’s now apparently not even a lock to make the roster, and a change of scenery might be best for his fantasy value both now and into the future. Ideally, Snell will get a shot to be the lead runner and goal-line back for a team that wants an early-down hammer.
RB Kalen Ballage: The Steelers signing Ballage is partly the reason to believe Snell might be on the way out, as the former fourth-round pick signed with Pittsburgh as a free agent after flashing with the Chargers in 2020. Still just 25, Ballage profiles as a player that could again shine if given the opportunity, and he’d be the favorite for short-yardage touches if Harris ever misses time.
RB Jaylen Samuels: He only had 18 touches in 14 games last year, but Samuels’ versatility made him a valuable part of the roster—though we’ll see if the Steelers decide to only keep three backs with Harris now in the fold to lead the way. There are probably too many players to climb for Samuels to have value in redraft leagues at this point.
WR Diontae Johnson: Johnson was absolutely peppered with targets last season, but how will the offense look in 2021? One thing we can count on is Mike Tomlin wanting more overall balance, and the underneath role that Johnson thrived in could be taken down a notch considering all the ways Najee Harris can contribute. Still, Johnson creates separation better than anyone on the roster, and Roethlisberger loves throwing to him as the closest thing he has to Antonio Brown. He’s on the edge of WR2/WR3 range.
WR JuJu Smith-Schuster: Smith-Schuster has said he will play more on the outside this season, and that should be a good sign to create chunk plays coming off a season in which he had an average depth of target of just 5.5 yards. The receptions will likely drop after 97 grabs in 2020, but JuJu should be more efficient with his targets. Hopefully preseason action gives us a clearer picture of the changes being made to the Pittsburgh passing attack.
WR Chase Claypool: The ceiling shown by Claypool as a rookie was undeniable, and the monstrous size/talent could lead to more big things this season. However, he seemed to fall out of favor down the stretch before back-to-back standout performances (including playoffs) against a depleted Cleveland defense, and Claypool needs to show more focus with others—namely James Washington—capable of stepping up. The upside remains high, but the floor/volatility is lower than you’d like.
WR James Washington: He was the clear No. 4 wideout in 2020 and might be again this year, but Washington remains extremely talented and a player that Big Ben trusts. If he finds his way into the starting lineup—most likely via injury—Washington would immediately be an upside FLEX candidate because of his vertical skillset.
WR Ray-Ray McCloud: McCloud is primarily a returner for the Steelers, but he did play 15% of the team’s offensive snaps last year, and Mike Tomlin likes him as a gadget player. He’ll be a better real-life contributor than fantasy option as the No. 5 wideout.
TE Eric Ebron: The touchdown potential remains high for Ebron in Pittsburgh’s offense, but the 2018 breakout (in which he caught 13 touchdowns) with Indianapolis appears to be a one-off with 19 touchdowns in his six other seasons, and second-round rookie Pat Freiermuth is going to see the field this year. While the Steelers having a more balanced offense could open up some space for play-action passes, Ebron is trending down overall.
TE Pat Freiermuth: Freiermuth is in the same boat as most rookie tight ends in that he is unlikely to put up significant numbers, so it will take fortune finding the end zone for him to pay dividends in 2021. From a long-term perspective, Freiermuth is a great investment as a well-rounded tight end that can block and line up in a variety of spots.
Best 2021 value: WR James Washington (FantasyPros ECR: WR92)
Wide receiver is deeper than ever before, but Washington’s talent should have him higher than his current ranking—and the ADP is even more of a bargain as the WR131. Mike Tomlin isn’t going to put up with his young wideouts losing focus, and Washington will be all business if he eventually gets a consistent shot in three-wide sets.
Best dynasty investment: RB Najee Harris
Harris is the real deal, and even if the offensive line isn’t very good (we actually think the current group can be successful after various changes), the volume is there for him to immediately be a fantasy star. Currently a mid-range second-round pick according to the consensus, Harris could realistically be viewed as a top-five selection in all formats by this time next year.
Exclusively in 2021 draft guide.
Stat to know
Exclusively in 2021 draft guide.