The Steelers had a topsy-turvy season a year ago in which they had stable producers in Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell and sporadic fantasy output from other skill positions. Looking to roll over their 6-2 finish to close 2013, they have an intriguing set of fantasy options headed into the season.
2014 Steelers Schedule
|Tampa Bay Buccaneers
|New York Jets
|New Orleans Saints
|Kansas City Chiefs
By now, you already know the proper precautions to take when looking at anything schedule related this early. Pittsburgh opens with a pretty tough slate of defensive fronts during the first month that may force their passing volume a notch above what it will be at the end of the season. Don’t fret about their ground game as they have a back who is involved in their passing attack, but we should find out early in the season just how the pecking order in the passing game will play out after Brown.
As mentioned, the Steelers closed 2013 strongly. A lot has been made about their switch to an up-tempo approach adopted midseason, before we get into the impact that had on the offense and more importantly, Ben Roethlisberger, let’s pull up the offenses run under the watch of Todd Haley.
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*Fired After 13 Games in 2011
Will Big Ben Equal Big Points in 2014?
Roethlisberger played in all 16 games for the first time since 2008 which aided him throwing for the second highest touchdown (28) and yardage (4,261) totals of his career. He finished 15th overall in fantasy points per aimed attempt (FPAT) at .46, right below Jay Cutler and even though he ranked 11th overall in fantasy points at the position he posted the lowest usable start percentage out of the top 15 quarterbacks. When the offense changed midseason, so did his fantasy output.
[table id=137 /]
Although his efficiency stats (Y/A, Completion percentage) all dropped a tick, his overall output elevated because he was throwing more touchdowns and fewer interceptions. It also helps when you’re not on your back, as the offensive line played as a unit much better as the season wore on. One thing about tempo is that it doesn’t always mean volume and you see that in Roethlisberger’s splits. In some cases, inefficiency can create volume, but Ben was actually slightly better from an efficiency side the front half outside of the main area of touchdown to interception ratio. The other is the Steelers were winning games in the second half and controlling them outside of a few choice weeks, which is why you don’t see the jump in pass attempts over the run when they switched offensive philosophy.
That does give me some pause coming into this season because the Steelers will be working in three new receivers and have a lot of inexperience outside. Little of what Big Ben did down the stretch last year is being priced into his current value, which is accurate for how I value him as well. I like Roethlisberger as a high to mid QB2 in a platoon because if Pittsburgh is able to maintain its success, that will place Big Ben in accommodating situations to tack on fantasy points.
Can We Trust Anyone After Antonio Brown?
There was no receiver as consistent as Brown was last season. He had at least five receptions and 50 receiving yards in all 16 games played on his way to becoming the third best receiver in PPR output. He finished sixth overall in terms of percentage of a teams’ total targets at 28.3 percent and had the highest total in the NFL when games where neutral or winning at 34.7 percent. He was as good as number one receivers come for their offense as a target as he was fourth in terms of routes run per reception and eighth in routes run per target.
[table id=138 /]
*Route Data provided By Pro Football Focus
That doesn’t mean that Brown doesn’t come without some red on his ledger, however. He was one of the worst performers in the red zone in 2013, converting only one of his 23 targets for touchdowns near the paint. That’s the status quo for him as he’s now converted only six of 42 red zone targets for scores in his career thus far. The types of touchdowns he scores are hard to sustain yearly. Out of his 14 career touchdown receptions, seven are from 40 yards or greater. He was also the player we more expect him to be while in division play. You’re really looking for the possible touchdown regression to meet the positive regression that should come in the red zone. Even if he’s not strong in that area, he has to be better than he was in 2013. Pulling up his past three seasons from the Career Graphs App from RotoViz, should we just be treating his 2013 campaign as an outlier?
An eight touchdown season can easily turn into a four touchdown one with Brown, providing slight hesitation on a second round investment in him. I don’t see a dynamic fall out in terms of targets or receptions because of the inexperience surrounding him; Brown is the only reliable option that Roethlisberger has on the outside heading into the season. He may be slightly too rich for me in the second round, but I don’t see much changing for his role in this offense for 2014.
Only the Broncos (121) ran more pass plays inside the red zone than the Steelers (112) did last season, but whereas Denver was first in conversion rate, Pittsburgh ranked 27th at 17.9 percent . As mentioned with Brown, their inefficiency in that area created crazy volume as only Jerricho Cotchery provided relief. Cognizant of their struggles, they selected 6-foot-5 Martavis Bryant in the third round out of Clemson.
Bryant is a curious case because he has the physical attributes you’d like in a receiver, but he doesn’t play up to them, relying on his long speed more than his size. He scored seven of his 13 career touchdowns at Clemson from 30 yards out or more with only four coming in the red zone. By default he should draw the most attention there for this offense, but Bryant may be more Justin Hunter in the long run than a red zone force.
Markus Wheaton, their third round selection last season is expected to gain the second receiver spot after playing just 161 snaps as a rookie after suffering a hand injury in preseason. Wheaton isn’t big at 5-foot-11, 182 pounds, but Chad Scott points out that he’s the prototypical Steeler receiver. Wheaton has track star speed, but his role in the offense is where my concern lies. Look at the use of second options in the passing game under Haley.
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*aDot provided By Pro Football Focus
Second receivers in Haley’s offense don’t play vertically, which is both Bryant and Wheaton’s strengths. There’s not even an outlier in that group to really feel good about Wheaton having a high ceiling in 2014 if his role is similar and the back and forth jump in Antonio Brown’s splits in yards per reception to his career norms when he was removed from this role leads me to believe this type of usage for WR2’s with Haley is real. That role can still produce overall solid numbers as Sanders was useful as a WR4 last season with overall WR3 numbers. Even so, Sanders saw 41 percent of his targets down ten or more points, so Wheaton may still be a role player in his sophomore campaign.
The one piece of this passing game outside of Brown that I do want shares of is Heath Miller. We saw what happened for Miller when he finally escaped the clutches of Bruce Arians. Even though Arians dubbed him the best tight end in football, Miller had his best statistical season ever in 2012 before tearing his ACL in week 15. He never fully recovered after returning in week three a year ago, but he’s poised to give one final surge of fantasy production to you this season. Miller had a 30 percent conversion rate in the red zone and was tied for the league lead in touchdown catches inside the 10-yard line in 2012 before his injury. There’s a good shot that Miller can score six to eight times this year and hover around 60 receptions. For those waiting on tight end, he’s a solid option in the 14th round this summer.
Saved By the Bell
Le’Veon Bell had quite the ride throughout last summer. At first he was an early round choice predicated by expected volume, and then he was once thought as lost for the season due to a possible Lisfranc injury. Then he returned in week four and delivered a consistent fantasy season for owners in the passing and rushing game at a discounted price.
Bell notched 11 top 24 weeks in his 13 starts, catching at least four passes in seven games while tacking on eight rushing scores. It wasn’t all flash; however, as he posted a pedestrian 3.5 yards per carry and had just 13 carries go for ten yards or more on his 244 attempts, which was the same number as Geno Smith and less than Ray Rice. Volume carried him to weekly consistency as he finished low in several efficiency metrics at running back.
|Non TD Pts
All of that said, James Todd still has three solid reasons to make Bell the lead back on your fantasy team this year. Rookie backs that post seasons such as Bell did, tend to repeat that success more often than not for fantasy purposes. He may be a sum of parts player rather than a week tilter, but Bell is a safe option that will cover his floor rushing by his involvement in the passing game.
The Steelers brought in LeGarrette Blount to alleviate the pressure on Bell to carry the club, but he’s not a major threat to chew through a significant share of that volume to render Bell ineffective. Blount was a home run hitter in New England a year ago, rushing for ten or more yards on 17 of his 153 attempts (11.1 percent) and scoring three touchdowns from 35 yards out or more. He may pilfer a few touchdowns away near the goal line as he’s been equal in his career to what Bell did as a rookie inside of the five despite his poor reputation.
Career Carries Inside the 5-yard Line
Blount has always struggled when he’s had subpar offensive line play, so his signing could easily be forgettable in a few months. I look at his signing as insurance because of what the Steelers had to go through with Bell on the shelf to start the season a year ago with Felix Jones and Jonathan Dwyer. Even as a handcuff, Blount would never reach the effectiveness of Bell because he’d never inherit a role in the passing game.
If that were to occur, Dri Archer would find himself in a larger role than expected. Archer was as versatile as they come in college at Kent State, and even though many are comparing him to Dexter McCluster, he’s a slightly better athlete coming out of college.
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Haley was the head coach in Kansas City when the team drafted McCluster in the second round in 2010. Although he never turned into the hybrid force many envisioned, here’s how Haley used him in his first two seasons.
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Jamaal Charles was lost for the season in 2011 in the second game, so if Bell were to go down, you can expect Archer to see a significant jump in involvement. Outside of return yardage leagues, he will have little use outside of an injury, but he’s not a name to forget in PPR leagues if Bell does go down at any point.
2014 Fantasy Relevant Projections
Best Option to Crash through their projection without injury: Bryant – He’s the only receiver that is unique out of the group. If he can force his way into heavy playing time ahead of Lance Moore, he is a dark horse to lead the team in touchdown receptions.
Biggest Risk to fall through their projection: Brown – If the youth in the receiving group comes together quicker than expected, he could have enough shaved off of his output that may not overcome any touchdown regression.
Best Waiver Wire Option: Miller – as it stands right now, I would place all of my chips on Miller leading the team in touchdown catches and could possibly become a week to week starter available late in drafts or off of waivers.