Ben Roethlisberger's return could unlock a fantasy football goldmine on the Pittsburgh Steelers

Clarity is tough to come by in this particular NFL offseason. With all affairs virtual and unprecedented being the theme of the moment, projecting has never been more difficult. And that’s not even touching on-field factors that make a particular team’s future a bit fuzzier.

One such team, if not the most difficult to project team of 2020, is the Pittsburgh Steelers. The range of outcomes for this offense seems as wide as any right now. Getting them right may well hold the key to successfully navigating fake football drafts for next season.

The first and most crucial question lies behind center at the game’s most important position. Ben Roethlisberger threw 62 passes over two starts before being forced to bow out of the 2019 NFL season with a devastating elbow injury. He just recently began throwing again but Head Coach Mike Tomlin fully expects him to be ready for Week 1. What he looks like when he does make that return will reveal the fate of this offense.

As a collective football audience (with a pass for fellow AFC North fans), we should all be rooting for Roethlisberger to return to something close to peak form, because this offense looks loaded with young players to like.

EAST RUTHERFORD, NEW JERSEY - DECEMBER 22: Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger #7 of the Pittsburgh Steelers comminicates on the bench during the game against the New York Jets in the first half at MetLife Stadium on December 22, 2019 in East Rutherford, New Jersey.(Photo by Al Pereira/Getty Images)
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger only started two games for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2019 before his season ended due to injury. (Photo by Al Pereira/Getty Images)

JuJu Smith-Schuster is coming off the first down season of his career. Given the circumstances, it’s easy to give him a pass. However, when I spoke to JuJu back in January, he went into detail about how it was more than that. 2019 was a learning experience for him.

Beyond not having a Hall of Fame quarterback and dealing with injuries Smith-Schuster told me the biggest difference last year was, “Not having Antonio Brown, so obviously that changed a lot with coverage-wise, playing against the number one corner, going against the double teams and all that. That was a little bit of a big difference that not everyone sees. But I've learned to grow from that and just naturally adapt to it throughout my career.”

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For all his faults, there’s no denying removing a transformative player like Brown has a dramatic, negative effect on an offense. Everyone has to elevate and that’s a difficult task. In my opinion, when he was healthy, Smith-Schuster was largely the same player from an individual performance standpoint on film.

In my Reception Perception methodology, JJSS demolished zone coverage with a 97th percentile score but fell below the 24th percentile in success rate vs. man coverage and the 12th percentile in success rate vs. press coverage for the third-straight year. That doesn’t mean he is a bad player at all. He just needs the right role and I don’t think anyone should be surprised if he ends up having a Jarvis Landry-type career. That’s not a bad thing. We’ve seen Landry be quite productive but you can’t really run a healthy offense through that type of player. Other factors need to be at peak performance. Most notably, at least one strong outside receiver must emerge to dictate coverage, win across the entire route tree, and keep the Landry/JuJu-type in the slot.

JuJu is in luck, as the Steelers now have multiple candidates for that role. Over the last three offseasons, they’ve restocked the wide receiver cupboard with James Washington, Diontae Johnson, and Chase Claypool. If at least two of these players can emerge as consistent starters, JuJu can stay inside where he works best as a big slot. If one of these three becomes a high-end starter to star-level player, then we’re cooking.

My favorite bet to emerge as that player is the second-year receiver, Diontae Johnson. In his rookie campaign, Johnson flashed star-level route-running, separating from defenders with unreal precision. In Reception Perception, Johnson posted a 75 percent success rate vs. man coverage, scoring at the 88th percentile. That is an excellent signal that a breakout could be coming for Johnson.

In Reception Perception history, only three out of over 40 players (who have played more than one NFL season) have posted a success rate vs. man coverage score above the 85th percentile and have yet to record a 1,000-yard season. I’d argue you can excuse all three of Curtis Samuel, Calvin Ridley, and Sterling Shepard for falling short so far. Johnson might be the best breakout bet at wide receiver that isn’t getting too much hype.

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Beyond Johnson, Washington and Claypool provide more than just insurance outside, should the former fail to meet my expectations. Washington was quite effective as a downfield threat in a bad situation last year. He was one of the best contested-catch and vertical receivers to enter the draft over the last few classes. That showed up in 2019 after a slow rookie season. He’s on an upward trajectory as, at worst, a role player.

Claypool might get off to a slow start due to the truncated offseason but was a Vincent Jackson-style outside receiver in college. A strong athlete with great size, he should get reps as a rookie.

In the backfield, James Conner is coming off an injury-marred 2019 but has a direct path to his 2018 upside. He was one of the steals of drafts two years ago, filling in for an absent Le’Veon Bell and finishing as the RB6 overall despite playing just 13 games. Despite the persistent presence of injuries for Conner, the Steelers did not add much competition. A mere fourth-round pick was spent on Anthony McFarland Jr. out of Maryland to join gadget player Jaylen Samuels and the limited Benny Snell.

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If Conner becomes the latest “he was injury-prone until he wasn’t” running back and stays healthy next season, he’s in a prime smash spot. The offensive line in Pittsburgh wasn’t at the height of its powers in 2019 but is still a well-regarded unit. Conner is the best receiver in this backfield and the Steelers are stocked with good pass-catchers. You want your fantasy backs to have roles in the passing game and be attached to good offenses. Conner checks the first box but that second one is still theoretical, yet possible.

Everything comes back to Roethlisberger. If he’s ready to perform like a top-level quarterback, there is so much to unlock here. If he’s not, well, we’ve seen that story before. Pittsburgh shockingly sat on their hands at the quarterback position this offseason. The woefully inept Mason Rudolph and painfully limited Devlin Hodges will return to presumably battle for the top backup gig. Based on last season, a scenario where they see the field again will tank the hopes of what could be an exciting offense.

It’s clear there is a wide range of outcomes for the Steelers. So let’s break it down from the worst to the best-case scenario.

Worst case: Roethlisberger tries to return but fails to/gets hurt again

  • Mason Rudolph and Duck Hodges take turns behind center. That goes poorly.

  • JuJu Smith-Schuster falls somewhere close to WR35. It’s right around his current ADP.

  • Diontae Johnson and James Washington pop up for big weeks in good matchups. Those are hard to predict and you rarely get them right.

  • James Conner finishes as a low-end RB2 but only based on volume. Think Le’Veon Bell or Todd Gurley from 2019. You’re never happy to start him.

  • No one else from this offense even approaches the radar.

“It could be worse” case: Roethlisberger returns but is far from the same

  • Ben Roethlisberger plays at the level of the 20th-best quarterback in the NFL. Maybe he misses a game or two.

  • JuJu Smith-Schuster has the best chemistry with Ben and that helps him out. He doesn’t come close to his 2018 numbers but piles up short catches in a below-average offense. He gets enough target volume to clear 90 catches and 900 yards. It’s ugly.

  • Diontae Johnson is just too talented and has a breakout season. However, he doesn’t become a difference-maker in terms of winning your fantasy league. He also clears 900 yards but it’s mostly brought on by spike weeks. You don’t enjoy trying to pick those.

  • James Washington produces similar numbers as he did in 2019. His quarterback’s compromised arm strength makes it difficult for a player of his skill-set to truly breakout.

  • James Conner finishes as a high-end RB2. You’re surprised by the number of carries he ends up handling. The Steelers try to run the ball more to hide their quarterback. He is not efficient.

  • People tell you to watch out for Chase Claypool for whenever the Steelers find their quarterback of the future.

Best case: Roethlisberger returns to near peak form

  • Ben Roethlisberger plays at the level of a top-12 quarterback but you never mistake him for top-eight to five. He’s a streaming quarterback candidate that you end up riding for several weeks, perhaps even through most of the season.

  • JuJu Smith-Schuster proves to be a massive value. He doesn’t come close to his 2018 numbers but considering what you paid for him in drafts, you’re cool with that.

  • Diontae Johnson has a breakout season and proves a massive bargain. He finishes inside the top-30 receivers, gaining 1,000 yards and scoring six to eight times.

  • James Washington also out-kicks his ADP (currently 130.5), providing several big weeks along the way. He’s more volatile than Johnson. He does lose some vertical looks to Chase Claypool along the way, who wasn’t the worst best-ball pick in the world.

  • James Conner finishes as a low-end RB1. You are thrilled you took the plunge where you did in fantasy drafts. The offense isn’t firing on all cylinders like it was in 2018 but Roethlisberger was good enough for it to be above average. Good enough for Conner to hit his 2020 upside.

With this range of outcomes in mind, we can understand what’s at stake when electing to draft Pittsburgh Steelers players for next season. While the risk will be heightened with hinging our hopes on an older, rehabbing quarterback in an offseason where we’ll get fewer glimpses of and reports on his progress, I personally think it’s worth it.

All of these players are going to come at a bargain cost relative to the middle and best case scenario outcomes.

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