Juggernaut Index, No. 16: The Pittsburgh Steelers

·Fantasy Analyst
Juggernaut Index, No. 16: The Pittsburgh Steelers

At his current pace, Ben Roethlisberger will become the most sacked quarterback in NFL history at some point during the 2017 season. He's been dropped 386 times during his 10-year pro career, an obscene total. The all-time record currently belongs to Brett Favre (525), who appeared in 302 games over 20 seasons. Ben has appeared in 143.

Much of the blame for the excessive Roethlisberger abuse has, of course, been assigned to his offensive lines, sketchy units in recent seasons. But Ben's pathological unwillingness to give up on dead plays — like this one, for example — is a contributing factor as well.

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Pittsburgh will be talking long-term extension with Ben next spring, as he prepares to enter his age-33 season. No one seriously expects Roethlisberger to ever wear another team's uniform...

...but that probably won't make the upcoming contract discussion any easier. Few quarterbacks in the history of the position have absorbed the sort of decade-long beating that Roethlisberger has endured. To his credit, Ben played all 16 games last year, but that fact doesn't erase his deep, messy injury history.

So what's the relevance of any of this, fantasy-wise? It's not as if anyone was targeting Roethlisberger in dynasty leagues. I get that — I do. Pittsburgh's line shouldn't be such a train wreck this year, not with all starters returning and All-Pro center Maurkice Pouncey back from injury (and Mike Munchak on the sidelines). And still, Roethlisberger has become a rankings challenge for me. In terms of mileage, we're clearly at the point where Ben presents a certain degree of fall-off-the-cliff risk. His injury potential is obvious and significant.

Of course Ben is also a player on a Hall of Fame trajectory and coming off a 4,261-yard season. The Steelers are expected to play at a pace that suits him in the year ahead, if OC Todd Haley can be believed:

“We’ve been working hard at [no-huddle],” Haley said. “That’s going to be part of what we do. We don’t want to just give it lip service. We’ve put a lot of time and effort into it."

So that works. The setup here is excellent, as is Roethlisberger's resume. I just really wish he wouldn't treat every play as if it were the ending of Armageddon and he's Bruce Willis. No one needs to get blown up, Ben. It's [expletive] second-down. THROW IT AWAY.

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Bottom line, I'd feel much better about Roethlisberger as a piece of a fantasy platoon than as my every-week starter, even if his situation is promising and the price is right (ADP 119.0). In a league so deep where all the quality QBs are owned on draft day (and thus none are available via free agency), I'd look to avoid Ben.

Someday there's going to be a Roethlisberger statue in Pittsburgh, and it should look like this. (Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports)
Someday there's going to be a Roethlisberger statue in Pittsburgh, and it should look like this. (Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports)

The Steelers' receiving corps is headlined by Antonio Brown, a high-volume, do-it-all receiver coming off a sensational year. Brown hauled in 110 passes on 165 targets last season, gaining 1,499 yards and finding the end-zone eight times. He ranked second in the NFL in catches, second in receiving yards, second in first-down receptions (69) and third in catches that gained 20-plus yards (23). Notably, Brown was nowhere near the top of the leader-board in drops (8), despite finishing among the league leaders in targets. He's simply a damn good receiver, in his prime. Draft him early in the second round in PPR, perhaps a few spots later in standard.

Behind Brown, however, there isn't anyone on this team's receiving depth chart who merits more than a late-round flier. Second-year wideout Markus Wheaton is the most interesting player of the bunch, a former third-round pick with excellent speed and short-area quickness. He's been a buzzy camp story, and the starting role is his to lose. Remember, Pittsburgh is looking to replace the contributions of both Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery, two wideouts who combined for 188 targets last year. The opportunity for Wheaton is substantial and obvious. He's worth an end-of-draft dice roll, for sure. I'll own a share or two.

Veterans Lance Moore and Darrius Heyward-Bey were added to the mix this season, but neither figures to make a splash in standard-size fantasy formats. Clemson rookie Martavis Bryant possesses an almost ideal combination of size and speed (6-foot-4, 4.42), but his hands don't function properly at all times — he didn't exactly shine in his preseason debut. Could Bryant emerge eventually as a red-zone weapon? Sure. But he has a long depth-chart climb ahead of him. Think of Bryant as a dynasty-only play.

Heath Miller is entering his millionth season with the Steelers, and he's now a year-and-a-half removed from ACL surgery. As everyone knows, Ben maintains radar-lock on Miller at all times. If you're involved in a league where a 55-580-5 stat-line will play at the tight end position, then Miller belongs on your cheat sheet. In most leagues, however, he's simply a bye-week coverage option.

Just please reexamine the rookie-year numbers before you spend big on Le'Veon Bell, OK? (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)
Just please reexamine the rookie-year numbers before you spend big on Le'Veon Bell, OK? (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

Pittsburgh's running game was absolutely terrible last season, ranking near the bottom of the league in yards per game (86.4), yards per carry (3.5) and rushing touchdowns (9). Le'Veon Bell handled a large workload as a rookie without breaking down (289 touches), but he did very little to distinguish himself in terms of traditional or deeper metrics. Bell was an inefficient rusher (3.5 YPC) who rarely broke a big play, finishing with just four runs of 20-plus yards on his 244 carries. He was perfectly ordinary in yards-after-contact according to Pro Football Focus (2.11), ranking behind such luminaries as Bilal Powell and Stevan Ridley (2.18). His elusive-rating at PFF was middle-of-the-pack as well (33.7) — lower than Daniel Thomas, slightly above Powell, Ridley and Mike Tolbert.

Hopefully the gains we've all imagined for the Steelers' O-line will materialize, because there's no reason to think Bell can overcome substandard blocking. I liked Bell more than most when he came into the league — not as much as this guy liked him, of course — but I'm dialing back the optimism in year two. I can't imagine using a top-16 (or 20) pick on a player who was so thoroughly not-special last season. Bell has lost weight during the offseason, you'll note, attempting to add an explosive dimension to his game. I would simply caution you not to pay an expectant price for Le'Veon. There's no way I'd draft him ahead of the high-end, upper-tier wide receivers.

LeGarrette Blount is behind Bell on the depth chart, but these players aren't separated by much in terms of talent. I realize that Blount is a punchline player for many of you, but the guy has already averaged 5.0 YPC in two different seasons, with two different teams. He was a beast down the stretch for the Pats last season, and a terror in the playoff win over Indy (166 yards, 4 TDs). If you don't think he's a threat to poach 8-12 carries per game from Bell ... well, just listen to LeGarrette himself:

"Ain't nobody going to sign me to sit me," said Blount after the preseason opener.

I'm inclined to agree. I like LeGarrette as a handcuff-with-benefits, a guy who can potentially carve out flex-ish value regardless of Bell's status.

Diminutive rookie back Dri Archer was the fastest man at the NFL combine (4.26 speed), and he has a chance to be a fun weapon in the screen game for this offense. Check the exhibition tape. We can't expect Archer to make noise in standard leagues as a fantasy asset, but his presence is a gift to Roethlisberger.

Pittsburgh's defense will be younger and faster in 2014, which can't be a bad thing. This franchise has a history of fielding high-quality real-life D/STs that don't necessarily help the fantasy community to any great extent. The Steelers ranked 25th in the NFL in sacks last season (35.0) and they tied for 29th in interceptions (10), so game-changing defensive plays were few and far between. The best bets for IDP contributions figure to be Lawrence Timmons and Ohio State first-rounder Ryan Shazier, a speedy linebacker with all kinds of athleticism (42-inch vert). Shazier has a shot to be a volume-tackler in his first pro season. As for this team DEF, it's approved for use in opening week (vs. Cle), and sporadically when the matchup is right. From our current (flawed) vantage point, Pittsburgh's schedule isn't so intimidating, so we'll be streaming this D.

2013 team stats: 23.7 PPG (NFL rank 17), 269.1 pass YPG (12), 28 pass TDs (9), 86.4 rush YPG (27), 24.6 rush attempts per game (25), 36.6 pass attempts per game (14)

Previous Juggernaut Index entries: 32. Oakland, 31. Miami, 30. Jacksonville, 29. NY Jets, 28. Tennessee, 27. Cleveland, 26. Baltimore, 25. Carolina, 24. Buffalo, 23. Tampa Bay, 22. St. Louis, 21. NY Giants, 20. Kansas City, 19. Houston, 18. Arizona, 17. Minnesota