It's easy to get excited about the season ahead for the Steelers, particularly if you don't dwell on details like these...
• The Steelers' franchise quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, has "a little torn rotator cuff," but claims it's no big deal. "It's OK, just sore." Roethlisberger has taken a beating like few other QBs, enduring 40 or more sacks in five of the past six years;
• Pittsburgh's No. 1 running back, Rashard Mendenhall, is recovering from ACL surgery not likely to be a factor in the opening month of the season. Meanwhile, understudy Isaac Redman is dealing with groin and hip injuries;
• The team's most dangerous receiver, Mike Wallace, is seeking a new deal, hasn't yet reported to camp, and can't be too pleased about the contract recently inked by No. 2 wideout Antonio Brown (six years, $43 million);
• Five-time Pro Bowl linebacker James Harrison had his knee scoped last week, leaving him questionable for Week 1. Another five-time Pro Bowler, nose tackle Casey Hampton, is coming back from an ACL tear suffered in January.
But c'mon, if you can just forget about those things, and perhaps a few others, then you really have to be stoked about this team's outlook for 2012.
GET THE TOWELS IN THE AIR, people! WOOOO!
No, seriously, they're dealing with some issues in Pittsburgh. It's not exactly going to be a year-long coronation for the Steelers in the AFC North. But despite the obstacles ahead for this team, there are still plenty of useful pieces for fantasy owners to pick through, even if some of them are slightly dinged.
Roethlisberger is the 14th quarterback off the board in an average draft (ADP 102.6), and he clearly has the potential to deliver a profit at that price. Yes, he's been mauled over the years — he's actually been sacked 83 more times than Peyton Manning, despite playing five fewer seasons — so there's a mileage issue here that dynasty owners will have to consider. But in a redraft, Ben is simply a nice one-year value play, an excellent quarterback at the controls of coordinator Todd Haley's offense.
And what will that offense look like in 2012? Here's a quick preview, from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's Alan Robinson:
Todd Haley's offense has something for everyone. For Ben Roethlisberger, there's the promise of virtually free rein to run the no-huddle. ... The offense seems designed — paraphrasing Haley — to run when it has to run and pass when it has to pass. Roethlisberger, the NFL's most-sacked quarterback, should benefit from a system that's designed to keep him upright, in rhythm and on target all while getting rid of the ball as quickly as possible. Kurt Warner loved the Todd Haley offense and Haley seems confident Roethlisberger will, too.
Any comparison to the Warner-era Cards works for me. You might recall that before Haley was the guy who gave Thomas Jones too many carries in KC, he was dialing up a million passes for Arizona, where he served as OC. With weapons like Wallace, Brown and Emmanuel Sanders on the field, Roethlisberger has a shot at a big year.
Of course Wallace isn't yet on the field for Pittsburgh, and that's a problem. Brown is a very nice player — an acceptable No. 2 fantasy receiver — but he's not quite in his teammate's tier. Wallace is a guy who demands extra attention from defenses, a player capable of scoring this way, this way and this way. He's ridiculous. Wallace and Brown are only separated by 3.4 picks in recent drafts (ADP 49.7 vs. 53.1), but the talent gap is wider. It would be a shock if Wallace didn't report in time for the regular season — there are reports out there suggesting we'll see him this weekend. Fantasy owners should happily take any holdout-related discount they can get.
When Wallace arrives, Brown should have more space to operate, so don't assume he'll get an immediate fantasy downgrade. Sanders, a reasonable final-round flier in his own right, knows what's up:
"We all know Mike takes the top off the defense. He stretches the field with his speed. He allows me and Antonio to get (open) underneath. We're excited about having him back. He's a great asset to our receiver corps, and he's a great asset to this team."
Jerricho Cotchery still lurks on the depth chart at receiver, but his contributions should be modest and unownable. Tight end Heath Miller has his loyalists in the fantasy community, though I'm not among them. Let's just acknowledge that he's still around, ready for his usual 40-something catches.
The Steelers' ground game may ultimately deliver respectable team totals, but it seems doubtful that any single player will hog the stats. Redman figures to be the Week 1 starter, assuming he's ambulatory in September, and we'll see doses of both Jonathan Dwyer and Chris Rainey as well. In Pittsburgh's final two games last season, playoff loss included, Redman filled in admirably for Mendenhall. He rushed for 213 yards on 36 carries (5.9 YPC), crossing the goal line once (almost twice) and catching five passes for 39 yards. Dwyer is a 230-pound bruising back who lacks elusiveness; Rainey is a 180-pound elusive back who won't bruise anyone (although he can still generate highlight-quality plays like this one).
[Fantasy: Bold predictions for the 2012 season]
Redman's fantasy stock has taken a nosedive in recent days, triggered by Mendenhall's activation from the physically-unable-to-perform list. He's being taken beyond the top six rounds in fantasy drafts, the 29th running back off the board. That price tag doesn't seem too scary, considering the fact that Redman should receive plenty of work in the opening weeks, then likely enter a job-share with Mendenhall. Based on general manager Kevin Colbert's recent comments regarding Rashard's ETA...
"If you (enter the regular season) on PUP, you're out for six weeks, minimum," Colbert explained. "You can still only continue that same work. So, he felt he was beyond that, the trainers felt he was beyond that, so it was time to take that next step."Now whether he plays in those first six weeks we don't know, but, obviously, we feel there's a chance that could happen. Be it Week 5 or Week 6, that could be a difference."
...you cannot expect a fully operational Mendenhall anytime soon. Remember, this is a player who suffered his knee injury on January 1. It's impressive enough that he'll avoid the PUP list to open the season. Let's not expect 20 carries and triple-digit yardage shortly after his return. In recent drafts, Mendenhall has been selected in the Blount-Leshoure-Jacquizz range (ADP 109.2), which feels just about right. He's a long-term investment, so you'll probably be tempted to launch him when other injuries begin to pile up. But that's a decision for another day.
Pittsburgh's defense is ... well, it's old. That's the first thing you notice when you scan the team's depth chart. By my count, seven starters are north of 30, and many of them have injury histories. Of course we've still ranked the Steelers' D as a top-five unit because they have difference-makers at every level. This group held opponents to just 14.2 points and 271.8 total yards per game last season, leading the NFL in both categories. Fantasy scoring is tilted toward takeaways and defensive TDs, however, so Pittsburgh finished as merely a middle-of-the-pack commodity in our game (No. 14). They ranked second in 2010, so it's not as if this defense can't help. The IDPs to target are linebackers LaMarr Woodley, Lawrence Timmons and Harrison, plus oft-concussed safety Troy Polamalu.
And so ends our fantasy review of the Steelers. You may now praise or condemn their Juggernaut rank in comments — or you can further the conversation about this team's fantasy potential, which is what we'd all prefer. Please note that the ranks are a gimmick; the team discussion is what matters around here.
2011 team stats: 20.3 PPG (NFL rank 22), 118.9 rush YPG (14), 270.8 pass YPG (9), 35.58 yards/drive (5), 0.170 turnovers/drive (29)
Previous Juggernaut posts: 32. Miami, 31. St. Louis, 30. Indianapolis, 29. Jacksonville, 28. Cleveland, 27. Arizona, 26. Seattle, 25. Minnesota, 24. Tampa Bay, 23. Buffalo, 22. New York Jets, 21. Washington, 20. Oakland, 19. San Francisco, 18. Kansas City, 17. Cincinnati, 16. Denver, 15. Tennessee, 14. San Diego
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