Figures who will shape 2020 NFL season: Ben Roethlisberger doesn't have to be a hero

The Baltimore Ravens sat atop not just the AFC North standings in 2019, but they ruled the entire conference during the regular season. As the new-look Ravens — under Lamar Jackson — ran through the NFL, they left their long-time rival in the dust.

Sort of.

While the Pittsburgh Steelers were a hard watch and a forgettable team in 2019, from a bottom-line standpoint ... they were in it until the end. The 8-8 Pittsburgh outfit wasn’t eliminated from playoff contention until Week 17. In fact, if the NFL’s new postseason policy was in place last year, the Mason Rudolph/Duck Hodges contingent would have gotten a ticket to the dance.

While no one, even you Steelers fans, should want to see that in the playoffs, it does show just how well-built the Steelers are. And it reaffirms what they’re rolling with coming into 2020.

Pittsburgh boasts a 9.5 projected win total and is +320 to win the AFC North. The Ravens are -200, second-biggest favorites this side of the Chiefs (per BetMGM).

Considering what they were last season, both of those figures are tempting to take in favor of the Steelers. The key is really just Ben Roethlisberger. The future Hall of Fame quarterback will reprise his role as the starter this year after an elbow injury took him out in Week 2 of 2019.

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger
Ben Roethlisberger is looking for a resurgent season in 2020. (Photo by Ian Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Roethlisberger is the favorite to win Comeback Player of The Year at +350 (per BetMGM). Cam Newton is No. 2 at +450. You would think, if he performs well enough that he takes that award, then the Steelers have certainly won 10 games and are pushing the Ravens in the division.

A Ben Roethlisberger who is worth 1.5-2 extra wins for Pittsburgh is a massive development. It was hard to see last year as Rudolph and Hodges continually dragged the operation into the abyss, but the Steelers are bursting with young offensive talent. As I wrote months ago, the fashion of his return is going to be the key to unlocking that treasure chest.

Where Roethlisberger is now in his return

Preseason news is at an all-time low here in 2020. Obviously, exhibition games aren’t happening and camp reports and access have been severely cut back as the NFL wades through the pandemic. What we’ve heard about Roethlisberger has been mostly positive but overall, mixed.

Mike Tomlin says he’s comfortable with his quarterback’s status, while Roethlisberger himself has been “feeling good.” Other reporters, like Mike Kaboy from The Athletic, noticed a few hitches the longer the quarterback threw, both in terms of down the field and total practice time. The concept of a pitch count is a regular talking point.

Roethlisberger is a wild card here in 2020; there’s no way around that. He’s just two years removed from a career-high 5,129 passing yards while leading the NFL in passing yards in 2018. But it’s impossible to project him for those types of results after taking an injury-induced L almost all of last season. It’s also worth noting that even if Roethlisberger is physically the same player he was in 2018, the Steelers defense is now too good to force the quarterback into enough negative game scripts to the point he’ll need to lead the NFL in pass attempts. You can comfortably project them for a boost in attempts that will leave them somewhere inside the top-15 but we’re unlikely to see 675 in the stat sheet again.

Even a lesser version of Roethlisberger would help close the wide gap that existed between the two sides of the football for Pittsburgh. Last year, the offense ranked 31st in successful play rate, whereas the defense ranked seventh against the run and third versus the pass. In 2018, the offense ranked eighth. Again, a yo-yo right back to those standards is a lot to ask but fantasy managers might not even be accounting for a jump up to somewhere between 15th or 12th. That feels attainable.

Ben Roethlisberger is the QB18 in 4for4’s consensus ADP. Running back James Conner is also 18th at his position. JuJu Smith-Schuster is at a reasonable WR14 ADP but Diontae Johnson is barely inside the Top-40 — that’s not even a WR3. Elsewhere, James Washington is not in the draftable range. Few expect anything out of Eric Ebron, the TE18 in this ADP format.

Again, I’ll reference the piece I wrote back in back in the middle of May. In that article, I laid out what the Steelers offense and the fantasy results for their top playmakers would look like in the best, middle, and worst-case scenarios of Ben Roethlisberger’s return. That equation really hasn’t changed and neither has the ADP of any Steelers players.

You don’t have to get aggressive to draft these skill position guys. The ranges they held in May/June for early best ball drafters remains the area to target for traditional redraft players here at the end of August. There was a part of me that expected those ADPs to rise as the fantasy hive mind continued to pound the table for some of these young talents. That hasn’t happened. Perhaps we’re all just being responsible. Perhaps it’s just the nature of this weird offseason and the lack of trickling news.

What fantasy managers need from Big Ben

With that in mind, yes, this all still rests on Ben Roethlisberger’s shoulders. That was always going to be the case. However, the load he now must bear is looking considerably lighter than it would have had these young talents been pushed up fantasy draft boards.

It’s quite a bit different from what happened with the Panthers offense last season. Fantasy managers soaked up the training camp hype surrounding Cam Newton’s revitalized deep ball from practice. The skill position players shot up boards. By year’s end, featuring just two Cam Newton starts amid an injury-ravaged year, only Christian McCaffrey and DJ Moore were of any predictable value in fake football.

We didn’t account for the quarterback as a major risk in Carolina last year. We got ahead of ourselves and drunk on hope. It seems we’re being a bit more cautious in Pittsburgh here in 2020.

Make no mistake, all of these wide receivers and James Conner could fall to a floor even lower than they’re being drafted at right now if we see Mason Rudolph again. But they could access a ceiling higher than their ADPs even if Ben Roethlisberger is 85 percent of his old self. He could be more of a high volume passer if he keeps the ball in the short areas of the field, passing up the downfield passes of years gone by. Hell, Eli Manning produced some solid fantasy receivers when his wheels were completely off at the end of his run in New York. Solid is all ADP is requiring for Pittsburgh players. Asking Roethlisberger to just be on the field doesn’t sound like too much.

Ben Roethlisberger holds the key to the Steelers out-kicking expectations from a win total perspective and for his skill-position players enjoying either a bounce-back or breakout season, depending on who they are. That isn’t high-level thinking. It’s been obvious for months.

However, I’m starting to think he doesn’t have to do that much to make it all happen, which might be a more revelatory concept considering where expectations are.

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