Will Ben Roethlisberger's return transform this team back into a fantasy juggernaut?
The Yahoo Fantasy analysts will preview all 32 NFL teams between now and the eventual start of the 2020 draft season. Here, we’ll tackle pressing fantasy questions, #FantasyHotTaeks, and team win totals. Next up, the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Big Ben's health is the biggest question for him in 2020, but is his potential ceiling in a full season worth the injury risk?
Matt: The health of Ben Roethlisberger is one of the more frustrating unknowables going into 2020. If the Steelers get something close to Top-12 quarterback play out of Roethlisberger, this team has the skill position talent to be a really fun offense. We could see Ben approach his 5,000-yard passing mark from two years ago if he’s close to his old form. The wide receivers and offensive line are certainly good enough. The problem is that we just don’t know what this 38-year-old passer will look like coming off an elbow injury. He’s going so late in drafts, he’s worth the low risk. But if he does have to exit stage left again, you’re going to be frustrated if you drafted one of these intriguing receivers or James Conner.
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Scott: You could whisper (or scream) “It’s all contextual” after almost any fantasy question, but this is one case where it’s especially true. If you’re in a league where the waiver wire is populated with satisfying fix-it options at any moment, Roethlisberger starts to look more interesting to me; I see the plausible upside, and I can get out of Dodge if things go haywire. In something like a Superflex league where two reliable QB starters are essentially mandatory, I might be leerier of Roethlisberger, afraid that if he hits the low end of his range, I’m in trouble. Then again, no risk it, no biscuit; we’re not trying to come in fourth here.
You, too, can be a fantasy analyst; you just have to be able to talk in a circle. My early drafting with Roethlisberger has been market-driven; I’m considering him when he falls, and not drafting him at his common ADP. So often we learn about our feelings through the drafting experience. Put him down as a reactive pick for me, not a proactive one.
Andy: At the moment, Roethlisberger’s average draft position is just 122.4 in Yahoo leagues. He’s only one year removed from a 5,129-yard, 34-touchdown season. There’s no reason to believe he won’t be fully recovered from elbow surgery by opening week, and he’s finished as a top-10 fantasy QB three times in the past six years. Roethlisberger is a high-mileage 38-year-old, so he clearly carries enhanced injury risk, but he also plays a position that’s generally easy to fill from any league’s free-agent pool. Losing a quarterback to injury in a standard one-QB format isn’t much of a worry.
James Conner finished 2019 as the 33rd-highest scoring RB in Yahoo Fantasy, and his current ADP reflects that (51.6). Is this a bargain for a healthy, jacked Conner, or is his current draft position just right?
Andy: Health has obviously been the critical issue with Conner, but, when he’s right, he’s proven he can carry a fantasy team. Conner averaged 113 scrimmage yards per game in 2018; he’s scored 20 touchdowns in 23 games over the past two years. Understudies Benny Snell and Anthony McFarland aren’t obvious threats to Conner’s role. We can expect the incumbent to remain this team’s primary featured runner, and Pittsburgh’s offense has top-10 upside. If you can land Conner at or near Pick No. 50 in any draft, I’m on board.
Scott: Here is where I’ll get proactive. Conner was a fantasy stalwart two years ago, and last year’s return was misunderstood; give him a pass for the injuries and focus on per-game production. Fear has pushed Conner’s draft price down too far; the Steelers still have a plus offensive line, a passing game (given Big Ben is healthy) that will matriculate the ball down the field, and underwhelming secondary options behind Conner. Maybe the market will fix itself later in the year, but there’s a juicy opportunity at the moment. Entering his age-25 season, Conner’s arrow can still be pointing up.
Matt: Extremely appealing value this year. He goes around the Round 3/4 turn at the earliest but his ceiling is far higher than that selection point indicates. 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. He was the RB6 overall in 2018 despite playing just 13 games. The variables haven’t changed to a wildly drastic degree. The Steelers still have an established offensive line, there aren’t many big-time competitors for touches behind him and good enough weapons in the passing game to be a top-15 offense. That’s all the ingredients you want in a fantasy back. As long as his ADP stays manageable, I’ll be in on Conner.
Diontae Johnson is everyone’s favorite breakout candidate this year, but does he really represent the best draft value among the Steelers wide receivers (JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Washington, Chase Claypool)?
Matt: Please ignore what Andy Behrens says about me in the next paragraph. I do not wield that kind of power. However, he is right: Diontae Johnson was one of my personal biggest risers after charting him for 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. Now, even if the skill is there, the profile for fantasy has some risks. Obviously there is Ben’s health and the competition for targets is real. JuJu Smith-Schuster will likely lead the team in looks and James Washington is quite good in his own right. In fact, if Johnson continues to climb up fantasy boards, you could argue the vertically skilled Washington is the superior draft value going outside the first 10 rounds.
Andy: First of all, let’s make sure that everyone understands Matt Harmon deserves the blame for Diontae’s rising ADP. You truly hate to see it.
Still, Johnson is going 90 picks later than Smith-Schuster in an average Yahoo draft; he represents the far better value in our game. Johnson was a revelation last season, despite his team’s mostly miserable quarterback situation. He closed the season by gaining 273 scrimmage yards and making three house calls over his final four games. If Big Ben can simply remain healthy, keeping Pittsburgh’s offense among the league’s best, Johnson won’t need 120-plus targets in order to make a huge fantasy splash in 2020.
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Scott: Here’s one argument for drafting early (I like a post-NFL draft fantasy draft, myself), before door-busting opportunities dry up. Johnson’s become a fantasy darling and the value is almost completely sucked out of his ADP; it’s so difficult to make a birdie on a hipster pick because the buzz is priced into the purchase. Okay, Chris Godwin happened last year, though Godwin had a much longer resume entering 2019 than 2020 Johnson does (Godwin’s draft cost was also a tier more expensive). The best best-ball value is probably Washington because you get him for peanuts. Oddly, I see JuJu’s arc being somewhat forgotten in this passing game; his 2020 ADP might look laughably cheap in retrospect.
(Full disclosure, I took Johnson in the sixth round of my most recent Best Ball draft. Hey, but he’s my WR4!)
Matt: Diontae Johnson leads the Steelers in yards and touchdowns. Despite my word of caution (you could say moderate hedging), I’m quite bullish on Johnson’s talent. He looks like the league’s next great route runner, and as I mentioned earlier, players that profile like him in Reception Perception rarely fail. Smith-Schuster is still a key player for the Steelers but the team hasn’t moved on a big-money extension for this player yet and that might be a signal. You just can’t run a healthy offense through a player who needs to line up inside to get open. A true No. 1 receiver wins at all levels of the field and separates vs. press/man coverage. Johnson is that player. If Roethlisberger is healthy and near 85 to 90 percent of his old form, Johnson could be a Stefon Diggs-type player in real life and fantasy.
OVER/UNDER on 9 Win Total from BetMGM
Scott: It’s inescapable; this essentially becomes a referendum on Roethlisberger’s health. The rest of the infrastructure is there; exciting skill players, a sturdy offensive line, a sack-happy defense, coaching stability. I’m not excited to punch this either way (and the juice is almost even); I suspect Cincinnati and Cleveland will be notably improved, and I expect Baltimore to be a juggernaut again. But if Roethlisberger stands for four months, this won’t be an 8-8 team. You need a pick and I’ll shade UNDER, given Roethlisberger’s age and injury file. But this won’t be one of my seasonal plays.
Follow Matt: @MattHarmon_BYB
Follow Scott: @scott_pianowski
Follow Andy: @AndyBehrens