The Pittsburgh Steelers underwent some major changes this offseason but they still offer a ton of fantasy goodness. I breakdown who your fantasy targets should be by tiers.
Tier 1 – Draft Targets
WR – JuJu Smith-Schuster
2018 Stats: 166 Targets/111 Receptions/1426 Yards/7 Touchdowns
There is a changing of the guard in the receiver room in Pittsburgh with JuJu Smith-Schuster ascending to the alpha role. Smith-Schuster is coming off a breakout 2018 where he led the Steelers in receptions and yardage while coming in just three targets short of Antonio Brown for the team lead. With the Steelers running a pass-heavy system (Ben Roethlisberger led the league with 675 attempts in 2018) and having no clear cut WR2, Smith-Schuster will be the high-volume centerpiece of the offense. In short, we could be looking at the NFL’s reception leader in 2019.
Smith-Schuster has as much fantasy appeal as any receiver currently ranked outside of the top-5 at the position. He is just 22, has a Hall of Fame quarterback with a tendency to force the ball to his favorite receiver, and should be a lock for 175+ targets. The only red flag is the question of how he will function without Antonio Brown drawing the top coverage matchup each week but Smith-Schuster is a terrific route runner and the Steelers will scheme ways to get him open, probably out of the slot. There is also this: Smith-Schuster has 11 games with at least 100 receiving yards, which ties him with Hall of Famer Randy Moss for most in NFL history by a player before his 23rd birthday. Smith-Schuster is a shoo-in WR1.
2019 Projection: 177 Targets/104 Receptions/1372 Yards/11 Touchdowns
RB – James Conner
2018 Stats: 215 Carries/973 Yards/12 Touchdowns/71 Targets/55 Receptions/497 Yards/1 Touchdown
After Le’Veon Bell decided to sit out the season, James Conner stepped in as the Steelers’ RB1 and was nothing short of spectacular. Conner crushed his ADP last year but he will no longer come at a bargain and for good reason. Prior to suffering a leg injury in Week 12, Conner was on pace to exceed 330 touches and 1800 yards making him a weekly league winner. Regardless of who is getting the carries, the Steelers have supported a top-10 running back in each of the last five seasons which gives Conner plenty of fantasy appeal.
The overall outlook might be sullied a bit by the late-season emergence of Jaylen Samuels who filled in nicely when Conner was out. Still, I am not buying the idea that Samuels is a true threat to Conner and his workload. Samuels is much more of a receiving threat than he is a traditional running back and I can see the two working in tandem in certain packages. The Steelers did spend a 3rd Round pick on Benny Snell but traditionally the learning curve for rookie running backs is steep. I have no issue with taking Conner in the middle of the 2nd Round of drafts and I think he has the potential to break into the Elite Tier of running backs.
2019 Projection: 255 Carries/1148 Yards/11 Touchdowns/84 Targets/62 Receptions/559 Yards/2 Touchdowns
QB – Ben Roethlisberger
2018 Stats: 452-675/5129 Yards/34 Touchdowns/16 Interceptions
Roethlisberger led the NFL in attempts, completions, and passing yards in 2018 yet he is still treated like a back-end QB1. Since 2013, Roethlisberger has averaged 38 attempts per game and also turned in two of the best seasons all-time (2015 and 2018) in terms of passing yards per game. As per the usual, he represents one of the best draft day options available as Roethlisberger has finished in the top-10 in points per game in each of the last five seasons.
If you don’t want to invest a higher round pick on JuJu or James Conner, Roethlisberger is a good way to get a piece of the Steeler offense. Even despite the loss of Antonio Brown, he will continue to be a fantasy value based on volume alone. With an ADP outside of the top-100, Roethlisberger is as close to a lock as you can get to outperform his draft position.
2019 Projection: 422-627/4788 Yards/32 Touchdowns/12 Interceptions
Tier 2: Late Round Targets
WR – James Washington
2018 Statistics: 38 Targets/16 Receptions/217 Yards/1 Touchdown
I wrote an extensive piece on Washington and why I like him coming into 2019. Washington had the highest aDOT of any Steeler receiver in 2018, a great predictor of future success. Additionally, 2nd-year Steeler receivers have historically made a significant gains in production from their rookie season. Assuming he can become the true #2 receiver in Pittsburgh, all arrows point towards Washington being a breakout candidate this year. Given his ADP is in the 130-range, he has the potential to crush that.
2019 Projection: 74 Targets/52 Receptions/702 Yards/4 Touchdowns
WR – Donte Moncrief
2018 Statistics: 89 Targets/48 Receptions/668 Yards/3 Touchdowns
Moncrief is the other receiver in Pittsburgh with breakout potential and with good reason. Signed as a free agent from Jacksonville, Moncrief is still just 25 (he turns 26 in August) and he had a reasonable 2018 despite horrific quarterback play. Like Washington, Moncrief is a downfield threat who amassed an insane 1104 air yards last season. While his aDOT would rank behind Washington’s, the sample size is much larger which leads me to believe Moncrief will play a prominent role in Pittsburgh.
I believe the Steelers can support three pass catchers for fantasy purposes (it happened as recently as 2015) but the battle for the #2 receiver will be one to watch. Choosing correctly between Moncrief and Washington might be the difference between getting a solid WR3/4 and a difference making WR2.
2019 Projection: 81 Targets/58 Receptions/778 Yards/4 Touchdowns
TE – Vance McDonald
2018 Statistics: 72 Targets/50 Receptions/610 Yards/3 Touchdowns
McDonald was finally able to stay on the field in 2018 and he brought an element to the Steelers offense that it had been missing. As solid as Jesse James was, he was limited athletically. Enter McDonald who had 369 yards after the catch which ranked 4th among tight ends. With James moving onto Detroit, McDonald should have an even greater snap share. Theoretically this should open up more opportunities, though it will largely depend on personnel packages as to how much of a bump he will see.
Still, tight end is a wasteland and McDonald’s athleticism can’t be ignored. He should finish as a top-10 tight end even if he doesn’t significantly improve upon his numbers from last year.
2019 Projection: 77 Targets/54 Receptions/673 Yards/6 Touchdowns
Tier 3: Rotational Players
RB – Jaylen Samuels
2018 Statistics: 56 Carries/256 Yards/29 Targets/26 Receptions/199 Yards/3 Touchdowns
After James Conner went down, Samuels was a late-season waiver wire darling and league winner for many teams. This was especially true in Yahoo leagues where his TE eligibility was a cheat code for most anyone who picked him up. He was far more useful in PPR leagues where his pass catching efficiency enhanced his value. Samuels did have a 100 yard rushing game in a Week 14 win against New England so as a handcuff to Conner, he carries a ton of value.
As far as Samuels goes for standalone purposes, he is tough to project. Reports are that the Steelers plan on using formations where Samuels and Conner are in the game together. This would seem to be a good way to generate mismatches where Samuels and Conner would both be covered by a linebacker in space. Under that scenario, we could get more aggressive on market share of opportunity but for now I would prefer to be conservative. Samuels could prove useful in deeper PPR leagues as a flex play but he will likely need a Conner injury to be much more.
2019 Projection: 74 Carries/311 Yards/1 Touchdown/38 Targets/29 Receptions/225 Yards/2 Touchdowns
Rookies – Benny Snell, Jr. and Diontae Johnson
Snell and Johnson both present themselves as intriguing prospects in dynasty leagues. They should cost you no more than a 3rd or 4th Round rookie draft pick but it will likely be a year or two before they will enter the Flex player conversation. Assuming you have roster space, you could do worse as a stash.