The Steelers started last season 11-0… and ended their season with five losses in their last six games, including losing at home in the playoffs to archrival Cleveland, which had its first playoff victory since Bill Belichick was the coach in 1994.
Pittsburgh’s offense was a disaster at the end of the season, with Ben Roethlisberger’s arm strength looking shot after elbow surgery, and the run game being one of the worst we can remember from a Steeler team.
The Steelers replaced OC Randy Fichtner with Matt Canada, and their belief is that Ben’s arm will look much better another full year removed from surgery. The club also believes first-round RB Najee Harris will fix the anemic run game.
But the questions with Ben’s ability and the completely reshuffled offensive line linger, and those two items will dictate how far Pittsburgh can go this season.
Pittsburgh Steelers Franchise Focus Companion Podcast
|Season Win Total (O/U)||8.5 (+115/-135)|
Season Prop Movement
Win Total: 8.5 (-125) in late March to 8.5 (+115)
Super Bowl: +3000 in early February to +4000
Premium 2021 Betting Preview from Tom Brolley found here.
Key Offseason Moves
|Joe Haeg (OT)||Dan Moore (OT)||Matt Feiler (OT, LAC)|
|Chaz Green (OT)||Kendrick Green (OC)||Alejandro Villanueva (OT, Bal)|
|Trai Turner (OG)||Najee Harris (RB)||David DeCastro (OG)|
|Rashaad Coward (OG)||Pat Freiermuth (TE)||Maurkice Pouncey (OC, retired)|
|B.J. Finney (OC)||Isaiahh Loudermilk (DT)||James Conner (RB, Ari)|
|Kalen Ballage (RB)||Quincy Roche (OLB)||Vance McDonald (TE, retired)|
|Isaiah McKoy (WR, UDFA)||Buddy Johnson (ILB)||Bud Dupree (OLB, Ten)|
|Melvin Ingram (OLB)||Vince Williams (ILB, retired)|
|Jamar Watson (OLB, UDFA)||Mike Hilton (CB, Cin)|
|Shakur Brown (CB, UDFA)||Steven Nelson (CB, Phi)|
|Mark Gilbert (CB, UDFA)|
|Arthur Maulet (S)|
|Lamont Wade (S, UDFA)|
Scott Barrett’s Fantasy Strength of Schedule
Quarterback: 4th-softest (+0.65)
Running Back: 2nd-softest (+1.16)
Wide Receivers: 15th-softest (+0.06)
Tight Ends: 2nd-softest (+0.73)
Pace and Tendencies
Pace (seconds in between plays): 26.6 (T-6th)
Plays per game: 66.4 (6th)
When the game is within a score — Pass: 65.9% (1st) | Run: 34.1% (32nd)
When the team is ahead — Pass: 59% (2nd) | Run: 41% (31st)
When the team is behind — Pass: 71.6% (2nd) | Run: 28.4% (31st)
Even at 38-years-old, Ben Roethlisberger attempted 40.5 passes per game last season which is the second-highest mark of his career. Now, that could not possibly have been the team’s plan. Pittsburgh didn’t have any semblance of a run game for the entire year, and bottomed out for league-lows in both rushing yards per game (84.4) and YPC (3.6). Because they couldn’t get the ground game going effectively, the Steelers offense was forced to morph into a pass-heavy, horizontal attack. Big Ben made short passes an extension of their run game and relied on quick, shallow throws to receivers Diontae Johnson and JuJu Smith-Schuster to keep the chains moving. Of course, the team made a fundamental statement that they are committed to being more balanced this offseason by drafting Najee Harris. The RBs Don’t Matter crowd can punch the air all they like, but the fact remains that the Steelers offense fell apart last year because they became too predictable… because they couldn’t run the ball. At all.
The Steelers had a rusher eclipse 75 yards just nine times this past season, fewest in the league.
Their RBs generated a 36% success rate (a play that generated positive EPA), third-worst in the league. Only the Texans (35%) and Falcons (35%) were less efficient on the ground per SIS.
Among 29 qualifying QBs, Ben Roethlisberger’s average depth of target downfield was 7.4 yards (fifth-lowest).
On throws beyond 10 yards, Roethlisberger was accurate just 59% of the time per SIS — tying Jared Goff for 28th-of-37 qualified QBs.
Per Next Gen Stats, Roethlisberger’s average time to pass release was 2.3 seconds — which was fastest in the league.
Big Ben threw 64 drag routes per SIS, which were most in the NFL by far. The next closest QB in drag routes was Philip Rivers (46).
Roethlisberger led all QBs in attempts per game (40.5).
Despite all of that volume, Big Ben only managed four QB1 (top-12) weekly performances.
Unsurprisingly, Diontae Johnson led all receivers in targets on drag routes (17).
In the 14 full games that he played and did not leave early for an injury, Johnson averaged 11.2 targets per game (includes playoffs).
For reference, Davante Adams (11.2) and Keenan Allen were No. 1 and No. 2 in targets/game.
Johnson put up 17.4 fantasy points per game in his 14 healthy starts, which would have made him the WR7 tied with A.J. Brown.
Of course the ugly bit is that Johnson led the league in drops with 15.
Since 2015, only three other receivers have dropped 15 or more passes in a season: Julio Jones (2015), Amari Cooper (2015), and Allen Robinson (2016).
It’s super impressive that Chase Claypool managed to put up 873 yards (fourth-most among rookies) despite not being a full-time player and having a noodle-armed QB.
Claypool ran just 27.3 routes per game, which ranked 74th among receivers.
On the flipside, JuJu Smith-Schuster led all receivers in routes (40.1 per game).
Claypool led the league in targets on go/fly routes (13), but only 6 were catchable per SIS.
Among the 40 WRs to see at least 25 targets that traveled 15+ yards in air, Johnson (45%) and Claypool (51%) ranked 4th- and 8th-worst, respectively, in catchable targets per SIS.
Eric Ebron had eight weeks in which he finished as a TE1 or better (top-12), which was one more than Hunter Henry (7).
Huber’s Scheme Notes
It’s zero surprise to see that the Steelers jumped from ninth-highest in 2019 to third last season in three-wide set rate or from 10th-highest to fourth in four-wide rate after 2020 second-rounder Chase Claypool’s breakout. We will likely see a slight drop in that four-wide rate, with a reciprocal bump in two-TE sets — Pittsburgh’s Heavy rate ranked fourth-lowest last season — with the addition of ‘21 second-rounder Pat Freiermuth. Some may disagree with GM Kevin Colbert’s decision to draft a RB (Najee Harris) in the first round of the most recent draft. There is no question that the historical evidence speaks to the volatile longevity of the position. However, the Steelers are very close to piecing together a roster capable of an extended playoff run.
NFL teams are in the business of making money. For the most part, they make money with success. Success is measured in championships. Following that line of thinking, Harris is going to be the catalyst that brings them closer to that success by providing them with a considerable spike in goal-to-go opportunities after finishing ‘19 ranked 28th and 16th last season. The most significant hurdles ahead for Harris will be working behind Ross Tucker’s lowest-ranked offensive line, and, to a lesser extent, adjusting to new OC Matt Canada’s run concept rotation. While serving as the OC for Maryland in 2018, Canada used a blocking rotation very dissimilar to what Harris ran behind at Alabama. It’s very possible that Canada could adjust some of his concept rates to Harris’ strengths, but it’s more likely that Najee will need to adjust to Canada’s Inside Zone-heavy scheme.
As for the O-line, Maurkice Pouncey announced his retirement, Colbert released David DeCastro, and Alejandro Villanueva and Matt Feiler chose to sign elsewhere. Colbert’s decision to wait until the third round to draft his first offensive lineman (Kendrick Green) and to only spend $5.6 million (3% of his cap) on reinforcements will force Pittsburgh to field a very unproven, talent-deficient O-line this season. Still, Harris possesses the type of talent capable of transcending some of those blocking issues.
Another Steeler that’s always been able to produce independent of his O-line is Ben Roethlisberger. In fact, despite those O-line issues, Big Ben still ranked with the lowest sack rate last season among 39 qualified QBs. And Pittsburgh can simply thank his second-to-none pre-snap blitz recognition. A major reason to be excited about the Steelers’ chances are recent photos of a toned down Roethlisberger. An inspired Roethlisberger is a scary proposition with the weapons surrounding him.
It’s anyone’s guess why GM Kevin Colbert is still sitting on nearly twice as much cap space as he spent on his free agent O-line upgrades. Not to mention that, at this point, the O-line pool of free agents have already been picked over countless times. No further reinforcements are on the way. At least until the piss-poor run blocking leads to Najee Harris’ health failing, the skill position groups of the Steelers can match up with most teams in the NFL. Chase Claypool is a star-in-the-making, and Ben Roethlisberger appears motivated for results. The defense is nasty and Cam Sutton appears primed for a breakout. The AFC North is one of the toughest divisions to crack, so HC Mike Tomlin will need all of his horses prepared for war in order to prevent another Wildcard-round disappointment.
Pittsburgh’s failure in addressing the O-line is especially mind boggling after looking at the defense. The singular concern on defense is CB depth. Every single starting position on the base defense is either filled by an elite veteran or a youngster already providing a full season’s worth of breakout-lite results. Without the CB depth, however, it’s possible issues may arise when attempting to defend offenses fielding three-to-four impact receivers. The Steelers finished among the top-five teams in every one of my most important evaluation categories. In regards to the CB depth issues, take note: Pittsburgh boasts the top pass rush in football. No coverage scheme in football can succeed without a pass rush capably, consistently pressuring the pocket. When you are gifted with one as good as the Steelers, it makes the entire secondary appear better.
Entering his seventh season as DC, Keith Butler used a high-level shell rotation consisting of Cover 1, Cover 2-Man, Cover 2, Cover 3, and Cover 6. With both Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds approaching elite territory, Butler has plenty of freedom to scheme his coverage to attack offensive vulnerabilities. The return of Devin Bush will be a godsend in run defense, an area where the defense loosened its grip toward the end of last season.
Projected Fantasy Contributors
Ben Roethlisberger (Proj: QB21 | ADP: 166 | Pos ADP: QB24)
Big Ben returned to the lineup last season off of his elbow reconstruction surgery in the fall of 2019, but he failed to provide the major upgrade at quarterback that most expected after 14 starts by the likes of Mason Rudolph and Duck Hodges in 2019. Roethlisberger’s arm strength completely disappeared and he threw the ball at Drew Brees’ levels with an aDOT of just 6.9 yards. It didn’t help that the Steelers’ had no rushing attack behind an aging offensive line without a true lead runner, and the end result was a Pittsburgh offense that became way too predictable in the final months of the season. Big Ben still finished as the QB13 with 17.8 FPG based on pure volume as he completed 399/608 passes for 3803 yards (6.3 YPA), 33 TDs, and 10 INTs in 15 games. The Steelers’ passing volume figures to dip this season after they led the league with 41.0 pass attempts per game. They drafted Najee Harris in the first round to try to fix their broken rushing offense but the play of their revamped O-line will be critical for their entire offense. There’s hope around the organization that Roethlisberger’s arm strength will be much improved with another 12 months removed from his elbow reconstruction surgery. He’s been on a normal throwing schedule this off-season after his arm looked dead after the first few weeks last season — he had to throw extra passes last off-season to get his arm strength to an acceptable spot before the 2020 season. Roethlisberger also showed up to training camp noticeably lighter in preparation to actually move in 2021 with new OC Matt Canada expected to use more playaction and more under-center snaps. The Steelers used playaction at a laughably low 7.8% rate (51-of-656 attempts) while only the Cardinals and Ravens played under center at a lower rate than Pittsburgh’s 17% rate. The Steelers are looking to correct their many offensive mistakes from 2020 with their adjustments this off-season but they won’t mean much if Big Ben’s arm continues to be shot in 2021. Roethlisberger doesn’t offer a whole lot of fantasy upside if his passing volume dips a bit this season and he’s setting up as a floor option as a mid- to low-end QB2.
Mason Rudolph (Proj: QB44 | ADP: 255 | Pos ADP: QB36)
The Steelers gave Rudolph a one-year extension this off-season to give themselves at least one viable starting quarterback in place for the 2022 season with Ben Roethlisberger playing it year to year at this stage of his career. Rudolph is the clear favorite to be Big Ben’s backup this season but the Steelers also have Dwayne Haskins and Joshua Dobbs on the roster so they’re going to have a small competition for the position in August. Rudolph started the final game of last season with the Steelers resting starters and he completed 22/39 passes for 315 yards, two TDs, and one INT in a loss to the Browns. He also started eight games in 2019 when Big Ben missed most of the season, and he averaged 190.5 passing yards per game with 10 TDs and eight INTs. Rudolph is off the radar in all formats to open the season and he’d be a low-end QB2 off the waiver wire if he’s forced to start at any point this season.
Najee Harris (Proj: RB10 | ADP: 14 | Pos ADP: RB10)
Pittsburgh’s desire to draft Harris was one of the worst-kept secrets entering the 2021 NFL Draft. Even with Pittsburgh’s love affair for Harris widely known, no other team jumped ahead of the Steelers to steal the Alabama running back before the 24th pick. Harris was a five-star recruit out of high school, and he lived up to the hype immediately during Alabama’s run to the national title in 2017. He became the team’s featured back over the last two seasons when he averaged 103.5 rushing yards per game and 5.8 YPC while scoring 39 rushing TDs. Harris also showed some serious receiving chops with 70/729/11 receiving in 26 games the last two seasons. Najee has a big frame (6’2”, 230 pounds) but he has lateral quickness, loose hips, and excellent hands to make an impact as a three-down back. Harris immediately jumped to the top of Pittsburgh’s running back depth chart, and it would be a mild surprise if he doesn’t step into a true bellcow role as a rookie ahead of the likes of Anthony McFarland, Kalen Ballage, and Benny Snell. Harris has a path to tote the rock 20+ times per game this season, especially since the Steelers have been focused on getting their rushing attack back on track after averaging a miserable 59.9 rushing yards per game in their final 12 contests. The bigger question is if Pittsburgh’s younger O-line will improve off of its dismal performance at the end of last season with the team moving on from veterans Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro, and Ali Villanueva. Harris should at least have no issues getting volume, which has him in the low-end RB1 conversation and he’s in the mix with Ja’Marr Chase and Kyle Pitts to be the top pick in rookie dynasty drafts.
Anthony McFarland (Proj: RB71 | ADP: 431 | Pos ADP: RB116)
No Steelers’ running back is 100% guaranteed to have a roster spot behind 2021 first-round pick Najee Harris, but McFarland is the closest thing to a lock since the second-year back has some untapped talent and he has the best complementary skill set to Harris. He struggled to get onto the field as a fourth-round pick last season, finishing with just 33/113 rushing and 6/54 receiving on nine targets while playing just 89 overall snaps in 11 games. Harris is likely to dominate the work and to touch rock 20+ times per game this season, and McFarland will be left to fend for scraps in some passing situations and as a speedy change-of-pace runner. It doesn’t hurt that McFarland played under new OC Matt Canada for a season at Maryland. McFarland is a fringe dynasty option and he’s off the radar in all but the deepest season-long formats. He’s not even guaranteed to be a fantasy option if Harris misses time as he’d be stuck in a committee as the changeup/passing back with either Benny Snell or Kalen Ballage handling the early-down work.
Kalen Ballage (Proj: RB82 | ADP: 454 | Pos ADP: RB124)
The Steelers brought in Ballage to push Benny Snell for his roster spot as the team’s top backup runner behind first-round pick Najee Harris. They both profile as between-the-tackles options who bring little else to the table and Ballage hasn’t even been good at that, averaging just 3.1 YPC since he broke into the league as a fourth-round pick in 2018. Ballage has been used more in the passing game, but he’s averaging just 5.5 YPR on 52 career catches in three seasons. The Steelers aren’t the first (or likely the last) to be intrigued by Ballage’s athletic profile with his 4.46-speed in his 6’2”, 231-pound frame, but it’s yet to translate to the field. Ballage is likely on the outside looking in for a roster spot out of training camp, but it’s not like Snell, Anthony McFarland, and Jaylen Samuels are complete locks to make the roster so Ballage could blow the coaching staff away to get a roster spot.
Benny Snell (Proj: RB83 | ADP: 403 | Pos ADP: RB106)
The Steelers put Snell on notice this off-season when they signed Kalen Ballage to challenge him for his roster spot. Pittsburgh drafted Najee Harris in the first round to be the team’s bellcow back, and Snell will be competing with Ballage for the leftover, between-the-tackles carries left behind the rookie back. He looked potentially primed for a bigger role in 2020 when he posted 19/113 rushing filling in for James Conner in the season opener, but he managed just 249 rushing yards in his final 15 games. Snell finished with 111/368/4 rushing and 10/61 receiving on 14 targets while playing 26% of the snaps in 16 games. He saw the eighth-most carries inside the five-yard line last season with 15 but he converted just four of those carries into touchdowns. Snell is likely to keep a roster spot ahead of Ballage — it helps that he contributes more on special teams — but Harris is likely to dominate the work in this backfield with the likes of Anthony McFarland, Snell, and Jaylen Samuels battling for scraps. Snell would be an uninspiring, TD-dependent fantasy option if Harris misses time this season.
Diontae Johnson (Proj: WR19 | ADP: 50 | Pos ADP: WR21)
Johnson lived up to the preseason hype last season but his end result as a top-24 WR still felt a bit hollow at the end of the year. He pissed off his fantasy owners by leaving in the first quarter of Pittsburgh’s third and fourth games of the year. Diontae then went on to miss the team’s fifth game and he had a dreadful one-catch performance in the seventh game of the season. Johnson frustrated his owners even more with all of the fantasy points he left on the field with his league-leading 14 drops. On the positive side, he still finished as the WR21 with 14.8 FPG in 15 games as he posted 88/923/7 receiving (10.5 YPR) on 144 targets. If you toss out the two contests he left early in, Johnson averaged 6.7 receptions, 71.2 receiving yards, and 10.8 targets per game. He’ll once again have major competition for targets from Chase Claypool and JuJu Smith-Schuster, but he’s the clear favorite to pace this passing attack since he’s in the coveted X-receiver spot that Antonio Brown and Santonio Holmes have held down before him. Big Ben has always shown complete faith in his boundary receivers and he has one of the best route-runners and separators on the perimeter in Johnson. Diontae needs to do more damage in the intermediate to downfield areas of the field after he saw his aDOT plummet to 7.9 yards with Big Ben after it sat at a more respectable 9.2 yards with mostly Mason Rudolph. Diontae needs more creative playcalling from Matt Canada and improved arm strength from Big Ben to get more fantasy-friendly targets in 2021. Johnson is setting up to be a fairly safe WR2 around 50 picks into drafts with his heavy weekly workload, and he has WR1 upside if he can clean up his drops and if he sees deeper targets from Big Ben this season.
Chase Claypool (Proj: WR31 | ADP: 71 | Pos ADP: WR30)
The Steelers found yet another Day Two gem at wide receiver in Claypool, who became the first rookie in the post-merger era to score 10 touchdowns in his first 10 games. The Steelers tried to limit his snaps early in the season as they broke him into the lineup, but they were forced to play him more after he got the NFL buzzing when he caught an 84-yard touchdown against the Broncos in Week 2. The cat was fully out of the bag when he dominated the Eagles in Week 5 when he totaled 116 scrimmage yards and four touchdowns. Claypool ended his rookie season with 62/873/9 receiving (14.1 YPR) on 109 targets and he added two rushing TDs on his way to finishing as the WR34 with 13.5 FPG. He’ll still be in heavy competition with Diontae Johnson and JuJu Smith-Schuster for weekly targets but at least he should become more of a full-time player after seeing just a 63% snap share last season. JuJu is looking to play on the outside more this season so Claypool could kick inside more this season after running 23.4% of his routes from the slot. New OC Matt Canada implemented jet action with Claypool last season, and Canada could also get him more involved in the rushing game after he handled 10 carries and scored two rushing TDs in 2020. Claypool would also be the biggest beneficiary if Ben Roethlisberger’s arm strength does improve with a second year removed from his elbow reconstruction. Claypool’s aDOT sat at 13.2 yards while Big Ben averaged an aDOT of just 6.9 yards on his attempts, and he snared just 29.0% (9 of 31) of his targets that traveled 20+ yards. Claypool also has some room for growth around the goal line after he saw just eight end-zone targets, which he converted into an impressive four TDs. Claypool’s ADP is suppressed a bit because of his target competition but he has major upside entering Year Two because of his downfield and red-zone ability — much like D.K. Metcalf at a similar ADP last season. The big question is if Roethlisberger’s arm strength will improve enough to help Claypool tap into his upside.
JuJu Smith-Schuster (Proj: WR38 | ADP: 70 | Pos ADP: WR29)
JuJu hit free agency for the first time at the tender age of 24 — he’ll turn 25 in late November — but he found an ice-cold market for WRs with the salary cap shrinking for the 2021 season. He decided to run it back for at least one more season with Ben Roethlisberger and the only franchise he’s ever known, turning down similar offers from the Chiefs and Ravens. Smith-Schuster became the youngest player to reach 2500 receiving yards after he posted 111/1426/7 receiving during his second season as the #2 WR behind Antonio Brown in 2018. Smith-Schuster production tailed off the last two seasons, posting a combined 139/1383/12 because of shaky quarterback play and a nagging knee injury in 2019. He recorded 97/831/9 receiving on 128 targets last season to finish as the WR23 with 17.7 FPG while playing 84% of the snaps in 16 games. JuJu ran 84.9% of his routes from the slot and he averaged a horrific 8.6 YPR with an aDOT of 5.5 yards with Big Ben constantly throwing short — he averaged 13.7 YPR in his first three seasons. He’ll once again primarily man the slot — he has lobbied to play more on the outside this season — and he’s shown a knack for getting open against both zone and man coverage in the middle of the field. Diontae Johnson has jumped to the top of the pecking order and it may not be long until Chase Claypool catches and passes Smith-Schuster as the #2 option this season. All three WRs have the potential to be top-30 options once again since Big Ben has averaged 614.7 passes per season in his last three healthy campaigns, but the Steelers are expected to make more of a commitment to the run in 2021 after drafting Najee Harris. Smith-Schuster will be a high-floor, low-ceiling WR3 for PPR formats this season. JuJu will need Big Ben to build back his arm strength this off-season and he’ll need Matt Canada to call a more creative offense to unlock the upside he showed in 2017-18.
James Washington (Proj: WR106 | ADP: 472 | Pos ADP: WR151)
Washington’s career has never quite taken off in Pittsburgh and he’s going to need some help to find a spark as he enters the final year of his rookie contract. The 2018 second-round pick had a couple of moments in 2019 when he racked up 44/735/3 receiving (16.7 YPR) on 80 targets, but he’s been pushed back down to the #4 WR spot in this passing attack with Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool emerging in front of him. Washington managed just 30/392/5 receiving (13.1 YPR) on 56 targets in 16 games last season, and his snap share plummeted from 68% in 2019 to 44% last season with Claypool making an immediate impact as a rookie. Washington will be used as a situational deep threat once again this season and he’ll need Ben Roethlisberger to regain his arm strength two years removed from his elbow reconstruction surgery. Big Ben averaged just 6.9 yards on his depth of targets, and Washington saw his own aDOT plummet from 16.8 yards with Big Ben in 2018 to just 12.5 yards in 2020. Washington is off the radar in all formats entering the season and he’d need an injury or two in front of him to have any chance at fantasy relevance.
Eric Ebron (Proj: TE21 | ADP: 201 | Pos ADP: TE26)
The Steelers surprised many in the second round of the NFL Draft when they passed on addressing their glaring offensive line needs and instead selected the consensus TE2 in Penn State’s Pat Freiermuth. Ebron already had a difficult enough time standing out in a crowded Steelers’ receiving corps last season, and he’ll now be facing direct competition for TE targets this season even after he finished as a top-12 fantasy TE in 2020. He posted 56/558/5 receiving (10.0) on 91 targets to rank as the TE12 with 9.5 FPG while playing 74% of the snaps in 15 games. The Steelers have made it known that they’re trying to fix their broken rushing attack from last season by drafting Najee Harris and Pittsburgh’s passing volume should dip this season after they led the league with 41.0 pass attempts per game. Ebron could be hurt the most by a slight dip in passing volume since Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool, and JuJu Smith-Schuster are the more dynamic weapons in this attack. Ebron should still be the top TE target for Ben Roethlisberger this season, but Freiermuth is going to see more than the 1.4 targets per game that Vance McDonald commanded on a 51% snap share last season. Ebron isn’t going to be the most stable fantasy option in season-long formats as a distant #4 option in this passing attack, but he’s capable of having a couple of big games and he’s a small value as a TE2/TE3 in best ball formats.
Pat Freiermuth (Proj: TE39 | ADP: 436 | Pos ADP: TE63)
The Steelers surprised many on Day Two of the draft when they bypassed their glaring offensive line needs and drafted the consensus TE2 in Freiermuth. It’s not an ideal spot for the rookie TE to make an immediate fantasy impact since Eric Ebron is one of the better receiving TEs in the league, but the Penn State product is the future of the position for the Steelers. Freiermuth scored 15 TDs in his first two seasons at Penn State in 2018-19 and he was averaging 5.8 catches and 77.5 receiving yards per game in his first four games last season before a shoulder injury cut his year early. Our Greg Cosell actually compared Freiermuth to a former Steelers legend Heath Miller in the pre-draft process because of his complete skill set as a receiver and as a blocker. Freiermuth will slot into Vance McDonald’s old spot on Pittsburgh’s depth chart this season as the secondary option at the position. The Steelers are also stacked at receiver between Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool, and JuJu Smith-Schuster so it’s difficult to see Freiermuth commanding many targets as a rookie. Freiermuth is a dynasty stash since he’ll be cutting his teeth before he takes over as the team’s starter after Ebron’s contract expires after the 2021 season. The big question for the future is who Pittsburgh’s quarterback will be starting in 2022 with Ben Roethlisberger nearing retirement. The best-case scenario for Freiermuth in 2021 is that he emerges as a waiver wire option late in the season as Cole Kmet did when he jumped Jimmy Graham late last season with the Bears.
Hansen’s Final Points
Targeting old QBs who don’t run really isn’t in my DNA, but I’ve already received good reviews of Ben Roethlisberger from camp this month, and the vibes otherwise are pretty good, as his arm looks lively. Big Ben was a volume guy last year, and while his volume will drop, his efficiency might rise due to balancing things out with an actual running game, something they did not have last year. The OL is the major concern here, so there’s some downside for all their players. But any concerns about Big Ben falling off a cliff should be minimal, and they are loaded with strong pass-catchers (they go 6-7 deep in terms of very good targets). It is a new OC with some new verbiage, so he may need some time to get comfortable. But with an ADP around 160 and as the QB24, there’s little risk to Big Ben, and he’s a sneaky value in 2-QB leagues.
Mason Rudolph is the favorite to be Big Ben’s backup this season, but I’m told not to presume he’s their QB of the future, so a rededicated Dwayne Haskins could move past Rudolph on the depth chart. Rudolph is completely off all fantasy radars for now.
I don’t think he’s an “elite” talent, but Najee Harris is close to as good as it gets in terms of a RB with size, power, movement, and receiving ability. So with a huge role upcoming, the main concerns are the OL and the transition to a new OC. We have to recognize the offensive line as one of the worst 4-5 groups in the league based on talent and experience, but I’m not getting the sense that their OL is in dire straits, and Harris is good enough to produce behind a bottom-5 OL with volume and passing game work, which he’ll get. For what it’s worth, new OC Matt Canada has been a run-heavy guy in the past. Other than the OL, it’s a good situation with a veteran QB and a ton of receiving weapons. It is a young man’s position, and while Harris is an older rookie at 23, he’s still younger than all but a handful of starting RBs in the league. He’s worth a top-15 pick overall, but with his ADP settled in here in August, there’s no reason to reach for him in the first round.
He played for under new OC Matt Canada for a season at Maryland, and Anthony McFarland is a lock to make the team, so he’s the only guy to consider for fantasy behind Najee Harris, at least for now. McFarland would split time with another back if Najee misses time, so he’s probably not the best handcuff option on the team. But our sources tell us that McFarland is actually expected to get some work behind Harris as a changeup runner/receiver, so he might get 6-8 touches a game, for what it’s worth. He is not being drafted this summer, however.
We won’t know until the cuts start coming down, but the lean I’m hearing is that Kalen Ballage will beat out the underwhelming Benny Snell for his roster spot as the team’s top backup runner behind Najee Harris. You won’t know it by the stats, but Ballage has more juice and versatility than Snell. But until the final roster is set, it’s still a projection and a guess. No one cares, anyway, since both backs have 400+ ADPs.
It was certainly an up-and-down season for Diontae Johnson, but he ultimately proved us right for strongly backing him, and I just can’t envision his problems with drops getting any worse here in 2021, his third NFL season. It would have been nice to see where his ADP would have been had they not surprisingly re-signed JuJu Smith-Schuster, but I think he would have been a top-10 fantasy WR. He’s the WR21 off the board as it is, but we do have him slightly higher. I can’t say he’s a value or someone I’m dying to draft, but I’ll definitely take him in the fifth round if I need a WR and I want some juice. Diontae won’t get the absurd volume he got last year, but I’m fully expecting more big plays and a higher aDOT than the 7.9 he posted with Big Ben last year, so Diontae should do more with less this year. His QB has a ton of faith in him which makes sense because he’s already one of the better route-runners and separators in the league.
Chase Claypool is a good example of how you just never know when it comes to scouting players transitioning from college to the NFL. Our guy Greg Cosell was not enamored with his college tape as it relates to transition to the NFL. Turns out Claypool had no problems separating and out-physically NFL DBs, so now it’s just a question of how good can he be? Based on what we’re seen and heard this summer, the answer is “better than what we saw last year.” Obviously, the lack of volume may be a concern, as they balance out the offense, but this beast has not yet shown us the best he has to offer, and he’s going to be the go-to guy in the red zone, plus he will get plenty of downfield throws from Ben Roethlisberger, whose arm strength looks good in camp. Claypool looks like a lock for 10+ TDs, so I’m okay with so-so volume as long as he’s my WR3. If you wait on QB especially and grab three WRs in the first 5-6 rounds, he’s a really nice WR3 option.
As a Diontae Johnson apologist last summer, I didn’t know what to do with JuJu Smith-Schuster. And while my concerns were pretty much validated, JuJu got more volume than I anticipated, so it’s fair to say I undersold him. But this year, I know exactly what to do with JuJu: fade him. Clearly, with a laughable 8.6 YPR and with an aDOT of 5.5 yards last year, JuJu was heavily reliant on volume, which will not come nearly as consistently as it did last year. JuJu ran 84.9% of his routes from the slot, and I’m guessing that number won’t change much. Why would it change with Chase Claypool and Diontae (not to mention James Washington) better outside threats? JuJu is still good at football and he’ll have a decent floor in all formats, since he scores TDs, but he’s overvalued with an ADP of 70 and as the WR30 off the board.
Entering his fourth season, it’s pretty clear that James Washington won’t be a starting or prominent receiver for the Steelers, but he’s one heck of a WR4 and a great insurance policy. Washington is best used as a situational deep threat, and that will be his main role this year. He will be a factor, but he’d need an injury to either Diontae Johnson or Chase Claypool to have a chance.
I’ve always had a soft spot for Eric Ebron, and he’s probably a good bet to go down as a small value with a positional ADP of TE26 at around 200 overall. In TE-premium leagues, that’s worth noting, but Ebron will lose some targets to the impressive rookie Pat Freiermuth, who should play early this year, and they are not going to throw it as much barring a shocking development. Ebron is still capable of putting up a few big games over the course of the season, so he’s also a better best ball pick in addition to having some intrigue in TE-premium leagues. But I do not find myself considering him late in redraft leagues.
He was the consensus TE2 in the draft, and Pat Freiermuth should be a future TE1 in redraft leagues, and he should have a role right away in 2021. He does have a complete skill set as a receiver and as a blocker, and he will actually line up outside for them, even this year. But while he gives them more flexibility and a lot of hope for the future, he’s not draftable in redraft leagues, as evidenced by his 400+ ADP.