Now that Ben Roethlisberger is back healthy and the Rudolph-Hodges nightmare is over, it’s time to get excited about drafting Steelers again in fantasy football. After battling through injuries of his own and the worst QB situation in the NFL last year, JuJu Smith-Schuster is a glaring bounce-back candidate in 2020. On that same note, Diontae Johnson is fantasy football’s best-kept secret right now and offers untapped upside with Big Ben back.
Unfortunately, while the entire Steelers passing game looks poised for a quick turnaround, their backfield is much tougher to figure out.
James Conner is the favorite to lead the Steelers in carries in 2020, but there are quite a few red flags. I don’t believe that players are “injury prone” -- it’s just lazy analysis -- but Conner missing time due to injury in every season he’s played is certainly a part of the equation. Dr. Edwin Porras noted that the number of games that Conner has finished has declined each season (13 > 12 > 9) of his career while he’s battled knee, ankle, quad, and shoulder injuries.
Pittsburgh hasn’t invested heavily into their backfield since they let Le’Veon Bell walk, but they have drafted backs in the 4th or 5th round in four straight years with Maryland’s Anthony McFarland being the latest.
And Yards Created revealed that McFarland was the most underrated back in the class.
McFarland created a class-high 5.89 yards created per carry and ranked 4th-best in missed tackles forced per rush (0.34) just ahead of Cam Akers and J.K. Dobbins (0.33). In fact, McFarland and Dobbins were the only two backs in this class to finish above average in yards created per carry on inside and off-tackle runs (compared to the 5-year average). Even though he’s undersized and was used in a complementary role in college, Greg Cosell noted in his Draft Guide that he thought McFarland was an underrated, tough inside runner, too.
He only caught 17 balls last year in college, but McFarland’s playmaking ability was on full display whenever he got into the open field and he showed his explosive speed at the combine, blazing a 4.44 forty at 208lbs. In terms of size, talent, and projected role -- McFarland’s range of outcomes is somewhere on the spectrum of Austin Ekeler, C.J. Spiller, and DeAndre Washington.
Figuring out playing time and weighing in cost is the key to the Steelers backfield this season. Conner goes off of the board in the 4th round of BestBall10s while McFarland is a 13th-15th rounder and Benny Snell/Jaylen Samuels are both free.
Conner did handle a big role before the injuries piled up last year -- he was one of 12 RBs to handle at least 60% of his team’s carries in Weeks 1-8 -- but with his history, I’m not sure we can lock in Conner for the same role he saw in 2019. Last year, Conner averaged 18 touches per game when healthy and played on 64% of snaps in Pittsburgh’s first 7 contests.
Now in the final year of his rookie deal, Conner is the favorite to lead the Steelers backfield again, but the team is looking to scale his carries back to make sure he stays healthy. I view Conner as a fragile pick in redraft leagues this year -- he has a top-15 ceiling but an extremely low floor. The Steelers could go with a full-blown committee this season and that’d obviously make it very hard for Conner to pay off his 43 overall current average draft position.
Meanwhile, McFarland will have to fight his way up the depth chart which may be difficult in a virtual offseason, but he is still an excellent, high-upside pick in the third round of rookie dynasty drafts. At the very least, McFarland is immediately the most talented pass-catching back the Steelers have and it’s not remotely close.