2015 Fantasy Football Outlook: Pittsburgh Steelers
June 2, 2015 | Chet
After back to back 8-8 seasons, the Steelers posted a 11-5 record in 2014. For fantasy purposes, they were one of the best accumulative offenses and gave us weekly Gibraltar’s in Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown. With a shift away from the old Pittsburgh black and blue format of football, what can we expect from this offense in 2015?
2015 Steelers Schedule
As a disclaimer, take any strength of schedule analysis this far in advance with a grain of salt in your preparations. After having one of the lightest schedules in 2014, Pittsburgh will have a much more daunting slate this season. The real rough spot occurs after their late season bye with three road games facing 2014 playoff teams. It’s worth noting that while those defenses were stingy for fantasy points in certain areas, the Steelers shredded a Vontae Davis-less Colts team, the Bengals twice and the Ravens once a season ago. As mentioned, the Pittsburgh offense tallied some impressive totals in 2014, no matter the opponent.
Pittsburgh had four games with 500 or more yards of total offense a season ago when no other team had more than two such performances on offense. They also gave us some let down games as far as fantasy goes against Jacksonville and the Jets. In a look ahead in 2015, they actually should pass the ball more than they did a season ago as they ran the seventh highest percentage of offensive plays in the league while having a lead (43.8 percent) and they still threw the ball 61.2 percent (11th highest) of the time overall. With a tougher paper schedule and the loss of one of their best offensive assets for a short period, we should see this passing game amass even larger totals this season.
Bail on Bell at 1.01?
Bell may not have finished as the top overall scorer amongst running backs in PPR leagues, but he was the best weekly option all season long and a powerhouse down the stretch. Bell was a top-24 PPR weekly scorer in every week of the season and over his four games during weeks 11-15, he was the weekly RB2, RB1, RB1 and RB1. He set a Pittsburgh franchise record with his 2,215 yards from scrimmage, passing Barry Foster’s 2,034 yards set in 1992. A lot of his sophomore surge was credited to him cutting his rookie weight from 244 pounds down to 225 and streamlining his weight added much more explosiveness to his game as evidence by his rushing splits per carry compared to his rookie season.
|Year||Att||2 Yds or Less||%||5+ Yds||%||10 + Yds||%|
Of course, the real question is just how to handle properly pricing Bell for this upcoming season when we’re already aware he will be missing the first two games of the season due to his DWI from last preseason. Add in his bye week and we’re talking about your first pick inherently missing nearly a third of your fantasy regular season. He also may or may not be fully recovered from his season ending knee injury last season just to add some garnish on the entire dilemma.
There have been 11 top-12 scoring PPR backs since 2000 with 13 or fewer games played (with one last year in Arian Foster), so the capability for overall scoring isn’t really a pressing issue. Sigmund Bloom (here) and the RotoDoc (here) make strong cases as to why there’s no real reason to run from Bell as the top overall fantasy option if you believe he rolls over his 2014 dominance regardless on the shrinkage of games played. That remains the largest question in pricing Bell out, as no back may have benefited from his schedule more in 2014. This is how he performed against bottom half run defenses per the Games Splits App available at RotoViz (scoring is .5 PPR).
As alarming as those overall splits are, especially in the rushing department, Bell still finished those weeks against front end rush defenses as the RB16, RB10, RB14, RB12 and RB14 because of his pass catching prowess which gives him a low variance floor every week. Taking it a step further, if you want to use the right hand side column as a proxy for his floor for 13 games played and pair that with replacement level production, you’d still end up in the neighborhood of 230 PPR points, which historically averages out to an RB10 overall season. If you take the overall RB10 with the first overall pick in your leagues would you ultimately end up disappointed? That’s also just a placeholder for a worst-case scenario as long as he’s healthy. A silver lining to his suspension is that it is early in the season, so your RB3 won’t yet have his bye and is still very much a starter.
The other element in play is how he fares versus the other players at the position and you’re going to be able to find red on everyone’s ledgers amongst the top tier of running backs. I could possibly see taking a full slate of Jamaal Charles (who is depended on as much in his offense in all capacities) at sticker price over Bell, but the rest of the backs on the top shelf all come with worrisome warts even when active. At the end of it all, there’s still a strong foundation for Bell as the overall top fantasy pick and I won’t have any qualms with those who take him there barring the suspension is the only gray cloud come August and he’s fully healthy.
The rest of the Steeler rushing game is avoidable, even with Bell’s suspension. Even if you have Bell, there’s no real urgency to handcuff him with 32-year old De’Angelo Williams because whichever RB3 you grab will undoubtedly have priority over him early in the season. Williams hasn’t averaged more than 4.3 yards per carry since 2011 and the Steelers have more dynamic pass catchers out of the backfield in Dri Archer and versatile undrafted rookie Ross Scheuerman if he finds a role. I don’t see Williams having a large fantasy impact early in the season outside of rushing volume and even that may be compromised based on the opponents Pittsburgh faces. If you want to take a massively deep flyer on Archer in 14 to 16 team PPR leagues with multiple flex spots for early season magic, swing away. He played just 4.5 percent of the offensive snaps last season and more than six snaps just twice all season, but he did play 42.5 percent of the plays in the playoff game against Baltimore that Bell missed.
Pitt Passing Game
This passing game is still all about Antonio Brown, who has more PPR fantasy points over the past two seasons than any other receiver in the league. He’s only the fourth receiver ever to have back to back seasons of 100 plus catches and 1,400 yards and can become the first receiver since Brandon Marshall from ’07-’09 to have three consecutive seasons of 100 plus receptions. He also doesn’t lack immense volume as he has 21 more targets (348 total) over the past two seasons than the next closest receiver, Andre Johnson. His weekly reliability has been second to none as he led had 10 top-12 scoring weeks with his lowest finish as WR31 in 2014. Brown set a single season record with 14 games of seven catches or more and has an insane 32 consecutive game streak of five receptions or more (the next closest player ever, Laveranues Coles, had a streak of 19 games).
The one blemish that Brown still has is lower end red zone efficiency as he converted just 23.5 percent of his looks in that area for scores in 2014 and remains subpar with a career conversion rate of 18.4 percent (14 of 76 targets). But he’s even overcome that one black mark in his efficiency with his obesity in volume. His 34 red zone targets last season were the fourth most ever in a season since targets were tracked back in 1999.
It’s no longer about sustainability with Brown based on the past two seasons as his current stretch of production is beyond happenstance at this stage, but it is reasonable to expect him to slow down at least so some degree at some juncture. Even if he does lose a little bit off of the incredibly productive pacing he’s had, he’s arguably the most bankable asset you can secure in reception leagues.
Brown is going to cost you elite draft capital like Bell will and if you pass on either of them once, you won’t be getting a second chance. The player that fantasy circles are truly intrigued by is sophomore receiver Martavis Bryant. Bryant played just 26.5 percent of the Steeler’s 2014 snaps with just three games over 50 percent, but with that minute opportunity, he accomplished large things. He turned just 48 targets into eight receiving touchdowns as a rookie, which was the best TGT/TD rate of any receiver with over 40 targets ever and 36.9 percent of his fantasy scoring was through touchdown production. I don’t want to give Bryant entirely all of the credit for the offensive turnaround in Pittsburgh in 2014, but his insertion into the lineup regularly from week seven onward does have a strong correlation with the offense taking flight.
|Pitt. Offense||Weeks 1-6||Weeks 7-17|
We got a glimpse of what the immediate fantasy future may be from him in the postseason when he played 86.1 percent of the offensive plays while turning nine targets into five receptions for 61 yards and a score, but can he garner enough volume to overcome any potential loss in efficiency?
Kevin Cole took a deeper look into that question recently more so than I will in the allocated space here, but there’s a large portion of Bryant’s anticipated ceiling supremely priced into his early average draft position. Per MyFantasyLeague ADP, Bryant is the WR25 in redraft leagues that also costs a fifth round selection. The Fake Football’s own, C.D. Carter, had Bryant in his first run of receiver Equity Scores and in those you can see the wide variance of outcomes for Bryant. I see him having an accumulative WR2 season as his most likely landing spot, but will likely do so in a weekly WR3 fashion. As someone who is still salving his Michael Floyd burns from a season ago, it’s interesting that Floyd has become an arbitrage play on Bryant in only one season. Major extrapolation fantasy targets rarely return their weight in capital when that too is priced to extrapolation, but I’m drawn to volatile receivers with big ceilings as my third receiver. Bryant will find a lot of my rosters in which I have two bonafide options to start, but if he has to be my second receiver, I’ll be letting him pass.
Third year receiver Markus Wheaton was a major disappointment for those who invested into him a season ago. After posting six catches for 97 yards in week one, Wheaton never again reached 70 yards receiving for the remainder of the season. His ineffective play also reflected in his usage and played a big part in the emergence of Bryant. After playing 86.1 percent of the snaps over the first six games of the season, Wheaton participated on just 55.3 percent over the final 10. His overall targets remained similar to Bryant’s over those 10 games (47 to 48), but he’s not the type of receiver that can have fantasy relevancy on low volume and we’re anticipating he loses more this season.
Wheaton could save some of that volume loss if he can occupy the vacant slot void left open from the departure of Lance Moore, who ran the most routes from the slot (153) on the team per Pro Football Focus. The delegation of that role will be an intriguing development throughout camp and in early in season because Pittsburgh also just used a third round pick on receiver Sammie Coates. With Bryant now out for the first four games, Wheaton will have the same opportunity that he had a season ago. That’s really my hang up when it comes to selecting him as it’s now become a “fool me once” situation and Bryant was electric with his opportunities not only last season, but also in this preseason.
Coates is a similar prospect to what Bryant was last season in terms of having a more impressive athletic profile than on field one entering the league. As a rookie, Coates will likely only be a niche option used in specific packages, but he presents an interesting dilemma for defenses if he can siphon snaps away from Wheaton early on, allowing Antonio Brown to move around more on offense and pillage secondaries underneath that have to account for both of the athletic presences of Bryant and Coates vertically.
The final piece to mention in this passing attack is the unheralded Heath Miller. Miller managed to finish 2014 as the TE11 and had the 10th best average weekly finish (17.6) at the tight end position. He also stacked some big weeks with four top six scoring weeks, the same number that Jimmy Graham had last season.
Now two years removed from his big 2012, those eight touchdowns look like a career outlier as he’s now had three or fewer touchdowns in four of the past five seasons. That outbreak in scores can be attributed to his increased usage inside the 10-yard line, something that has yet to repeat itself and has been more in line with previous usage.
Miller will be 33 years old this season and Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates own all seven of the top 12 scoring seasons from tight ends 33 or old since 2004, so it’s hard to expect huge gains. He will still have spouts of effectiveness and the schedule shines an appealing light on him, but Miller is best left in a platoon approach at the position in leagues that weigh receptions.
Big Ben, Big Points and Big Variance
Ben Roethlisberger had the best raw statistical season of his career, posting highs in completions, attempts, completion percentage, and yardage while also holding up high end efficiency to go along with that overall volume. His high-level play at age 32 earned him a brand new contract extension in March as he signed a five year extension to remain a Steeler for what will likely be the duration of his career.
The issue with Roethlisberger’s 2014 is the overall production masks the uneven fashion in which he stacked it. Big Ben had big points with four weekly top six finishes, with two of the most notable fantasy performances of the season weeks eight and nine when he became the first quarterback ever to throw six touchdown passes in back to back games against the Colts and Ravens. Those two games accounted for 26.3 percent of his overall fantasy production for the entire season.
On the other side of that production, Roethlisberger also had six games finishing in the bottom half of quarterback scoring, as he had the highest weekly deviation in scoring out of the entire position in 2014. A large portion of that uneven overall production stemmed from the involvement of Bryant as mentioned earlier. His highest scoring week without Bryant was just QB10 and he had four of those bottom half weeks over the opening six games. After Bryant’s arrival in addition to the steadiness of Brown and Bell, Roethlisberger was a top 12 scorer in eight of the final 10 games.
If he can roll over that production into 2015, then Roethlisberger is a surefire fantasy starter that you can play weekly. As stated, I believe the Steelers will throw more this season than last based on offensive strengths, decreased offensive leverage and their unmentioned middling defensive unit. The issue with Roethlisberger will be where you can land him at because there are only two to three quarterbacks that I want to play every week. His early average cost is enormous as QB7 overall and a sixth/seventh round selection. The spot within the position is proper, but that overall cost is not. If you’re paying that iron price, then you’re living with him every week no matter what. Mid-round quarterbacks are my number one bugaboo when drafting as they correlate to mid-range jumper in basketball. I either want the layup or I’m hoisting three balls weekly. Overall, I want to target Big Ben, but he hasn’t shown the elite fantasy career consistency week in and out for me to hand the keys over to completely at that cost and I’m fully aware that I can make up the quarterback scoring later on.