QB Ben Roethlisberger
Roethlisberger put together another workmanlike season in 2011, throwing for the 2nd most yards in his career (4,077) with 21 touchdowns. While those numbers are reasonably impressive, they were only good enough to rank as the 13th best fantasy quarterback and 14th on a FPts/G basis. He failed to put up starter quality fantasy points partly due to the decline in his rushing production, as he ran for just 70 yards and no touchdowns after averaging 125 yards and two touchdowns over the first seven years of his career. A late season high ankle sprain didn’t help matters, further proof that his refusal to throw the ball away increases his risk of injury. In 2012, Big Ben gets a new offensive coordinator in Todd Haley with Bruce Arians having been shown the door. While Haley’s Kansas City tenure was marked by huge production in the running game, he relied heavily on the pass as the Cardinals offensive coordinator so concern that the Steelers will pound the ball on the ground is overblown, especially considering that largely unproven Isaac Redman will assume the starting role while Rashard Mendenhall recovers from a torn ACL. With a pair of quality starting wide receivers in Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown and the talented yet injury-prone Emmanuel Sanders coming off the bench, the Steelers may actually throw the ball more this season. Consider Roethlisberger a low-end fantasy starter but one who could surprise on the upside, provided the offensive line replenishments work out. He could be a bargain on draft day.
RB Isaac Redman
With Rashard Mendenhall almost certain to start the season on the PUP list, Redman gets his first chance at expanded playing time in 2012. A 230-pound bruiser out of Bowie State, Redman enters his 4th year in the league having served as Mendenhall’s backup his entire career. In fact, Redman’s running style is eerily reminiscent of Mendenhall’s although Redman doesn’t seem to have the same burst once he gets past the first wave of tacklers. Solid between the tackles, Redman averaged 4.4 yards per carry on 110 rushes last season, scoring three times. In the passing game, he is serviceable at best, averaging just 4.3 yards per reception on his 18 catches. With 2010 6th round pick Jonathan Dwyer having been a disappointment and coming off foot surgery that will keep him out until training camp, Redman is locked into the starter’s role but the questions are how long he will keep it and how much will new offensive coordinator Todd Haley rely on the run? Redman is a classic boom/bust pick, a player you should be comfortable drafting as your RB3 but scared to death of as your RB2.
RB Rashard Mendenhall
Timing is everything and for Mendenhall, the torn ACL he suffered at the end of last season was the worst possible timing. Entering the final year of his rookie contract and having had three solid, yet unspectacular, seasons after a horrendous rookie campaign, Mendenhall will have little chance to earn a lucrative long-term contract extension in 2012 as he is likely to start the season on the PUP list. His best season came in 2010 when he ran for 1,274 yards and 13 touchdowns but averaged a less than stellar 3.9 yards per carry. Of course, his career average of 4.1 yards per carry can at least partially be laid at the feet of an offensive line that has struggled in recent seasons. Nonetheless, Mendenhall has not proven worthy of his 1st round draft status yet alone a lucrative contract so the Steelers aren’t going to be handing him his starting position back if Isaac Redman plays well. Let’s sum it up – Mendenhall needs to come back healthy, preferably early, and Redman needs to stink it up in order for him to get his job back. Oh, and he needs to be productive after suffering a torn ACL in Week 17. I’m not buying folks. I recommend you don’t either.
RB Jonathan Dwyer
The 2010 6th round pick lost the backup role behind to Isaac Redman in each of the last two seasons and enters 2012 coming off a foot injury that ended his season in Week 13. The Steelers liked him coming out of Georgia Tech but he was a bust as a rookie and has earned just 25 carries in two seasons. Granted, he has averaged 6.0 yards per carry in his limited work but you might want to know that 76 of those yards came on one run. While it is nice that Dwyer sits behind the largely unproven Isaac Redman, he has done nothing to suggest that he can take advantage of a situation. Dwyer is worthy of a late round pick in your fantasy draft based on opportunity.
RB Chris Rainey
When the Steelers used a 5th round pick to nab a 5’9”, 175-pound running back, there were probably a few heads shaking. After closer examination, the pick isn’t so questionable after all. With Mewelde Moore no longer on the roster, Rashard Mendenhall expected to miss the first part of the season and neither Isaac Redman nor Jonathan Dwyer established pass catchers out of the backfield, Rainey could carve out a role as a 3rd down back early in 2012. He possesses outstanding speed, having been timed at 4.37 seconds in the 40, and should earn a decent amount of touches provided he stays healthy and doesn’t put the ball on the ground. He is a late round sleeper in larger leagues.
WR Mike Wallace
Wallace’s status entering 2012 appears uncertain as the Steelers 4th year wide receiver has thus far refused to sign his restricted free agent tender which would pay him $2.7-million for the upcoming season. With reports indicating that Wallace and his agent have instead asked the team for a long term contract averaging $14-16-million, the gulf between the parties is clearly huge. Wallace is coming off a solid 2011 campaign where he finished the year with 72 receptions (a career-high), for 1,193 yards and eight touchdowns. While those are solid numbers, he faded down the stretch and averaged a career-low 16.6 yards per reception. Over the final seven games of the season, he caught just 25 of 50 targets for 325 yards and a pair of scores. Despite that late season swoon, Wallace remains perhaps the most feared big play receiver in the game outside of Calvin Johnson and should be considered a mid-tier WR1 on draft day.
WR Antonio Brown
With Hines Ward clearly in decline and Emmanuel Sanders confined to the infirmary, Brown stepped up in a big way in 2011, catching 69 passes for 1,108 yards and two touchdowns in just his 2nd year in the league. While it would be foolhardy to suggest that Brown is a threat to emerge as an upper tier wide receiver or that his production wasn’t at least partially the result of playing opposite a big play threat in Mike Wallace, Brown showed far more athleticism than most thought he possessed. He consistently beat single coverage and displayed an ability to gain yards after the catch, a trait that made his two touchdown total all the more surprising. In terms of yards and receptions, it wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest that smallish Brown (5’10”, 186 pounds) has perhaps reached his potential so an increase in his fantasy production may need to come from an increased ability to find the end zone. Few 1,000 receivers manage just two touchdowns so look for that total to increase to the 6-8 range in 2012, making Brown a low-end WR2 on draft day.
WR Emmanuel Sanders
Drafted in the 3rd round of the 2010 draft, Sanders was the player expected to eventually take over in the starting lineup for Hines Ward. Injuries have derailed that plan and Antonio Brown, taken in the 6th round in 2010, has laid claim to the starting spot opposite Mike Wallace with Ward now retired. Sanders role in 2012 is yet to be determined as he will either battle Jerricho Cotchery for the 3rd receiver role or for a spot in the starting lineup if Mike Wallace doesn’t sign his restricted free agent tender. Of course, Wallace stands to lose close to $170,000 each week he misses so we expect he will report just prior to Week 1 at the latest. Look for Sanders to nail down the slot receiver role.
TE Heath Miller
Miller is now two years removed from his career-season in 2010 when he caught 76 passes for 789 yards and six touchdowns. Over the past two years, he has been used as a blocker more frequently and that has hurt his opportunities in the passing game, as evidenced by his target average of 70.5 in 2010 and 2011. Miller will turn 30 during the season, the Steelers offensive line will likely feature a pair of rookies and new offensive coordinator Todd Haley hasn’t exactly featured the tight end position very much in his play calling. Miller’s fantasy value is likely to be based on his ability to find the end zone and he has only done that four times over the past two seasons. He rates as a low-end TE2 with little upside.