QB Ben Roethlisberger
(2013 QB Rank–#8, 21.6 FPts/G)
Unlocking Ben Roethlisberger’s fantasy value seems like a seasonal guessing game. He has had seasons of 30 touchdowns and 4,000 yards passing, only to follow up with years of 17 touchdowns and barely 3,000 yards passing. Over the past five seasons, Roethlisberger has either been a borderline QB1 or a low tier QB2. His ebb and flow of statistical lines make him a headache to evaluate and perennially place him one of the more overdrafted or underdrafted quarterbacks in fantasy football. Will Roethlisberger stand on the precipice of fantasy starterdom in 2014 or return to the basement of fantasy irrelevance?
Over the first eight games of the 2013 season, Big Ben played more like a small, busted alarm clock. In the second year of offensive coordinator Todd Haley’s system, Roethlisberger looked uncomfortable and erratic. Without the extra possessions that the defense had historically provided combined with a lack of a reliable running game, the Steelers offense struggled as a unit. They lacked threats beyond Antonio Brown. Roethlisberger got off to a poor start, throwing for 12 touchdowns and nine interceptions over the first eight games. But something happened in Week 9 that shook this team up. Following an embarrassing 55-31 disaster against the rival Patriots, the Steelers coaching staff seemed to realize the “ball-control, let the defense carry us” philosophy of the past few years wasn’t working. Much to the delight of Roethlisberger, Haley was willing to open up the offense, increase the tempo and give his quarterback more control at the line of scrimmage. The result was a 16-5 touchdown to interception ratio over the final eight games and a 6-2 record that nearly put the Steelers into the playoffs.
This offseason the Steelers have talked about keeping this up-tempo (the new NFL buzzword) style as part of their regular game plan, and despite their sometimes rocky relationship, Roethlisberger has enjoyed statistical success under Haley, throwing for 4,000+ yards and 20+ touchdowns in back-to-back seasons for the first time in his career. Expect this trend to continue, as Roethlisberger should have a full season of Le’Veon Bell behind him in the backfield and has a mix of young, explosive receivers (Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton) and shrewd veterans (Lance Moore, Heath Miller). Be patient and practical. Wait to draft Roethlisberger when the run of QB2s begin. In his 10th year, Big Ben could be poised to have one of his better fantasy seasons to date and once again bring his fantasy owners some terrific value.
RB Le’Veon Bell
(2013 RB Rank–#15, 13.4 FPts/G)
The fact Le’Veon Bell could finish 12th in rushing attempts and finish in the top 15 in fantasy scoring, despite missing the first three weeks of the 2013 season should tell you all you need to know about his value to the Steelers and to fantasy owners everywhere. Lacking special running skills, or measureables, Bell is the ideal “volume back” for today’s NFL. The 6’1”, 230+ lb former Spartan is built for at least 20 touches per game. He had a whopping 382 carries during his senior year – Bell will need them to maximize his fantasy value, as he didn’t have a game above 5.0 yards-per-carry in 2013. Blessed with quick feet and great vision, Bell has soft hands and pass blocks like a mobile stonewall. This valuable skill set means he’s a true three-down, goal line back. His role on the offense ensures that his volume of touches remains high and consistent – something that is in short supply among the modern stable of fantasy running backs. Because of their circumstances, the Steelers had a bevy of possessions in the red zone, resulting in Bell benefitting from a staggering 48 carries and eight receptions near the goal line – only four total touches behind league leader Matt Forte. All eight of Bell’s touchdowns came in this area, adding to his short yardage value, but also demonstrating his lack of big play reliability. Dating back to his days at Michigan State University, Bell has been the type of back who gets better with more touches. Expect the Steelers to continue to open the offense up a bit, increase their offensive tempo and have an improved defense that will keep games closer, and hopefully give them more possessions to work with. With his role as a dual threat back and improved conditioning, Bell should exceed 300 touches, even with the presence of free agent addition LeGarrette Blount. Volume and versatility should make Bell a great anchor to your fantasy roster as a low-end RB1.
RB LeGarrette Blount
(2013 RB Rank–#33, 7.7 FPts/G)
Elusive and shifty for a man of his size, LeGarrette Blount will provide the Steelers and your fantasy team with some insurance should Le’Veon Bell miss any time. Signed in the offseason to a two-year deal, Blount brings a one-dimensional skillset to the Steelers backfield (23 catches in four seasons). Sporting a strong 4.5 yards per carry average for his career, Blount can break long runs, as well as run behind his pads. Bell owners should prioritize nabbing Blount, but if they wait too long, watch Blount carefully. As a back-up, LeGarrette is nothing more than a RB4/5, but is an ideal handcuff or player to poach as he is assured a large sum of carries should he be forced into the starting lineup. Should he have the opportunity, Blount could provide definite RB2/3 potential.
WR Antonio Brown
(2013 WR Rank–#7, 12.4 FPts/G)
Climbing a whopping 30 points in the final rankings from 2012, Antonio Brown burst onto the scene in 2013 and added yet another dynamic option to fantasy football’s deepest position. Brown showed serious play-making ability during his second season with the Steelers in 2011 with 1,100 yards receiving and an impressive 16.1 yard-per-catch average. After a down 2012, he probably wasn’t at the top of many wide receiver draft boards going into 2013, but for the owners lucky enough to pick him, he was a tremendous value. Finishing second in the NFL in receptions and yardage, Brown has joined the WR1 conversation. Can he stay there, though? Brown has the quickness to beat man coverage and benefits greatly from having the accuracy and play-extending ability of Big Ben to fit the ball into tight spaces. Brown is dynamic in the open field, scoring six of his nine total touchdowns from beyond 30 yards, although size limitations restrict his red zone scores. Brown has earned the trust of his quarterback and offensive coordinator, as well as the respect of defensive coordinators as a true threat with the ball in his hands. When evaluating Brown, ignore the losses of free agents Jerricho Cotchery and Emannuel Sanders. Both were solid role players, but replaceable pieces who never garnered much defensive attention. Expect opposing defenses to focus on Brown forcing Pittsburgh’s young receivers to step up. This extra attention could cut into his reception and yardage totals, but the 26-year old is difficult to contain and will be one of the most frequently targeted receivers in the game, making him a strong WR1 option.
WR Markus Wheaton
(2013 WR Rank–N/A)
Markus Wheaton seems to garner a ton of hype for a player coming off an injury marred six-catch rookie campaign. It’s a legitimate reason to be very skeptical. The hope for a breakout will come from his quarterback’s ability to extend plays and develop pass catches, his strong play in the 2013 preseason and the faith the front office displayed by not resigning their veteran receivers. Wheaton is on track to start opposite two-time Pro Bowler Antonio Brown and he should have every opportunity to succeed. Teammates and coaches have been raving about Wheaton. Since this Steelers offense should be able to support a fantasy pass catching asset beyond Antonio Brown, watch Wheaton’s preseason play closely. If he locks himself into that No. 2 role and earns the confidence of offensive coordinator Todd Haley, Wheaton could have some value to fantasy owners this season as a waiver add.
TE Heath Miller
(2013 TE Rank–#24, 4.7 FPts/G)
Perennially one of the more reliable, if not spectacular fantasy tight ends in the league, Heath Miller struggled to return to form in 2013 after coming off a late 2012 torn ACL. More of a cerebral technician than field stretching burner, Miller seemed even slower last year, with a career low 10.2 yards per catch and only one touchdown. Because of the poor statistical season, his age and recent injury, Miller is going to be ignored by many fantasy owners. Don’t be one of those owners. While he may have lost a step, Miller has always been a reliable target for Ben Roethlisberger on all areas of the field. Despite working back from his injury and missing two games, Miller remained a large part of the Steelers passing game with the third most targets in his career (78). His role on the offense, improved health and total lack of competition for snaps, allow Miller to return quickly to fantasy relevance in 2014. If you miss out or choose to bypass on an early tight end, quietly select Miller late and enjoy the value he can give you as a borderline TE1.