Le’Veon Bell will do the bruising, while Todd Haley could continue to do the fantasy confusing. Your 2013 Steelers?
Notable Additions: Matt Spaeth
Notable Draft Picks: Le’Veon Bell, Markus Wheaton
The Marquee Men (the elitest of the elite)
Antonio Brown (ADP: 57.8): There are always so very many reasons why a team lets a player walk in free agency (the first, second, and third are usually MONEY). With the Steelers and Mike Wallace, part of the reason he’s now a Dolphin is Antonio Brown. And the other reason is Todd Haley.
Brown’s presence and ability to do the same thing as Wallace (run really far and catch a football), made the latter expendable. But Wallace’s exit was also the result of a general lack of use for an abundance of purely vertical options in Haley’s offense that stresses screens, either to a running back or wide receiver. The emphasis on the intermediate led a significant rise in targets for Heath Miller (more below), and a sizable dip in field stretching for Wallace and Brown. In 2011, Brown had 18 catches of 20 yards or more, a number that declined to 10. Wallace’s +20 yarders were cut in half, going from 18 to nine.
As Mike Tanier examined early on in the Haley/Roethlisbeger experiment last fall, the love affair with that screen pass was limiting. At one point over the first seven weeks, the Steelers were averaging 2.4 screens per game more than any other team, a trend that reached its peak in Week 7 against Cincinnati, when Roethlisberger was asked to throw 16 of his 37 pass attempts within two yards of the line of scrimmage.
The result of all this for Brown last year was a lid firmly placed on his breakout potential, though the three missed games didn’t help matters. The most notable decline tied to his deep ball catching was a drastic one: his yards per catch dropped from 16.1 to 11.9. With Bell about to restore a power running game in the Burgh, Brown could still be limited to those numbers, and be a low-end WR2 at the very best. Don’t play the fool and overpay.
Le’Veon Bell (ADP: 33.3): And about Bell. He’s a damn beast, and once he gets into a preseason game this week after a minor injury, he’ll finish the job of putting Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer behind him forever and ever. Early in training camp it was evident that the path for a hefty workload is being cleared, and that makes sense for a running back deemed worthy of a second-round pick (now lofty territory with the position’s swift breaking) who can handle consistent abuse. During his final year at Michigan State, Bell touched a ball 414 times, and he turned that into 1,960 total yards and 13 touchdowns.
If we assume he does indeed succeed in the Herculean task of fending off two other running backs who gave Pittsburgh its average of 3.7 yards per carry last year (26th), then Bell has great RB2 value, and he’s a perfect second-round target for those in deep leagues with an early pick.
The Middle Men (middle-to-late round options)
Ben Roethlisberger (ADP: 127.9): During our endless (seemingly…oh god seemingly) travels through the wonders of team preview land, several times I’ve mentioned that the player under discussion is a fine player in reality, and maybe even a Pro Bowler in reality. But in fantasy? Mehhhhh. No player better represents that quandary than Ben Roethlisberger.
The Biggest Ben has two Super Bowl rings, and he’s taken two trips to Hawaii throughout his career. Yet in the fake game, he’s little more than a fallback option.
That’s partly because of his playing style that’s led to numerous bruises and/or bumps recently, with Roethlisberger missing eight games over the past three years. But mostly, it’s due to both the Steelers’ love for running the football, and Haley’s dinking and dunking enthusiasm. In 2012, Roethlisberger averaged 34.5 pass attempts per game, which was nearly on par with 2011 (34.2), and 2010 (32.4). That average average put Roethlisberger in 13th in attempts per game.
Average is a fantasy theme that continues throughout his stat line. Even though his excellent field vision led to 26 touchdown passes last year and only eight interceptions, that same combination of poor volume and poor health put Roethlisberger 17 scores behind league touchdown pass leader Drew Brees. In his nine-year career, he’s topped the 4,000-yard passing mark in a season only twice, and quickly that number is becoming the new yardage normal for the elite. Last year, 11 quarterbacks passed for at least 4,000 yards, while Roethlisberger sat way back in 21st with his 3,265 yards, behind rookies Ryan Tannehill and Brandon Weeden, and (big gulp) Ryan Fitzpatrick.
In reality, passing yards are a poor metric to use while gauging the quality of a quarterback. But in fantasy, they matter a lot, and Roethlisberger’s output is largely what made him the 23rd ranked fantasy quarterback in 2012 with just 220 fantasy points.
But since he’s available in the 12th round and beyond, Roethlisberger sets the standard for the late-round quarterback. He’ll blow up some weeks (three weeks with 20 or more fantasy points last year), but he’ll mostly provide you with average production while the expensive and ideally upper echelon talent you purchased early in the draft does its thang.
Emmanuel Sanders (ADP: 108.1): With the departure of Wallace and the arrival of Markus Wheaton, Sanders’ role is expected to change. Most importantly, he’ll start, which immediately ignited talk of a 70-catch season with over 1,000 yards. In theory that sounds nice, but in theory he could run into the same problems Brown collided with. But oh, Sanders knows more than a single trick.
Due to the presence of Wallace and Brown, Sanders was relegated to slot duty during the majority of his snaps last year, appearing there 70 percent of the time. It’s that versatility and short-area quickness that should keep Haley calling on Sanders with his screens and other short trickery. Sanders averaged five yards after the catch last year, and seven in 2011.
Heath Miller (ADP: 153.2): I’m hesitantly slotting Miller here, because a healthy Miller is an effective and oft-targeted Miller, or at least he is now. Last year during Haley’s first season he was targeted 101 times, after averaging a far more moderate 67.2 targets per season over his first seven years as a paid NFL employee. But about that health for Heath…it’s still not great, Bob.
It’s something better than horrible, though, which is a remarkable step. In Week 16 last year Miller suffered a devastating knee injury, shredding nearly every known ligament in that part of his body (ACL, MCL, PCL). After that ripping occurred so late in the year, it was assumed at the time that Miller would also miss a significant chunk of the 2013 season. But since football players are hardly humans now, Miller will be returning at least a little sooner than expected.
How soon, exactly, remains uncertain. But we know Miller will avoid the PUP list, which would have kept him sidelined for the first six games, at minimum. Yesterday Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that the Steelers plan to give Miller the Rashard Mendenhall treatment, bringing him along slowly at the start of the season, before he returns sometime before Week 6.
As such, Miller is barely draftable, which is reflected in the above ADP. The uncertainty over both when he’ll return and how effective he’ll be in a game situation after such a crippling injury makes him the riskiest buy at the tight end position. However, that risk is clearly mitigated by the minimal price you’re paying either at the very end of your draft, or on the waiver wire once he returns. Then if the Heath of old resurfaces — the guy who had a career high in touchdowns last year (eight) and raised his receiving yards per game by 15 yards — you, fine sir/madam, have the value pick of the tight end position at nearly no cost.
The Menial Peons (sleepers, flex plays, and matchup plays)
Markus Wheaton (ADP: undrafted): Wheaton could be the best wide receiver sleeper, especially with Miller out to start the year.
The shifty and slippery Oregon State standout has a modest stature of 5’11″, weighing 189 pounds. Like Sanders, he’s capable of playing both in the slot and outside due to his combination of speed and creativity in the open field. He’s worked mostly from the slot during camp, where he’ll receive far more targets than your typical No. 3 wideout in Haley’s three-wide receiver sets. But when split out wide, he’s drawn comparisons to a rather familiar name: Mike Wallace.
Remind yourself that in the same role last year with limited targets (44) and receptions (74), Sanders finished with 626 receiving yards. Then look at the number above about Haley’s passes within two yards of the line of scrimmage again while also noting that Wheaton can go boom deep stretching the seam. Once you’ve done all that, stash Wheaton as your late-round stealth sleeper.
The Mop-Up Men (deeeep sleepers and handcuffs)
Isaac Redman/Jonathan Dwyer (ADP: undrafted): There’s still a slight, sliver of a chance that one of these two (mostly likely Redman), could eat into Bell’s carries. But I probably have a better chance of learning to juggle while riding a tricycle. Redman is your Bell handcuff.