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The Fantasy Football & Real-Life Outlook for Pittsburgh’s Receivers in 2020

Last week I talked about the future of the quarterback position in Pittsburgh, and with the return of Big Ben, the Steelers’ fortunes could be looking up. However, an under performing starlet, an improving second year pass catcher and a dynamic rookie make up a disappointing depth chart; so, this week I am taking a deep dive into the wide receiver position.

Let’s be honest, as a fantasy community, we have been spoiled with the Pittsburgh output over the last four seasons. We got the encore of DeAngelo Williams and the best of Le’Veon Bell, the absolute prime of Antonio Brown and consistently improving fantasy production from Ben Roethlisberger, peaking in 2018. The “Killer B’s” dominated the fantasy scene for a four-year window, winning countless fantasy leagues (my own “Bad Bad Antonio Brown” team, retrospectively a worrying title, had both Ben and Brown and dominated).

Let’s put it in perspective and look at the Steelers that finished in the top 50 at their position since 2015 (NFL standard):

2015Ben Roethlisberger (20th)DeAngelo Williams (4th)Antonio Brown (1st)
2016Ben Roethlisberger (18th)Le’veon Bell (4th)Antonio Brown (2nd)
2017Ben Roethlisberger (10th)Le’veon Bell (2nd)Antonio Brown (2nd) JuJu Smith-Schuster (18th)
2018Ben Roethlisberger (3rd)James Conner (7th)Antonio Brown (2nd) JuJu Smith-Schuster (9th)
2019Hodges/RudolphJames Conner (35th)Diontae Jackson (39th), James Washington (54th)
Stats from NFL Fantasy app

2019 saw a sharp decline in the fantasy fortunes of the Pittsburgh offensive weapons. The highest fantasy scorer was actually the Steelers’ defence, which topped the league in sacks (54), fumble recoveries (18) and were top four in both interceptions and points allowed per game.

Yes, the quarterback play was awful. Yes, practice squad players are not likely to draw coverage away from a potential WR1. But none of Pittsburgh’s WR’s cracked the fantasy relevance sphere unless you were in a particularly deep league, and even the RB’s struggled to make a decent fantasy impact. Many people will have drafted James Conner and JuJu in the first round and been bitterly disappointed by their output.

Weapons? Where?

Let’s take a look at the other weapons that surrounded the Duck Rudolph circus. As Donte Moncrief is no longer on the roster, we can ignore his abysmal 26.7% catch rate on his 15 targets. Well, we can try.

JuJu Smith-Schuster showed great promise in his first two years, but he was aided by Antonio Brown drawing coverage away from him. This year, he couldn’t stay healthy for long stretches, and looked rusty when he saw the field; averaging under 50 yards a game. However, he remained a big play threat, averaging over 13 yards per catch and taking a 76-yard catch to the house. It looks like JuJu is on the cusp of greatness, but he needs a good stretch of games to get into rhythm with a quarterback and prove that he can shoulder the load of a WR1 in this offence.

Diontae Johnson (163.1 points) and James Washington (133.5 points) both had promising campaigns, taking advantage of the majority of the target share (172 combined) and both flashed big play potential. Johnson played an unusually high amount of snaps for a rookie player in Pittsburgh, as Tomlin is well known for his penchant of slowly bringing first year players into the fold. However, injury (JuJu), poor receiver play (Moncrief) and the loss of Antonio Brown forced both young players into action early and often. In his second season with the team, Washington showcased his ability to high point the ball and come down with tightly contested catches downfield but suffered from the lack of explosive quarterback play. Both players showed the ability to move the chains, but Washington was clearly the favored downfield target, averaging twice as many yards before receiving a pass than Johnson. Diontae was the more dynamic threat with the ball in his hands – with close to twice the amount (305 to 172) of YAC (yards after catch) as Washington and showcased his electrifying ability as a kick returner.

Here’s a quick run-down of everyone else who caught passes (WR’s only) for the Steelers in 2019 (24 catches in total):

  • Ryan Switzer
  • Deon Cain
  • Tevin Jones
  • Johnny Holton
  • Donte Moncrief

How does Pittsburgh stack up?

When looked at from a fantasy perspective, Pittsburgh continually rolled out one of the most impotent offences in the league week after week. When you compare another first and second year receiver to the two young pass catchers in the Steel City, we start to see the stark differences between Pittsburgh and other anemic offences in the league:

PlayerTargetsReceptionsTDsYardsYBC (yards run before catch)YACFirst Downs
Terry McLaurin (R)9358791912.121743
Diontae Johnson (R)925956806.430531
DJ Chark11873810089.034842
James Washington8044373512.317231
Stats from Pro Football Reference

I think it’s fair to say that the combination of Keenum/Haskins and Minshew/Foles didn’t exactly set the world alight in Washington and Jacksonville respectively, despite Haskins and Minshew showing great promise (Haskins to close out 2019 and Minshew in the first half). Despite this, McLaurin (WR29) is in the running for rookie of the year honours and DJ Chark finished as the WR17 in standard leagues despite missing a few games.

What’s the real problem here?

Pushing aside the quarterback issue and the assumption that we will see the best of Big Ben next year, the issues seem clear. There is no clear WR1 in Pittsburgh at this point. Juju Smith-Schuster made his case over the last two years but failed to deliver in a big third year. His second year compares well to Chark who has emerged as the clear number one threat in Duval, but we will wait with baited breath on his four year encore. Johnson did well as a rookie, and his numbers compare favourably with McLaurin, but James Washington, who needed to step up this year, failed to make a similar impact to a player drafted one position behind him in 2018.

What to do, what to do?

In fantasy terms, the question becomes “do I draft Conner or Juju in the first two rounds next year?”. Both could be huge bargains if they stay healthy, but someone like Joe Mixon, or Courtland Sutton would be a much safer investment come 2020. If Juju and Conner are still there at the end of the second round, then grab them based on the potential ceiling, but it’s a risk taking them any higher. Conner has the higher fantasy value based on volume and opportunity behind a top tier offensive line, but if he cannot get a full slate of games under his belt, we may see more of Benny Snell than we would like.

Now we move to real life. Obviously, the draft is the best way to restock the WR position, but it seems unlikely that Tomlin will invest more draft capital into a position which has a lot of draft pedigree (two second round picks and a third rounder in the last three seasons). So, let’s move on to the free agent pool in 2020. We can rule out several options that will be resigned or out of reach (AJ Green, Emmanuel Sanders, Amari Cooper, Larry Fitzgerald) and see who could help the Steelers from the best of the rest.

Experienced chain movers such as Demaryius Thomas, Randall Cobb and Danny Amendola could provide a steady veteran presence in a young receiver room at a reasonable cost as all three are UFA. If Tomlin wants to look for a more explosive threat on the perimeter, then Robby Anderson is itching to leave Gotham and is also an unrestricted free agent who has shown the ability to stretch the field and is only two seasons removed from a (nearly) 1000-yard campaign. In a similar vein, Phillip Dorsett has emerged as a threat in New England when healthy and would be available at a reasonable cost. Scraping the bargain basement for value provides you with a former fifth round pick who has become the forgotten man in Tennessee. Tajae Sharpe showed promise in the first two years of his career in the most vanilla offence ever created, but has fallen behind the explosive rookie AJ Brown, former first-rounder Corey Davis and slot man Adam Humphries. Is he worth a shot for a tiny contract with little to no risk?

If the Steelers go down the less risky route and bring in a middle of the field, third down conversion type player, then expect a bump in the values of Washington and Smith-Schuster as they are freed up on the perimeter. But would be Juju drafters beware if Robby or Phillip rocks into town. Those downfield targets from Ben take the big play catches away from Washington in particular, but will possibly open up Diontae Johnson to work his magic underneath.

Whatever route the Steelers take in the coming months; let’s all collectively hold our breath and hope that Ben Roethlisberger’s pledge to be “better than ever” in 2020 holds true.  

The Fantasy Football & Real-Life Outlook for Pittsburgh’s Receivers in 2020

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Jack Mullins View All

Jack is an NFL nerd with a passion for player stories and watching too much draft coverage. He's a DB coach with the Exeter Demons University team in the UK and a Steelers fan.

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