Welcome, good readers, to the final instalment of the AFC North Fantasy review. Last time round, we took an in-depth look at the fading star of A.J. Green and why he could be a steal for your fantasy team. This week we move on to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
I’m sure you understand what’s going on by now, but before we get into it once more, a reminder of the point of the following exercise. This is not about who will score the most fantasy football points in 2020; rather, who will get you the best value based on their draft position, their output, and their opportunity.
For reference, the following stats are taken from a few different sources, all of which are worth your time to look at.
The ADP is taken from a combination of fantasyfootballcalculator.com, and fantasypros.com both of which provide exceptional tracking data for ADP’s over the year. The rankings are taken from various sources, most prominently our very own TimeSkew fantasy rankings, which project scores and stats for the 2020 season.
What a odd year 2019 was for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Poised to make a deep playoff run, with young talent at every position, the Steelers lost the future Hall of Famer Ben Roethlisberger early in the season to an elbow injury. This started a chain of events that included starters James Conner and JuJu Smith-Schuster missing several games, Mason Rudolph being hit the head with his own helmet, Ben growing a magnificent sideline beard, and Mike Tomlin somehow dragging an injury-ravaged squad to a respectable 8-8 record.
All this eventually led to Devlin “Duck” Hodges attempting to throw passes in a pivotal series of games to finish the season and managing to go 43/80, while categorically proving that a cool nickname a good quarterback does not make. It was a miserable end to a season that had sparks of real hope as the Steelers showed that ever-elusive and fairly generic quality; GRIT.
Hope in the land of fantasy
“That’s great”, I hear you cry, “but I don’t care about Ben’s elbow and I want to know who will help me in my fantasy team!”
In this respect, the Steelers are proving to be fertile ground for two young fantasy receivers, in particular. Despite the awful quarterback play and anemic offense in 2019, Diontae Johnson rose to finish as the WR39 in PPR leagues – certifying himself as a legitimate YAC threat. James Washington provided some week to week upside, finishing as the WR 54 and showing a knack for winning 50/50 balls (mostly 20/80 balls in the DB’s favor).
Both young pass catchers finished above the disappointing JuJu Smith-Schuster, who could only muster up a WR65 finish, appearing in only 12 games through the year.
Similarly, after spending the 2018 off season as the prime dynasty pick at RB, James Conner thoroughly disappointed his fantasy mangers with a RB35 finish, only managing to appear in 10 games. When Conner was on the field, he looked good – most prominently in the passing game, but the “when he was on the field” part of that sentence is the key.
Fantasy in 2020?
Without Big Ben slinging the ball around for 5000+ yards as he generally does, it’s tough to use 2019 as a yardstick for how the young Pittsburgh skill players will perform in 2020.
Will JuJu rebound and show his ability to be a true WR1? Possibly, but it might be that he doesn’t have to. With Johnson, promising rookie Chase Claypool, FA addition Eric Ebron, and a crowded RB room including Conner, Benny Snell and explosive draft pick Anthony McFarland, the pressure is off of JuJu to soak up ALL the targets.
What was that? I’ve missed someone? Don’t worry, we’re going to take a deeper look at someone who could bring some real value to your fantasy team in 2020…
James Washington – wide receiver
The Steelers skill position players are all being drafted in the appropriate spots, which doesn’t present a huge amount of value. However, James Washington has slipped firmly under the radar in most drafts (PPR). As you know by now, the point of this is to find value, and there when there is a gap between the ADP and projected finish, we have a winner.
- Fantasy Pros – ADP WR76/ Projected WR 82 – 33 receptions/498 yards/3 TD’s/99.8 points
- Fantasy Football Calculator (FFC)- ADP WR72, projected as WR69
- Sleeper – ranked as the WR69 – 41 receptions/681 yards/3 TD’s/106.6 points
This seems just about right, when you consider the number of targets, the slow rookie year and gradual progression in 2019. But if you look at the receivers that are going just before Washington (FFC), my point becomes clearer:
Laviska Shenault has great potential and could very well have a good fantasy season. However, he’s completely unproven in a somewhat vanilla (sorry Minshewmania fans) Jaguars offense.
But Alshon Jeffery last had a healthy (and fantasy relevant) season in 2017. And Josh Gordon was without a team until Seattle chose to plug him in as their high profile distraction player.
Are you going to roster either of those players in a 12 team league? No. Should you grab James Washington to keep on your bench? Yes. Why? I’m glad you asked.
Reflecting on 2019 (and 2018)
James Washington had a bad rookie year – no two ways about it. He saw 38 targets all season and only secured 16 catches for 5.7 yards per target. Not fantasy relevant and not promising for the future.
But 2019 was a completely different story for the Oklahoma State product. Even with…uneven…quarterback play, Washington managed to grab 44 targets, for 735 yards, three TD’s and 9.2 yards per target. Marked improvement in all areas.
Two of the most impressive improvements are in the big play potential of Washington. In 2018, he had three 20+ yards catches and one 40+ yard catch; but in 2019 he developed into a true deep threat player; grabbing 13 20+ yards catches and four 40+ yard snags. This put him in the same company as rookie DK Metcalf. DK emerged as a dangerous deep target for Wilson and the Seahawks in 2020.
He did commit a few drops (six on 80 targets). This needs to be cleaned up in 2020 if he is to earn Big Ben’s trust. Interestingly, he drew seven pass interference calls through the season – very useful for the offense but most likely an indictment of errant throws than anything else.
Did the draft impact James Washington?
The Steelers drafted Chase Claypool in the second round of the 2020 draft. Claypool is a physical specimen that has the power and speed to win at the point of attack while creating separation. He’s also has drawn rave reviews from camp.
Washington actually scored most of his fantasy points from the slot (59 points from the right slot position), which projects well for 2020.
How does 2020 shape up?
The Steelers are once again primed to make a playoff run. Loaded with young talent and their veteran QB, they’re ready to compete with the Ravens for the North. With Ben Roethlisberger at the helm, the offense should click back into gear early. Historically this has always created ample opportunity for receivers to pile up fantasy points. Look no further than JuJu’s fantastic 2018 season while working predominantly in the slot and the fantastic years by players like Martavius Bryant and Mike Wallace. Ben gives the offense the best opportunity to pile up yardage and scores. Expect this to continue as he writes his own “walking into the sunset” narrative and makes THESE kind of throws.
Pittsburgh has four legitimate starters at receiver (Smith-Schuster, Johnson, Washington, Claypool) that all offer different skill sets for the offense to ultilize. This means we could see the ball spread out around the pass catchers more than in previous years. This actually benefits players like Washington, who has proven he can win contested catches and win downfield. This gives him boom or bust potential in any given week.
Value for your pick
Let’s use a combination of James Washington’s Sleeper projections and our own TimeSkew projections. This way we can find the true value of the former Cowboy.
This production would give Washington 167 points in PPR leagues, putting him in WR44 territory around Deebo Samuel and a WR39 finish (just above Johnson) in 2019.
TimeSkew has James Washington ranked 57th at his position, meaning that with even a sniff at the above production, you’re grabbing a WR 18 to 13 spots after his true value.
Grab James Washington now. Stash him on your bench and thank me in Week 5 when JuJu has a nagging hamstring injury.
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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.