Fitz on Fantasy: 2019 Pittsburgh Steelers Buying Guide

With the preseason nearing, TFG fantasy expert Pat Fitzmaurice is breaking down the prospects for all 32 teams. Click here for a running list of teams, and check back often as teams are added on an almost daily basis. On to the Pittsburgh Steelers…

The good people of Pittsburgh probably didn’t find much humor in Antonio Brown’s acrimonious departure from the Steelers, but Ben Roethlisberger’s ham-handed attempt at damage control provided some unintentional comedy.

It’s impossible to tell when the tectonic plates first shifted in the relationship between the two men, but the ground between them fractured after a Week 12 loss in Denver. Roethlisberger called out Brown – on a radio show, no less – for a route-running faux pas on a play where Big Ben was intercepted in the end zone, sealing a loss that badly damaged the Steelers’ playoff prospects.

Calling out Antonio Brown for bad route-running on a single play is like calling out Paul McCartney for bad songwriting because you dislike “Wonderful Christmastime.”

Brown didn’t play in Week 17, which unspooled much of the goodwill he’d built with Steelers fans over nine mostly spectacular years. When asked on Twitter what caused the conflict with Roethlisberger, Brown responded, in part: “He has a owner mentality like he can call out anybody including coaches. Players know they can’t say anything about it otherwise they meal ticket gone.”

Roethlisberger said he attempted to call and text Brown, but the receiver didn’t respond.

“I took some heat, and deservedly so, for some of the comments on that show and especially towards him,” Roethlisberger told KDKA radio in Pittsburgh after Brown had been traded to the Raiders for third- and fifth-round draft picks. “I genuinely feel bad about that, and I’m sorry. Did I go too far after that Denver game? Probably. … You can’t take it back. And I wish I could, because if that’s what ruined our friendship and relationship, I’m truly, genuinely sorry about that.”

Roethlisberger’s ersatz earnestness was reminiscent of the way Fred Armisen used to play Bernie Madoff on “Saturday Night Live” – not as a ruthless schemer who used his Ponzi scheme to swindle billions from friends and clients, but as a well-meaning mensch who expressed confusion about why anyone would curse him and threaten him harm.

From a fantasy standpoint, the loss of Brown does more than make Roethlisberger remorseful. Big Ben no longer has the best pair of wide receivers in the league at his disposal, though his overall pass-catching weaponry is still formidable. Pittsburgh’s offensive line is first-rate, and the Steelers’ running game is strong enough to keep defenses from pinning their ears back and teeing off on the lumbering 240-pounder.

With career highs in passing yardage (5,129) and TD passes (34) last year, Roethlisberger finished QB3 in fantasy scoring. His fantasy value was also buoyed by obscene volume – his 675 pass attempts smashed his previous career high by 67. From 2015 to 2018, Roethlisberger finished ninth each year in fantasy points per game among quarterbacks. I have him at QB16, which might seem like a diss, but he’s somewhere near the middle of a vast, flat plain of similarly valued QBs. And let’s not forget that he’s 37, that last year was the first time he played 16 regular-season games since 2014, and that he recently bid such a sincere farewell to the greatest receiver in Steelers history.

JuJu Smith-Schuster is a precocious talent and a people-pleaser. The 22-year-old receiver does whatever’s needed, whether making tough catches, (lighting up both social media and the Pittsburgh area with his effervescent personality, (or exacting violent revenge upon a hated rival).

What sort of effect will Brown’s departure have on Smith-Schuster’s numbers? Should we be excited about a potential uptick in an already robust target share, or should we fret over the greater defensive attention he’s likely to draw? His 166 targets last season were only four off the league lead, so there isn’t much room for target growth, but JuJu is a good bet to top the seven TDs he scored in 2018. Smith-Schuster is now the undisputed go-to guy in the Pittsburgh offense, and so far he’s handled every NFL challenge with aplomb. Don’t sweat the defensive-attention thing.

Smith-Schuster should be one of the first six receivers drafted, and you should feel comfortable taking him as early as the first-round/second-round turn. If I had the top pick in a dynasty startup, I’d have a hard time choosing between Saquon Barkley and JuJu.

So who’s the No. 2 receiver in Pittsburgh? The leading candidates are James Washington, a second-round draft pick last year, and Donte Moncrief, an enigmatic veteran who came aboard via free agency in March.

Washington had a quiet rookie year, with 16 catches for 217 yards and one touchdown. It’s easy to excuse the light footprint of a rookie playing behind two of the best receivers in the league, but it was slightly dismaying that Washington had fewer catches than Ryan Switzer.

Washington was a vertical threat at Oklahoma State, averaging 19.8 yards per catch for his career. He topped 1,000 yards and had double-digit touchdowns in each of his last three college seasons. Washington has terrific ball skills and plays faster than his 4.54 speed. A lot of receivers with that sort of game are tall and lean, but at 5-11 and 213 pounds, Washington is built more like a running back.

Some early best-ballers have been drafting Washington as if the No. 2 role is already his, which might be a mistake. The skill set is alluring, but I’m looking to draft Washington opportunistically rather than aggressively.

Moncrief has been an eel for perplexed fantasy owners – nearly impossible to get a handle on. With a 6-2, 216-pound frame and 4.4 speed, Moncrief has an enticing physical profile, and he’s still only 25 (for a few more days anyway) despite being on the cusp of his sixth NFL season. His rookie year with the Colts was quiet, his second year was promising, and in his third year he caught seven TD passes despite playing in only nine games due to shoulder and hamstring injuries. His fourth and final year in Indianapolis was marred by injuries to QB Andrew Luck and to Moncrief himself, and he didn’t do much in Jacksonville last year despite staying healthy all year.

An ADP of WR56 reflects Moncrief’s perceived underdog status in his positional battle, but he reportedly showed well in OTAs, and Steelers beat writer Mark Kaboly of The Athletic thinks he’s a heavy favorite for the No. 2 role.

The Steelers spent a third-round pick on Toledo’s Diontae Johnson, whose unexpectedly early selection seemed to catch draftniks off-guard. Johnson is small (5-10, 183), has unexceptional timed speed, and had only one big pass-catching season for the Rockets. But Johnson is an explosive return man, which should help keep him active on gamedays and potentially push him up the depth chart, past the unexciting Switzer and the even less exciting Eli Rogers.

Tight end Vance McDonald might stand the most from Antonio Brown’s departure. McDonald runs well for a big dude (6-4, 267) and has averaged 13.0 yards per catch for his career. He finished TE10 last year in half-point PPF fantasy scoring and has top-five positional upside, but he’s lost 23 games to injury over his six-year career.

McDonald could certainly outkick his ADP of TE10, but if you take him, you’ll either have to squander draft capital on a backup tight end or risk having to troll the fetid TE waiver waters if McDonald goes down again.

James Conner finished eighth in rushing yards per game last year, was RB8 in fantasy points per game (half-point PPR scoring) and scored 13 touchdowns in 13 games. Not bad for a cancer survivor who was told in 2015 that he had about a week left to live.

Despite missing three late-season games with a sprained ankle, Conner also had 55 catches for 497 yards, and he averaged 113.1 yards from scrimmage per game. There was a ridiculous four-game stretch from early October to early November in which Conner averaged 27 touches and 172.3 yards from scrimmage and 1.8 touchdowns. He didn’t top 65 rushing yards in any of his last five games, but his overall numbers over that stretch weren’t bad when you include the receiving numbers.

Conner’s ADP of RB8 is reasonable. His per-game productivity in 2018 suggests that he should be a first-round pick, but the newfound depth of the Pittsburgh backfield could lead to more of a committee approach for a franchise that has been leaning hard on its lead backs in recent years. I see him as a second-round value.

During the three games Conner missed in December, rookie Jaylen Samuels averaged 109.3 yards from scrimmage, highlighted by a 142-yard rushing day in a win over the Patriots. Samuels had a fascinating college career at North Carolina State, where he was sort of a hybrid tight end/fullback who had more receptions than carries. The 6-0, 225-pound Samuels is powerfully built, with an 83rd percentile speed score and big-time receiving chops. And – bonus! – the Steelers’ new RB coach Eddie Faulkner, just happened to be Samuels’ RB coach at N.C. State.

Samuels has an exciting skill set that will play in any scoring format if he gets enough touches, so I’ve been an eager buyer in early best-ball drafts. But he’s not exactly a deep sleeper; with an ADP of RB45, the public is onto him.

The Steelers also drafted Benny Snell in the fourth round. He’s a 5-10, 224-pound plodder whose 4.66 speed nearly qualifies him to be a “Walking Dead” extra, but ask University of Kentucky fans what they think of Snell. He ran for more than 1,000 yards in each of his three seasons in Lexington, finishing his career with 3,873 rushing yards and 48 touchdowns. Snell isn’t draftable in most leagues but is probably just an injury away from fantasy relevance.


Ben Roethlisberger QB16 QB14 QB15 Consider
James Conner RB9 RB9 RB8 2ndRounder
Jaylen Samuels RB40 RB53 RB45 Buy late
JuJu Smith-Schuster WR6 WR6 WR6 Yes, please
James Washington WR53 WR52 WR43 Yellow light
Donte Moncrief WR62 WR57 WR55 (Shrug)
Vance McDonald TE10 TE10 TE10 Worthy risk





ADP = Average Draft Position  ECR = Expert Consensus Ranking  (based on half-PPR scoring)