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2021 Stats (Rank)
Total Offense: 5,361 yards (23rd)
Offensive Touchdowns: 33 (25th)
Offensive Plays: 1,113 (9th)
Pass Attempts + Sacks: 702 (3rd)
Rush Attempts: 411 (28th)
Unaccounted for Targets: 163 (17th)
Unaccounted for Carries: 43 (22nd)
Mike Tomlin puts his career-to-date of never finishing below .500 as an NFL head coach to the ultimate test this year. The quarterback situation remains sketchy, the offensive line is not much improved from last year’s disaster, and the Steelers have several positional weak spots on defense. Pittsburgh also plays in a rough-and-tumble division without an obvious weak team, even if Deshaun Watson gets suspended for the entirety of the season. The good news is that he has a skill position group worth crowing about, with several potential fantasy factors.
Offensive coordinator Matt Canada enters his second year as offensive coordinator and his first year with the ability to run things without the Ben Roethlisberger anchor around his neck. Canada was regarded as somewhat of an innovator in the college ranks – please don’t ask LSU fans about this reputation – and while we’re not saying that Mitchell Trubisky and Kenny Pickett are going to have better careers than Roethlisberger, they at least offer athleticism that late-stage Roethlisberger simply couldn’t deliver. Pittsburgh’s pass rate over expected was almost exactly even last season given how often they trailed, but it’s possible they lean further into read-options and motion this year with quarterbacks more suited to handle that responsibility. Canada also has some ability to expand the depth of his passing game with a quarterback that has, uh, some remaining arm strength left in the tank.
Pittsburgh’s defense is dragged up by its star talent and its coaching staff. Tomlin oversees DC Teryl Austin and new addition Brian Flores, who could perhaps add some more blitz diversity to the system. It’s hard to build a better start to a unit than T.J. Watt, Minkah Fitzpatrick, and Cameron Heyward. It’s also a unit without a real No. 1 cornerback, with Devin Bush coming off a ghastly year in the middle, and that lost Stephon Tuitt to retirement. They’ll likely be a feast-or-famine unit depending on how weak the opposing passing game is, but I’d fade them as a Week 1 starter after they allowed the Bengals to drop 65 combined points on them in two 2021 matchups.
The drumbeat of the quarterback competition in the early offseason had Kenny Pickett working with the threes and almost every Steelers beat falling over themselves to anoint Trubisky as the starter. Trubisky is nothing more than a matchup QB3 in flex leagues while he holds onto the job, and the uncertainty about how long he’ll hold on to the job makes him a tough sell in that role. The former Nickelodeon MVP threw just eight passes last year in his career rehab with the Bills. His 21.2% aggressive throw rate in 2020 ranked fourth in the NFL per Next Gen Stats, so he’ll probably buoy Chase Claypool shares while he’s in there. Pickett offers more upside but also – as someone who often performed off-platform and had issues keeping to the structure of the play – a lower floor behind an underwhelming offensive line. If you draft a Pittsburgh wideout you’re probably rooting for Trubisky to keep the job as long as he can, but unless the Steelers jump off to a hot start, it’s hard to imagine Pickett not getting a chance this season. You don’t want to factor either of these quarterbacks into your 2022 fantasy plans unless you have no choice.
Johnson enters his contract year as one of the most automatic wideouts in the NFL – he finds separation no matter what, no matter how bad the offensive circumstances are. He had the lowest average cushion of any qualifying target in the NFL per Next Gen Stats at 4.6, and he cut his drop rate sharply. Well, at least until the playoff game, anyway. We can understand why the Steelers are somewhat skittish to pay a 183-pound wideout who is going to be taking plenty of hits given the reality of the market pushing him closer, if not over, $20 million a season annually. That doesn’t take anything away from how good Johnson has been early in his career. He’s an effective short-game player but one without a ton of open-field elusiveness. His best fit is down the field.
Claypool, there’s no way to really say this nicely, struggled last season. Per Matt Harmon’s tracking data (subscription required), almost 30% of his routes were go balls, but he had a miserable 44.9% success rate on them. Asking Roethlisberger and Claypool to hook up on a nine route last season was like asking The Smile to not sound like Radiohead. The ADP is low enough to feel opportunistic, but he played so poorly last season that it’s mostly earned. There’s upside but a low, low floor.
With Freiermuth, you’re drafting a tight end that came on hard late in the season. Only 15 of his 79 targets came in the first five weeks, and Freiermuth also missed a game due to concussion late in the season. He operated as the primary red zone target when he was on the field, finishing with 20 in just 62% of the offensive snaps. That’s the same number of red zone targets Justin Jefferson had. With Trubisky, the Bears launched 76 targets at Trey Burton in 2018 and Jimmy Graham in 2020, neither of whom ever had a No. 1 TE role again. There may be more upside here than pops the eye, and the Freiermuth TE1 case is one of the stickiest outside of the major players at the position in my opinion.
Most of the talk about second-round rookie George Pickens has forecast him as an occasional threat in year one but not someone who will shake up the pecking order. I think there’s more upside than demonstrated in that simply because of how upset the Steelers appeared to be with Claypool, but it may not manifest itself in year one, and he’s not a safe bet at all in his rookie season. Austin is an interesting fit to replace Ray-Ray McCloud in Canada’s horizontal game, but unless that takes on renewed importance without Roethlisberger, Austin has no path to major fantasy upside. Zach Gentry was targeted 25 times last season and, if he stepped into Freiermuth’s role due to injury, would boost the rest of the receivers by virtue of being a non-threat.
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Fresh off a season in which the unit finished with a 24th-ranked rush offense DVOA, 5.6% adjusted sack rate, and in which the entire offensive line finished with a lower PFF pass block grade than Freiermuth, the Steelers made wholesale changes on the interior. Daniels is the big money name, but he is off a career-high 71.0 PFF blocking grade and is more solid than great. Both Cole and Okorafor signed deals with an easy out after one season, and neither acquitted themselves in a dominant way in 2021. Deposed starting center Green is competing with Dotson to play one guard spot, and rookie starter Moore is back at his station despite a gruesome season that included several baptisms by the Browns. It’s hard to see a lot here that should elevate our standing of the Steelers skill position players, but maybe some second- and third-year leaps on the left side could make the situation more tenable. This is probably one of the five worst offensive lines in the NFL.
Najee Harris’ numbers were not impressive last season, but I don’t hold a lot of that against him. This situation was brutal. I don’t know what else you could want from a fantasy running back than the volume that Harris was gifted with, even if his 19-target(!!!) Week 3 game was an abomination of circumstances that won’t be repeated. I understand that the offense doesn’t project to be roundly good, but Harris projects to get almost all of this backfield’s important touches and thus he’s an RB1 player. If you believe the Steelers will lay down and die on offense without Roethlisberger, you’re probably putting him at the very end of the RB1 tier. If you instead project some fight from the offense, you can make a case that he should be in the middle of the tier. I think he has more to show us in his second season and would personally slot him into the middle of the RB1 tier.
And well, that’s the entire preview. RB2 Benny Snell received just 36 carries in 17 games, and 12 of them came in Week 18 while Harris was nursing an elbow injury. While there have been some Steelers beat reporters stumping for him, he’s in the final year of his rookie contract and hasn’t done better than 3.9 yards per rush in any of his three seasons. He’s proven capable when given the carries, but there’s no reason to believe he’ll get many of them this season. Anthony McFarland lost most of last season to a torn MCL and didn’t show anything to get excited about in 2020 when he was healthy. Durant’s a UDFA that some beats have speculated could make the roster. Barring a major injury for Harris, there’s not any fantasy value to squeeze out of the rest of this.
PointsBet over/under: 7.5 wins
Mike Tomlin’s Steelers have never finished under .500, and you can argue he has more talent on the roster than he did last season, particularly if you believe that Roethlisberger was holding the offense back in some real ways. The problem is that, as things stand right now, Pittsburgh is not in an easy division. The Bengals feel extremely real and were a major problem for Pittsburgh’s defense last year. The Ravens will be healthy. We’ve been operating on the assumption that the Browns are not going to have Deshaun Watson, but a) nothing’s concrete there yet and b) they’re still a very talented team without him. I’m going to reluctantly pick the under here even though I see paths to the over. I trust the coaching, but I don’t think the talent is up to snuff at the moment.