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2016 Team Report: Pittsburgh Steelers

Quarterbacks

Starter: Ben Roethlisberger
Backup(s): Bruce Gradkowski, Landry Jones, Dustin Vaughan

Starting QB: Fantasy owners know what they're going to get with Ben Roethlisberger...if he's healthy. He was banged up last year with various injuries, missed four games (plus parts of others) and ended the 2015 season as the 21st fantasy QB in standard-scoring leagues. The Steelers passing game is going to have a bit of a different look this year, but Roethlisberger should be asked to once again win games through the air as the Steelers defense isn't the outstanding unit it used to be. The different look will be because WR Martavis Bryant is suspended for the year, so Roethlisberger is going to have to find a new deep target. He'll continue to have great chemistry with superstar WR Antonio Brown, but guys like Sammie Coates, Markus Wheaton and Darrius Heyward-Bey will have to elevate their game to make up for the loss of Bryant. Roethlisberger's long-time favorite TE Heath Miller has retired, so we will also have to see strong the chemistry he'll have with free-agent addition Ladarius Green (or second-year pro Jesse James). Questions abound for Roethlisberger, but if healthy we won't be shocked to see him as a set-it-and-forget-it QB1 in 2016.

Backup QB: The Steelers kept Bruce Gradkowski around this year, choosing to re-sign him in free agency. He missed all of last year, but if healthy he gives them a fine veteran backup just in case Roethlisberger misses time (again). Landry Jones was once thought to be the developmental QB for the Steelers, but he's been pressed into duty during the regular season and hasn't shown much promise. The team could turn to Dustin Vaughan as their developmental QB. Undrafted in 2014 out of West Texas A&M, Vaughan has always filled the air with footballs and isn't afraid to challenge a defense with his arm.

Running Backs

Starter: Le'Veon Bell (susp), DeAngelo Williams
Backup(s): Fitzgerald Toussaint, Daryl Richardson
Fullback(s): Roosevelt Nix

Starting RB: Le'Veon Bell is one of the best RBs in the league if healthy...but staying healthy has been a problem for him, and entering this year his availability for the beginning of the regular season if a huge question mark. Suspended for the first two games last season, Bell had three 100-yard rushing games in six games before going down for the rest of the year. He's got power, speed, instincts, vision and great footwork...plus, Bell is an incredible receiver out of the backfield. There is no question that he's a must-start RB1 for fantasy owners in any format when he's in the lineup. Monitor his health closely as we get to--and through--training camp. Know that if you draft Bell (no matter where you get him) then you must handcuff DeAngelo Williams to him. That need has grown and might be too expensive with Bell now slated to miss the first four games due to a suspension incurred by a missed drug test. DeAngelo Williams will start those first four games and should be treated as a strong RB1 for the first quarter of the season.

Backup RBs: When Bell was suspended, DeAngelo Williams was the best fantasy RB in the league. When Bell returned to the lineup, Williams went back to the bench and didn't do much. Then, when Bell went down with a serious knee injury, Williams was back in action and a must-start RB1 for fantasy owners in 2015. Like Bell, Williams has a great all-purpose game and fits like a glove in the Steelers high-powered offense. A foot injury knocked Williams out for the Steelers postseason run, but he should be 100 percent healthy by the start of training camp. He'll need to be ready for a huge workload in the first four games as the starter, and he could get more work in a committee when Bell returns. We know he has league winning injury upside, so Williams ADP will likely climb to the range of some running backs who are slated to start more than four games. Fitzgerald Toussaint did nothing as a runner in the regular season. He had a bit more success in the postseason filling in as the starter for Williams, but his fumble against the Broncos cost the Steelers any chance of winning that game and advancing in the postseason. Daryl Richardson is a speed back who wastes little motion as a runner.

Fullback: Nix was a starting in three games for the Steelers last year. He earned positive grades for his blocking from Pro Football Focus, but it was his play on special teams that made him a standout. On teams, Nix had nine tackle and forced two fumbles. The Steelers put him on season-ending Injured Reserve in 2015 after he went down with a right foot injury in Week 16.

Wide Receivers

Starters: Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton
Backups: Sammie Coates, Darrius Heyward-Bey, DeMarcus Ayers [R], Levi Norwood, Eli Rogers, Shakim Phillips, Canaan Severin [R]

Starting WRs: Antonio Brown is the best WR in the league, and he's been the number one fantasy WR over the last two years. We see him finishing in the same spot this year. His numbers have been going up over the last three years, and they may climb even higher in 2016...even after a 136-catch season in 2015. Brown thrives (and then some) with QB Ben Roethlisberger. So long as Roethlisberger is healthy, Brown will continue to be a must-start WR1 and a target early in your fantasy drafts. In fact, it's not crazy to snare Brown with the number-one overall pick in PPR leagues. Markus Wheaton will benefit from single coverage with Brown drawing away so much attention from the defense. Even with the ability to run routes crisply and get open, we only envision Wheaton as a low-end WR4 for fantasy owners. He doesn't seem to be on the same page as Roethlisberger in each game and needs to be more consistent unless he wants to lose his job to one of the reserve WRs.

Backup WRs: Sammie Coates is an exciting second-year player. He's fast, wins at the point of the catch on passes 'above the rim' and has a large wingspan to help him snare passes. However, Coates gets the 'dropsies' way too often. He can burn defenders then drop a pass put right on his numbers. That frustration can filter through to the QB, so Coates will need to be more consistent if he wants to earn the trust of Roethlisberger. Speaking of dropping too many passes, there's veteran Darrius Heyward-Bey. He's big, fast and like Coates drops a lot passes. Heyward-Bey was credited with zero drops last year, so perhaps he's put his lack of concentration in the past. Think of Heyward-Bey like a big Ted Ginn (Panthers). He'll take the top off the defense and makes for an attractive target when he's open, but it might be 50/50 for him to snare the ball. Without Martavis Bryant, we may actually see Heyward-Bey emerge as the primary deep target in this pass-happy offense. DeMarcus Ayers was a seventh-round pick this year out of Houston. If he makes the 53-man roster it will be because of his dangerous ability as a return man. Levi Norwood has consistent hands and can make defenders miss in the open field but lacks top-end speed. Phillips and Rogers were players that the Steelers liked enough in 2015 to put them on the practice squad and injured reserve list, respectively, to keep them in the system. Rogers could push for a roster spot with his return ability after a strong summer leading up to camp last year.

Tight Ends

Starters: Ladarius Green (PUP)
Backups: Jesse James, Matt Spaeth, David Johnson

The Steelers are going to have a different look at TE with Heath Miller retiring. They made a move in free agency to fill the position when they went out and added former Chargers TE Ladarius Green. He's always been on fantasy owners radar ever since the Chargers picked him up in the fourth round of the 2012 NFL draft. Green was supposed to be the heir apparent to Antonio Gates in San Diego, but he never really played up to his potential in the pros and he needed a change of scenery. He's incredibly athletic and can create a mismatch nightmare for defenses--especially linebackers or safeties tasked with covering him. Last year, Green had a career-high 63 targets, 37 receptions, 429 yards and four touchdowns, but he might not have a chance to best those this year if his concussion-related headaches don't go away. It's possible Green is just having a very slow recovery from January ankle surgery, but for now we have to assume he is out indefinitely. He will start the season on the PUP. Jesse James is a huge target who may be best suited as a red-zone target. If Green falters or disappoints, then the team could turn to James with a larger role. Matt Spaeth is what he's always been--a big-bodied blocker. David Johnson is a TE/H-back/Fullback who can stick on the 53-man roster because of his versatility.

Place Kicker

Chris Boswell: The Steelers kicker situation came unraveled when Shaun Suisham tore his ACL in the 2015 preseason. The team finally found someone that would stick in Boswell, who scored at a higher rate (113 points in 12 games) than even Stephen Gostkowski. Suisham was released earlier this summer with an injury designation, so the job will go to Boswell. He will be a top five consideration at the position in fantasy drafts.

Kick and Punt Returners

Kick Returners: Marcus Wheaton, Demarcus Ayers [R]

Pittsburgh's top two kickoff returners-- Dri Archer and Jacoby Jones-- are no longer with the club, leaving Marcus Wheaton, (who returned 5 kickoffs last year), as the next-most-experienced option. Rookie Demarcus Ayers seems to be the only other viable threat for the job.

Punt Returners: Antonio Brown, Demarcus Ayers {R]

Pittsburgh has talked a lot this offseason about easing Antonio Brown's special teams burden, but it remains to be seen how much they're willing to give up such a deadly weapon on game days. Late-round rookie receiver Demarcus Ayers will almost certainly be in the mix either way to keep Brown fresh.

Offensive Line

Projected Starters: LT Ryan Harris, LG Ramon Foster, C Maurkice Pouncey, RG David Decastro, RT Marcus Gilbert
Key Backups: Cody Wallace, Alejandro Villaneuva, Jerald Hawkins [R]

The Steelers' offensive line was led last season by right guard David Decastro, who has developed into an All-Pro and Pro Bowl starter in his second season. Decastro is the latest Steelers' offensive lineman to be honored for his elite play. Center Maurkice Pouncey used to be a perennial Pro Bowler, but injuries have slowed his career. The team hopes he can restore to his earlier form and stay healthy this season as his backup Cody Wallace is a clear downgrade. Right tackle Marcus Gilbert is an above average right tackle, and left guard Ramon Foster was rewarded with a new contract for his solid play. Left tackle will be a battle between last year's starter Alejandro Villaneuva and free agent addition Ryan Harris. Villaneuva out of Army is an interesting story but he might be too lanky for the leverage battle that the left tackle plays every week. Harris is a veteran and coming off a starting gig in the Super Bowl, as such he should get the nod. Look for Jerald Hawkins out of LSU to lurk around the edges of this battle, he could also find reps at the spot. The Steelers are a mostly solid unit, with some elite performers, but their overall grade is held back by the uncertainty at the left tackle position. Tier Ranking: Mid Tier.

Team Defense

The Steelers used to be a perennial top D/ST, but it had been a while since they mattered in fantasy leagues. The departure of Dick Lebeau and introduction of Keith Butler at defensive coordinator lived up the unit, along with a high-scoring offense that put opposing offenses behind the eight ball at times. Pittsburgh was third in the league in sacks and tied for sixth in interceptions, which led them to finish around sixth in most D/ST scoring systems. The team has a bevy of young defenders who could trend up this year, so even without Martavis Bryant, the Steelers are one of the draftable D/ST after the top 5-8 are off of the board.

Defensive Line

Starters: NT Daniel McCullers, DE Cameron Heyward, DE Stephon Tuitt
Backups: NT/DE Javon Hargrave [R], DE L.T. Walton, DE Roy Philon, DE Caushaud Lyons

Starting DL: In most defensive schemes it is the linebackers who get the glory while the defensive line does much of the hard work. In 2015 the Steelers sported the fifth best run defense while their 48 sacks were third most in the league. The foundation for this success was set by the trio of Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt at end with Steve McClendon heading a rotation at nose tackle. Heyward and Tuitt are prototypical 3-4 ends. They have the ability to hold at the point of attack versus the run, eat up blockers to keep the linebackers clean and enough athleticism to make a contribution to the pass rush. Between them the duo accounted for 78 tackles and 13.5 sacks last year. Both McClendon and Cam Thomas have moved on leaving 2014 sixth round pick Daniel McCullers at the top of the depth chart at nose tackle. Pittsburgh does not expect much statistical production from this position. What they want from the nose tackle is to take up a lot of space and force opponents to run around the road block. McCullers is a 6'7" 352 pound road grader who fits the bill.

Backup DL: Pittsburgh is short on experience behind the starters. Third round pick Javon Hargrave has the potential to eventually earn a spot with the first team. The Steelers like to rotate a lot at nose tackle so he should see plenty of action as a rookie. Hargrave could see some work as a backup at end as well. L.T. Walton was the team's sixth round pick last year. He was active for a handful of games but did not get on the field much. Roy Philon was an undrafted free agent in 2014. He has not been able to get on the field thus far but could get some opportunity in 2016. The Steelers have a long history of developing players like Philon and Walton into contributors but the jury is still out on this group as a whole.

Linebackers

Starters: ILB Lawrence Timmons, ILB Ryan Shazier, OLB Jarvis Jones, OLB Bud Dupree
Backups: ILB Vince Williams, ILB Jordan Zumwalt, OLB James Harrison, OLB Arthur Moats, OLB Anthony Chickillo, OLB Travis Feeney [R], ILB Tyler Matakevich [R]

Starting LBs: Steelers history is littered with great pass rushing linebackers. As a team Pittsburgh recorded the third most sacks in the league a year ago, but it was strange to see defensive ends as their top two sackers. It is not as if the linebackers failed to make a major contribution. In fact they accounted for 23 sacks as a group, with five players putting up at least 3.5. The organization has committed considerable resources at the outside positions in recent years. Jarvis Jones was their first round selection in 2013 followed by Bud Dupree in round one last season. The pair however, accounted for a pedestrian 6 sacks between them while then 37 year old James Harrison led the outside backers with 5. Last year the team rotated these three players along with Arthur Moats. While they would like to see one or both of the young guys step up and claim a majority of the playing time, the coaching staff is prepared to continue with the rotational situation if this is what it takes to get the job done. Lawrence Timmons has been a rock at inside linebacker since James Farrior retired a few years back. Timmons is physical versus the run, has the speed to make plays sideline to sideline and is a considerable contributor in the big play columns. Since 2012 he had 16 sacks and has accounted for 12 turnovers. Ryan Shazier lines up next to Timmons on the inside. The 2014 first round pick has all the physical attributes of Timmons and is just as much a factor in terms of game changing plays. Shazier recorded 3.5 sacks and 4 takeaways in twelve games last season. In this duo the Steelers have one of the best inside linebacker tandems in the game. The only issue is Shazier's ability to stay healthy. He has now missed eleven of thirty two games in his career.

Backup LBs: Sean Spence has moved on so Vince Williams becomes the third man at inside linebacker in 2016. With the injury history of Shazier, Williams could have an important role to play. Entering his fourth year as a pro, Williams has seen enough action as a reserve be considered a quality veteran backup. He is a solid run defender but has not shown a knack for big plays. Williams has 102 career solo tackles but just half a sack and no turnovers. Should he be forced into full time action it will be business as usual for the front seven. 2014 sixth round pick Jordan Zumwalt and rookie sixth round selection Travis Feeney are a pair of developmental players who will see most of their action on special teams until/unless they evolve into a bigger role down the road. At age 38 James Harrison is back for another year. He is not the player of his younger days but the leadership he brings to the field and locker room make him an important part of this defense. Harrison is unlikely to be a starter but will continue to have a significant role. Arthur Moats is a dependable veteran presence who is not much of a threat to challenge for a starting job. Like Harrison, Moats should continue to contribute on a rotational basis while providing quality depth in the event of an injury.

Defensive Backs

Starters: SS Robert Golden, FS Michael Mitchell, CB William Gay, CB Artie Burns, CB Ross Cockrell
Backups: SS Sean Davis, S Shamarko Thomas, S Ross Ventrone, CB Senquez Golson, CB Doran Grant

Starting DBs: Pass defense was the Achilles heel of the Steelers in 2015. Defensive backs managed to record 12 of the team's 17 interceptions but Pittsburgh was 30th in passing yards allowed at 271 per game. As a result starting corner Antwon Blake and strong safety Will Allen will not be back. When camp opens first round pick Artie Burns will compete with last year's nickel corner Ross Cockrell for the starting spot opposite William Gay. Burns should claim the spot outright before long. He is blazing fast and is coming off a 6 interception season at Miami. Burns is a somewhat raw talent with great potential. How quickly he picks up the pro game will have much to do with the Steelers success in 2016. In round two the Steelers added Sean Davis. He was a safety throughout most of his career at Maryland before shifting to corner last year. Davis is another fast and athletic player with a ton of upside. Like Artie Burns however, Davis is seen as a raw prospect in scouting circles. He is expected to compete with Robert Golden for the strong safety job during camp. The Pittsburgh defense is rather complicated, especially for the safety position where several factors can change a player's responsibilities on a given play. Golden filled in admirably last season when Allen missed a few games. Davis may be the more physically gifted but Golden's four years of experience may be hard for the rookie to overcome. In short the Steelers have swapped a couple of veterans with limited upside for a couple of rookies who should make the team better in the long term. What this means for 2016 is hard to say at this point.

Backup DBs: At one time Shamarko Thomas was thought to be the heir to Troy Polamalu. Thomas was given every opportunity to step up but has failed to impress. This summer he may be competing with Ross Ventrone and a couple of undrafted free agents for a roster spot. Senquez Golson was the team's second round pick in 2015 but lost his rookie season to a shoulder injury. He should be in the mix for at least the nickel corner job and may push to start. Golson had 16 interceptions over his college career. Doran Grant was the team's 4th round pick last year. He should make the final roster and will round out the depth chart as the fourth or fifth corner. The Steelers have an abundance of young talent in the secondary. In Burns, Davis and Golson they may well have three new faces in the starting backfield on passing downs. This bodes well for future success but for 2016 Pittsburgh will be a little short on experience at the third level.

Last modified: 2016-08-30 23:01:22