For the record: Pittsburgh Steelers
The narrative has been the same with this team for some time, it goes something like this: they’ll be good, they will likely win the division and they will put up monster fantasy points along the way.
I have a hard time being contrarian here. The Steelers have a culture and a plan. They have been the polar opposite of the Cleveland Browns. Ownership has been patient and committed, management and coaching stable, and Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has been at the helm for almost 15 years.
Now, as I do think the Browns, Ravens and Bengals could all be considerably better this year, I wouldn’t write off the possibility of the Steelers failing to win the AFC North, but I wouldn’t bet on it. They’ve managed to win the AFC North three of the last four seasons, and I don’t think those other three teams are quite ready to challenge.
Let’s play devil’s advocate for a moment and imagine a scenario where the aforementioned Ravens have everything break right, and the Steelers have an off year. The Steelers schedule suggests the road may not be so smooth for Big Ben and company. Despite some sources that consider the Steelers schedule to be the 25th most difficult in the league, I have a hard time seeing them coasting. A handful of games stick out as troublesome: division games aside, they have home games versus the Chiefs, Falcons, Panthers, Chargers and Pats, along with road games in Jacksonville, and New Orleans. None of those appear to be sure things and it’s certainly hard to imagine them eking out last year’s 13-3 season.
I think they win it, but the road to their 3rd consecutive AFC North title could be an adventure.
Again, this is a team that is fairly easy to analyze. Barring injury, it’s safe to say Bell and Brown are easily top tier players at their position. Both are in prime-year territory, and there is little of interest to say on them for the 2018 season. Ben, to, will churn out his usual startable numbers, when not injured. So as far as redraft and best ball go, I’m taking Brown and Bell at ADP, getting Ben if he falls, reaching for JuJu (more on him below) and taking Connor as a last round stash.
Looking ahead to 2019 is when it becomes interesting for the Steelers. Bell’s contract situation and free agency loom large. The current running back depth chart features no obvious heir apparent should Bell leave, with one possible exception. James Connor, last year’s 3rd round draft choice, did not impress in his rookie campaign. Touching the ball only 32 times for 144 yards and no receptions, does not catch the eye. Let’s remember, though, that Connor was only two years removed from beating cancer. The physical and emotional toll that battle took on Connor, I would imagine, takes some time to recover from. One year of experience under his belt, and god willing, another healthy year removed from his diagnosis, and Connor could be an under the radar surprise. The draft capital is certainly there. The Steelers are not likely to part ways with the 3rd rounder any time soon. The opportunity should present itself this offseason as Bell is likely to sit out many of the pre-season camp fuctions, both voluntary and mandatory. This will result in Connor getting the majority of first team reps and for the coaches to have a long look at the possible Bell replacement. As Bell’s pissing match with the team drags on, we sdould all remember the Steelers typical opt to cut bait with these guys. Enter Connor.
There is of course the chance that Connor is not an NFL talent and that the team will add some additional backs to the roster between now and September. I’s suggest paying close attention to who they add between now and week 1. Connor and any intriguing new talents are certainly worth the roster spot.
More on Bell:
The free agent running back market is not a good one. Recent years have offered few big second contracts to running back and the Steelers have been a team that has shied away from big deals for past stars, particularly at receiver. It would not be a surprise then to see Bell depart at season’s end. The question is which organizations would be willing to pony up the cap hit to acquire Bell. The market has been flooded over the last two draft classes with backs. These classes have been talented, and under the CBA have cheap rookie deals. They will all get long looks and be given the benefit of the doubt over expensive and older free agents. Looking at the league and guessing who might be in the market for a running back next year, my best guess, and I would imagine others would agree, is the Oakland Raiders. Lynch’s commitment to the team seems tenuous, Doug Martin may very well be done and Jon Gruden has certainly shown this offseason that he favours veteran players. This is a prospect that doesn’t excite.
Given the new depth of talent at running back, given Bell’s sky-high value and future uncertainty, I think now would be a very good time to try to score a king’s ransom in a trade.
Unlike running back where the transition from college to pro can sometimes seem seamless, the transition for wide receivers can prove more challenging. This was not the case for JuJu Smith Schuster. Naysayers may suggest JuJu’s numbers were skewed by a handful of big games (193, 143, and 114 along with a season-long 97-yard reception) and noting that aside from those he only eclipsed 50 yards three times. They may also remember the dud he, and his teammates, put up against the Jags in the playoffs.
But consider this. JuJu entered the 2017 as the NFL’s youngest player. He was a 20-year old kid playing against NFL veterans. Despite learning on the job and working with a mind and body, not fully matured, he managed not only to post 917 and 7 TDs, he also managed to make a name for himself as an apt and physical blocker. Fans, coaches and teammates took notice. With Martavis Bryant now a Raider, JuJu has only James Washington to fend off. The Bryant trade speaks loudly that the Steelers are all on board with JuJu. Given his early success, and considering his age, I would suggest there is plenty of player growth and upside ahead for JuJu. I would draft him well above ADP in all formats, dynasty in particular.
Sell Bell high, buy JuJu, invest in Connor and watch the running back depth chart additions.