Fantasy Football Target Practice: The 2020 Pittsburgh Steelers

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The next installment in the Target Practice series is the Pittsburgh Steelers. Using any sort of statistical data from 2019 to try and project what this offense might look like from a passing game standpoint is rather useless. Ben Roethlisberger missed virtually the entire season after tearing the ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow, James Conner was in an out of the lineup all season with an AC joint injury and a quad injury, and JuJu Smith-Schuster missed time with a knee sprain. The combination of Mason Rudolph and Duck Hodges simply didn’t get it done.

Virtually every pass catcher in the offense was irrelevant for fantasy football, so what should we expect for this team in 2020? Let’s dive into their 2019 vs. 2018 data first, then project what the targets might look like for the pass catchers.

Here are the ranks for the Pittsburgh Steelers for major offensive passing statistics in 2019 and 2018:

2019

  • Pass attempts per game: 31.9 (26th)
  • Passing yards per game: 186.3 (31st)
  • Pass play percentage: 57.8% (23rd)
  • Pass percentage on 1st down: 55.5% (26th)
  • Passing TD per game: 1.1 (29th)

2018

  • Pass attempts per game: 43.1. (1st)
  • Passing yards per game: 313.3 (2nd)
  • Pass play percentage: 67.4% (2nd)
  • Pass percentage on 1st down: 66.4% (5th)
  • Passing TD per game: 2.2 (5th)

Big Ben is a 38-year old QB coming off major surgery on his throwing elbow (I wrote up a detailed report about Ben in the Ultimate Draft Kit), so it’s probably unrealistic to expect him to chuck it up 675 times the way he did in 2018, but certainly, this offense should resemble the 2018 passing attack more so than the 2019 passing game. Also, worth noting, in 2018, Antonio Brown was still a Pittsburgh Steeler, further supporting the fact that the offense probably won’t throw it at such a high rate given that he was such a focal point of the game plan.

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Vacated Targets

The Pittsburgh Steelers only have 63 vacated targets from their 2019 roster, 5th fewest in the entire NFL. Even so, it’s tricky to predict exactly how the offense will look from a target share perspective in 2020. There are role players, like James Washington and rookie Chase Claypool, waiting in the wings while we still have yet to see JuJu operate as Ben’s true WR1 for more than one game. Additionally, the team added Eric Ebron to its TE group, which could further muddy the water. Let’s dive into the most likely scenario for the Steelers in 2020.

2020 Outlook

James Conner – Floor: 45 / Ceiling: 85
The ceiling here for James Conner might seem a bit high, but we can’t forget that in 2018 while playing as the starter amidst a Le’Veon Bell holdout, Conner saw 71 targets in 13 games. If he can stay on the field for all 16 games, Conner should be able to push for 80 targets in this offense. However, as discussed with Vance McDonald, injuries and availability are a concern, which factors into his low floor for target projections. Want more details on Conner’s injury history? Be sure to check out my write up in the Injury Report section of the Ultimate Draft Kit.

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JuJu Smith-Schuster – Floor: 90 / Ceiling: 150
Playing with Ben in 2018, JuJu saw a whopping 166 targets (insert jaw drop gif here). However, as discussed above, it’s unlikely he reaches that ceiling, especially considering that the 2018 season was an outlier season for pass attempts for Big Ben. Even so, JuJu should operate as Ben’s WR1, and going off historical data, Ben has targeted his WR1 at a massive rate. Granted, that WR1 for years was Antonio Brown, so we’ll see if JuJu can step up into that role. He’ll have every opportunity.

Diontae Johnson – Floor: 70 / Ceiling: 125
The former Toledo WR posted an impressive stat line in 2019, especially considering the poor QB play from the team. He actually led all rookie WRs with 59 receptions on 92 targets last year. Certainly, with Ben back under center, there’s room for a step forward in 2020 for Johnson, helping his ceiling improve to well over 100+ targets. However, the floor is lower than 90 given that the team is inserting James Conner back into the lineup and adding Eric Ebron to the TE position.

James Washington – Floor: 40 / Ceiling: 95
Probably the most difficult player to project for targets in 2020 for the Steelers, James Washington enters year three looking for a third year breakout. Last season with the abysmal offense, he saw 80 targets, so it’s not unrealistic to expect a step forward to the 90+ mark with Ben back, but I can’t put his ceiling any higher given that it’s likely Chase Claypool, the rookie WR out of Notre Dame, will push him for snaps on the perimeter.

Chase Claypool – Floor: 25 / Ceiling: 60
In a season where Covid-19 has affected the offseason program, it’s unlikely that Claypool is an every-down player who develops a rapport with Roethlisberger early in 2020. As a result, the best-case scenario for the rookie is likely a timeshare with James Washington as the team’s WR3. Because of this, he has a low ceiling and a low floor for targets.

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Eric Ebron – Floor: 60 / Ceiling: 95
Historically speaking Ben hasn’t targeted his TE at an elevated rate. As a result, Ebron pushing Johnson for the 2nd most targeted player on the roster is unlikely. However, he could push Washington for the third (or 4th as we’ll discuss in a minute) most targeted pass catcher on the team. Ebron has been a polarizing player with ups and downs, but maybe we’ve seen exactly what he is in the NFL, a player who has averaged 80.6 targets over the past five seasons.

Vance McDonald – Floor: 45 / Ceiling: 70
Vance McDonald has always screamed upside as an athletic player who is good after the catch, but his target upside in this offense is limited with the addition of Eric Ebron. Moreover, McDonald has a relatively significant injury history, which could further limit his availability, and if he’s not on the field, he’s not getting the ball thrown his way. He’s never seen more than 72 targets in his career, and he’s never played 16 games.


If you’re looking for more Steelers talk, be sure to check out the Fantasy Footballers Podcast where the Ballers discussed the AFC North.

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