For the first time since 2004, the Pittsburgh Steelers will open the season without Ben Roethlisberger behind center. Mitchell Trubisky expects to start at quarterback, while Kenny Pickett and Mason Rudolph hope to outplay him in training camp. Najee Harris had a tremendous rookie season, but his high production in yards (1,647) came from volume of touches (381), not impact plays (3.9 yards per catch and 6.3 yards per catch). Both Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool have flashes of exceptional play while needing to improve their catch rate. Pat Freiermuth looks to be a developing tight end. The real question is whether Mike Tomlin can squeeze enough out of this team to remain contenders in the AFC North as every other team looks improved in the offseason.
OFFENSE The Steelers continue to be a pass-heavy offense. Last year they finished fourth in passing attempts (664) while throwing the ball 61.8% of the time. Pittsburgh has the fifth-lowest number of rushes (411 – 24.2 per game). A significant change at quarterback invites a different game plan in 2022.
QUARTERBACKS Mitchell Trubisky -- click here for fantasy projection Kenny Pickett Pickett developed into a stud college quarterback in 2021 after a mediocre career over his first four seasons (7,984 passing yards with 39 touchdowns and 25 interceptions over 39 games). Last year, he passed for 4,319 yards with 42 passing touchdowns and seven interceptions. His completion rate (67.2) and yards per pass attempt (8.7) were well above his previous resume (60.4 and 6.8). Over five seasons, he ran the ball 417 times for 801 yards and 20 touchdowns despite gaining only 1.9 yards per carry. The Pittsburgh Panthers used Pickett almost exclusively out of the shotgun, which fits well with the Steelers. When given a long passing window, he had his eyes up, looking to beat defenses over the top. Pickett showed the ability to make quick pre-snap reads. His arm strength grades well with enough mobility to make a breaking free rusher miss with his legs. When asked to roll out to his right, Pickett maintained his accuracy on the move. He won’t be a difference-maker in the run game, but Pickett can pick up some first downs with his legs and offer scoring value on sneaks as the goal line. At the next level, his most significant challenges will come from a shorter passing window and the overall quality of his support cast in the passing game. In a way, he has a Matt Ryan feel with less size but more quickness. Pickett is a pocket passer with a chance to beat expectations by some scouts. Fantasy outlook: The Steelers expect Pickett to work off the bench this year to give him time to develop. His aggressive style may prove more impactful for Pittsburgh’s offense this season if Mitchell Trubisky can’t deliver wins and big plays.
Mason Rudolph Over his last three seasons at Oklahoma State, Rudolph passed for 12,765 yards with 86 touchdowns and 22 interceptions. He scored 16 rushing touchdowns over his final two seasons despite gaining only 96 yards rushing on 144 carries. Rudolph passed for 2,366 yards with 16 touchdowns and 11 interceptions over his 17 games with Pittsburgh (10 starts – 5-4-1). His completion rate (61.5) has been below starting quarterback value while also having weakness in his yards per pass attempts (6.2). Other Options: Chris Oladokun
RUNNING BACKS The Steelers set a three-year high in rushing attempts (386) and rushing yards (1,525), but their backs gained fewer than 4.0 yards per carry for the third straight season. Najee Harris gave the appearance of improved play in catching passes out of the backfield, but Pittsburgh gained only 6.3 yards per catch for the second year in a row. The Steelers have a long history of featuring one running back. Volume is an excellent friend in the fantasy market and shouldn’t be dismissed when making draft-day decisions. Najee Harris -- click here for fantasy projection Benny Snell Over the past three seasons, Pittsburgh gave Snell some chances to shine on early downs. Unfortunately, he gained only 892 yards on 255 rushes with minimal value in the passing game (15/97). He’s gaining only 3.5 yards per rush with six career scores. The Steelers only gave him 38 touches in 2021. Over three seasons at Kentucky, Snell gained 4,089 combined yards with 48 touchdowns and 29 catches while receiving 766 touches. He runs with patience and vision while lacking the wheels to make big plays. Fantasy outlook: Snell has a lot to prove this summer. I don’t view him as a lock to be the handcuff for Najee Harris, and he offers no value in the passing game.
Anthony McFarland Pittsburgh went with the fun player (McFarland) with their first pick in round four of the 2020 NFL draft. His speed (4.44 40-yard dash) and quickness separate him from the field while owning a Chris Johnson style of running in the open space. His only gear is full throttle, which is electric if given room to clear the line of scrimmage. He looks to have some fight in his game, with moves to make defenders miss. Over his two seasons with Pittsburgh, he has 36 rushes for 116 yards with seven catches for 65 yards. Fantasy outlook: Durability and winning in tight quarters will hurt his long-term value. The Steelers would like to use him as a change of pace option on early downs. McFarland needs to develop as a pass-catcher while lacking the size (5’8” and 208 pounds) to be trusted initially in pass protection. Other Options: Trey Edmunds, Mataeo Durant, Jaylen Warren
WIDE RECEIVERS The Steelers’ wide receiver production remains high in 2021 due to 421 targets, but their catch rate (59.6) came in well below 2020 (64.3). In addition, there was a sharp decline in touchdowns (12 – 30 in 2020). The quick passing game by Pittsburgh led to only 10.97 and 10.50 yards per catch over the past two seasons. Diontae Johnson -- click here for fantasy projection Chase Claypool The buzz and momentum for Chase Claypool as a rising young wide receiver moved in the wrong direction in 2021. He played well in Week 3 (9/96) and Week 5 (5/130/1) while sitting the game in between with a hamstring issue. Over his final 12 games (including the playoffs), he scored fewer than 10 fantasy points in seven contests (2/17, 3/30, 2/52, 0/12, 4/41, 3/17, 3/25) while averaging only 6.4 targets. His catch rate (56.2) had repeated weakness (56.9 in 2020). Pittsburgh invested a second-round pick in 2020 for Claypool. I don’t expect him to outwork any defenders over the short areas of the field due to questionable explosiveness out of complicated routes. His release will also be an issue when facing physical defenders in press coverage. Claypool will present a problem with slants, crossing patterns and down the seam, where his straight-line speed is an edge if given a step or two in coverage. Notre Dame used him on many fades at the goal line, but his footwork and ability to make plays will be slowed down if challenged early at the line of scrimmage or by adding a second defender to his side of the field. Fantasy outlook: In his one easy season, Claypool slipped to the 43rd-ranked wide receiver in the NFFC with an ADP of 107. Last year he came off the board as the 23rd wideout. At this point, Claypool’s play has fallen in line with his scoring report. Last year, he didn’t win enough one-on-one matchups on the outside, and Pittsburgh failed to get enough easy catches close to the line of scrimmage. However, his size does invite more scoring. Also, a third season in the league should lead to growth. Let’s shoot for baby steps (65/900/6), even with a switch at quarterback.
George Pickens The Steelers made another aggressive move to upgrade their wide receiver position by adding Pickens in the second round of the 2022 draft. He performed well in his freshman year at Georgia (49/727/8 on 77 targets). The following season, he had 36/513/6 in eight games. However, he tore an ACL that season, leading to almost a lost season in 2021 (5/107). Scouts have their mental picture of Pickens based on his first two years in college. He’ll have a couple of seasons of growth in his frame in 2022 while expecting more strength. Pickens brings excellent size (6’3”) with a good feel for catching the ball with strong hands outside his frame. I expect him to win over the top of defenses with sneaky nastiness to his game in blocking. His route running has areas of strength, but some improvement is needed. Fantasy outlook: Pickens will overlap Chase Claypool in some parts of his game, but he will win more balls over the top and in tight coverage. In addition, his value in the open field looks more explosive. As a result, Pickens is a must-follow this summer as he may be more relevant than his early ADP (188) in the NFFC suggests.
Calvin Austin Pittsburgh added another wideout in the fourth round of this year’s draft. Austin brings an undersized skill set (5’8” and 170 pounds) to the NFL. Over the last two seasons at Memphis, he delivered two productive years (63/1,053/11 and 74/1,149/8) while being helped by many targets (119 and 127). Austin ran a 4.32 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine while excelling in the three-cone drill (6.65 seconds). He projects as a potential slot player with a gimmick feel. His speed will test a defense deep, but Austin will struggle to catch the ball in tight coverage. Fantasy outlook: The Steeler may use him to return kicks. His role and opportunity will be minimal in his rookie season. Other Options: Miles Boykin, Anthony Miller, Gunner Olszewski
TIGHT ENDS The addition of Pat Freiermuth helped the Steelers’ offense set three-year highs in catches (92), receiving yards (749), touchdowns (7) and targets (123). They caught 21.6% of Pittsburgh’s completions, about five percentage points higher than the previous two seasons. Their only strike was that their tight ends gained 8.1 yards per catch. Pat Freiermuth After a limited role over the first five games (1/24, 4/36, 3/22/1, 1/11, 2/7), Freiermuth earned starting snaps for most of the Steelers’ remaining matchups. From Weeks 6-18 (11 games), he delivered starting fantasy stats (49/397/6 – 11.34 FPPG) in PPR leagues. His catch rate (75.9) graded well, but Freiermuth gained only 8.3 yards per catch (two plays of 20 yards or more). Penn State featured Freiermuth as a top scoring threat in the passing game over his first two seasons. He picked up 15 touchdowns over 25 games with 69 catches for 875 yards. As a freshman, Freiermuth gained an impressive 14.2 yards per catch, but he turned more into a possession option in 2019 (11.8 yards per catch). Freiermuth busted out of the gate the next season with 23 catches for 310 yards and one touchdown over four games, but his season ended in mid-November with a right shoulder injury that required surgery. His short-area quickness or overall speed won’t be an edge, but Freiermuth is a hands catcher who plays with strength and power to finish off his receptions for first downs and touchdowns. He reads defenders well with the vision to see open space. Freiermuth will be a play-action scoring threat with the ability to work the middle of a defense in the end zone. Penn State gave him chances on the move behind the line of scrimmage and jump balls at the goal line. Fantasy outlook: Despite success in his rookie season, Freiermuth projects as Pittsburgh’s third or fourth option in the passing game behind Najee Harris and Diontae Johnson. He should remain a scoring threat, and a more mobile quarterback may lead to longer catches. With a 65/650/6 type season, Freiermuth will be a top 12 fantasy tight end this year. His ADP (110) in the NFFC prices him as the 11th-ranked tight end. Other Options: Zach Gentry, Kevin Radar, Conner Hayward
KICKER Chris Boswell In his seven years in the NFL, Boswell made a minimum of 90% of his field goals in five different seasons. He had the best year of his career in 2021 (36-for-40), helped by his success from 50 yards or more (8-for-9). Over the past two seasons, Boswell missed six of his 67 extra points. Fantasy outlook: The Steelers had a below-par offense last season, and they don’t project to be much better this year unless they have better-than-expected quarterback play. The positive for Boswell is that the Steelers will stall in the red zone on many drives. Possible top 10 kicker with matchup value.
COACHING The Steelers have been one of the best franchises in the NFL since 2001, while having elite success since 1972. Over the last 21 seasons, Pittsburgh has a 217-117-3 record with 14 playoff appearances and two Super Bowl wins. Last year, they finished with a .500 or better record for the 18th straight season. Mike Tomlin returns for his 16th season as head coach. He has a 154-85-2 record with 10 playoff berths and one Super Bowl title. Tomlin has an 8-9 record in the postseason but 0-4 over his last four appearances. He has the third-best winning percentage (.643) behind Bill Belichick (.670) and Sean McVay (.679) among active coaches. The Steelers promoted Matt Canada from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator last season. He has a long history of holding the same job in college, but 2022 will be just his second season as a coordinator in the pros. Canada used a quick passing game in his two years with Pittsburgh to limit the damage in sacks. The Steelers ended 2021 ranked 23rd in offensive yards (24th and 30th over the previous two seasons). Pittsburgh finished 21st in points scored (343), 73 fewer than 2020. After working for three seasons as Pittsburgh’s senior defensive assistant and secondary coach, Teryl Austin takes over their defense. He led the Lions and Bengals defenses from 2014-18. Austin has 11 years of coaching experience in the NFL. The Steelers fell to 20th in points allowed (398 – 86 more than 2020) while ranking 24th in yards allowed. Over the previous four years, Pittsburgh finished much higher in this area (fifth, sixth, fifth and third).
FREE AGENCY Pittsburgh parted ways with WR JuJu Smith-Schuster and G Trai Turner. They added G James Daniels and C Mason Cole to their offensive line. The Steelers hope newly acquired Mitchell Trubisky will bridge the quarterback position to Kenny Pickett or take the job and run with it. The top players signed to the defense were LB Myles Jack and CB Levi Wallace. CB Joe Haden remains a free agent after seeing his play regress last year. DRAFT The early concern in this draft for the Steelers was improving their offense with the addition of QB Kenny Pickett (1.20), WR George Pickens (2.20), WR Calvin Austin (4.33) and TE Connor Heyward (6.30), with four of their first five selections in the 2022 NFL Draft. In the seventh round, they even added a potential insurance policy at quarterback with Chris Oladokun. Pittsburgh invested in a pair of defenders, DT DeMarvin Leal and LB Mark Robinson, with their other two picks.
OFFENSIVE LINE The Steelers bumped to 29th in rushing yards (1,583), with ball carriers gaining only 3.9 yards per carry with 10 rushing touchdowns. Pittsburgh has three runs over 40 yards over the past five years while gaining over 20 yards on nine carries in 2021. Their offensive line allowed 38 sacks. The Steelers inched to 16th in passing yards (4,017) with 23 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. Unfortunately, they gained only 6.0 yards per pass attempt. This season, Pittsburgh tried to improve its offensive line after questions with run blocking and creating a passing window last year. Their projected starters will start the season at age 26 or younger, with second- to fourth-round pedigrees in the draft. I don’t expect any player to rank as a top-tier option, and the overall line has a lot to prove. When adding in the quarterback change and the potential need for a longer passing window, I expect this offensive line to rank below the league average.
DEFENSE Pittsburgh fell to last in the NFL vs. the run (1,483 yards) with 17 touchdowns and 24 runs over 20 yards while allowing 5.0 yards per rush. They dipped to ninth in passing yards allowed (3,656) with 24 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. The Steelers’ defense had 55 sacks, with quarterbacks gaining only 7.1 yards per pass attempt. Pittsburgh has one of the best pass-rushing defenders in the league in T.J. Watt, who continues to improve. DE Cameron Heyward remains a force against the run while adding 10 sacks, but he is at the back end of his career. The Steelers need LB Devin Bush to live up to his draft pedigree (10th overall in 2019), especially against the run. Pittsburgh has two talented players (Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds) at the safety position. Pittsburgh should have strength at the second level of its defense while needing to solidify the defensive line. They also have questions at cornerback, which can be covered up at times by a heavy pass rush. This defense should rebound against the run while ranking as a top-10 fantasy defense in 2022. If the Steelers lost Watt to an injury, they would regress in all areas this season.
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