2023 Pittsburgh Steelers Team Outlook
The Steelers have been one of the best franchises in the NFL since 2001 while having elite success since 1972. Over the last 22 seasons, Pittsburgh has a 226-125-3 record with 14 playoff appearances and two Super Bowl wins. Last year they finished with a .500 or better record for the 19th consecutive season.
Mike Tomlin returns for his 17th season as head coach. He has a 163-93-2 record with 10 playoff berths and one Super Bowl title. Tomlin has an 8-9 record in the postseason but is 0-4 over his last four appearances. He has the third-best winning percentage (.636) behind Bill Belichick (.670) and Andy Reid (.641) of all active coaches.
The Steelers promoted Matt Canada from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator in 2022. He has a long history of holding the same job in college but only has three seasons of coaching in the pros.
Pittsburgh ended last year with the 23rd ranking in offensive yards (23rd, 24th, and 30th over the previous three seasons. They finished 26th in points scored (308), 35 fewer than in 2021.
After working for three seasons as Pittsburgh's senior defensive assistant and secondary coach, Teryl Austin took over the reins of the defense in 2022. He led the Lions and Bengals defenses from 2014 to 2018. Austin has 19 years of coaching experience in the NFL.
The Steelers climbed to 10th in points allowed (346 – 52 fewer than 2021) while ranking 13th in yards allowed. From 2017 to 2021, Pittsburgh finished much higher in this area (5th, 6th, 5th, and 3rd).
Most of the offseason movement for the Steelers came on the defensive side of the ball. They signed CB Patrick Peterson and LB Cole Holcomb while parting ways with CB Cameron Sutton (DET), LB Devin Bush (SEA), DT Chris Wormley (FA), and S Terrell Edmunds (S). The only other upgraded with the additions of G Isaac Seumalo and G Nate Herbig.
With the 14th overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft, Pittsburgh added T Broderick Jones. His foundation skill set is already high considering his short resume (two years) of starting at left tackle at Alabama. With minimal improvement in his technique, Jones should be a long-time starter in the NFL, with an impact ceiling. His run-blocking projects to be ahead of his pass protection.
The Steelers added CB Joey Porter Jr. and DT Keeanu Benton in the second round. Porter brings in line coverage to receivers that starts with slowing them down at the line of scrimmage. He can chase and win in close quarters, but his change of direction quickness leads to losses against shifty route runners. In addition, his reads off the ball have a thinker feel, putting him a step behind his assignment at times. Benton has the feel of a "stand my ground player" who doesn't win enough battles off the snap with his quickness or anticipation to create winning pressure on the quarterback or impact tackles behind the line of scrimmage. However, his motor and fight give him added value, and Benton will work hard to get better.
TE Darnell Washington was Pittsburgh's choice in the third round. He offers size (6'7 and 265 lbs.) and speed (4.64 40-yard dash at the 2023 NFL combine) to the tight end position. His overall blocking technique isn't where it needs to be, but his strength already creates an edge in the run game. I don't expect a high-volume pass-catching opportunity, but Washington has the wheels to beat a defense deep and the hands to score at the goal line.
Pittsburgh shifted back to the defense with their following two selections – LB Nick Herbig (4th) and CB Cory Trice (7th). Herbig will be at his best attacking the line of scrimmage, thanks to his vision and understanding of play development. His strength ranks better than his overall speed, but Herbig can clog running lanes and blitz the quarterback when given a free run. He does get in trouble when stopped in his tracks and asked to change direction in his pursuit. Trice is the second cornerback added in this draft with size (6'3" and 205 lbs.) and strength. He plays well in press coverage that transitions to the short areas of the field. Trice gains value in the red zone and at the goal line, but he doesn't have the overall speed to handle wideouts over the long field. Trice has some characteristics in the realm of CB Richard Sherman.
With their final draft selection in the seventh round, the Steelers invested in G Spencer Anderson. His understanding and reads of blocks give him a fighter's chance to win a starting job down the road. Anderson can play all three positions on the offensive line while being limited in range on the perimeter. His next step is improving his footwork and finishing power in run blocking.
The Steelers climbed to 16th in rushing yards (2,073), with ball carriers gaining only 4.2 yards per carry with eight rushing touchdowns. Pittsburgh has three runs over 40 yards over the past five years (none in 2022) while gaining over 20 yards on eight carries last season.
Their offensive line allowed 38 sacks. The Steelers fell to 24th in passing yards (3,661) with only touchdowns (12) while tossing 14 interceptions. They gained only 6.4 yards per pass attempt.
Pittsburgh gave Dan Moore two seasons to prove his worth at left tackle. He failed to upgrade their run blocking while allowing a boatload of sacks and pressure. The Steelers will award the keys to protect them blindside to incoming rookie Broderick Jones while Moore competes for snaps at right tackle. In the end, both positions should be better in 2023.
RT Chukwuma Okorafor continues to be a liability in run blocking, and his value in pass protection regressed in 2022 despite allowing minimal sacks.
LG Isaac Seumalo has two seasons of starting for the Eagles, with last season coming at right guard. He has been a neutral player in run blocking. When given 16 starts at left tackle in 2019, Seumalo allowed too much pressure on the quarterback. Kevin Dotson handled himself well as a full-time starter for Pittsburgh last year at left guard. He needs work as a run blocker, but a better left tackle should help his cause. I expect him to win the starting job based on his value in pass protection.
Their center position appears to be in flux after giving Mason Cole the starting job in 2022. He finished as a league-average player, which was better than his previous results off the bench for Arizona and Minnesota. Kendrick Green could emerge after not playing a snap last season.
RG Jeff Daniels failed to match his previous resume in Chicago as a run blocker, but he finished his first season in Pittsburgh with a rebound in pass protection.
The Steelers' offensive line has been a liability for multiple seasons. The addition of Broderick Jones is the first building block, while the rest of their starters offer league-average stats. Pittsburgh needs QB Kenny Pickett to get the ball out quickly to help his offensive line minimize the damage in sacks.
QB Kenny Pickett, PIT - Sleeper (undervalued)
Pickett developed into a stud quarterback in their senior year in college (4,319 yards with 42 passing touchdowns and seven interceptions) after a mediocre career over his first four seasons (7,984 passing yards with 39 touchdowns and 25 interceptions over 39 games). 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 at the goal line.
At the next level, his most significant challenges will come from a shorter passing window and the overall quality of his supporting 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.
In his rookie season, he made 13 starts while failing to deliver impact stats in any matchup. Pickett passed for more than 300 yards in Week 5 (327/0) while attempting over 40 passes in three contests. Over his final eight games, he averaged only 180 passing yards with five touchdowns and one interception. His value as a runner (55/237/3) was better than expected.
Fantasy Outlook: A couple of concussions knocked Pickett out of a couple of starts while costing him one game. His chemistry with Diontae Johnson (52.9% catch rate) and finding him in the end zone (no touchdowns) was a problem. Pittsburgh has a pass-catching back plus six other viable receiving options, giving Pickett a chance to be much better in 2023. His first step in his growth is finishing drives with passing touchdowns in the red zone. The tools to succeed are in place, but I still view him as a gamble QB2 (ranked 21st) in 12-team fantasy formats. For now, a player and offense to watch in the preseason to see if the sum of the parts equals a worthy quarterback investment.
QB Mitchell Trubisky, PIT - Not Draft Worthy
Most football observers think of Trubisky as a first-round bust (2nd overall pick in 2017). After a quiet rookie season (4-8 with seven touches and seven interceptions), he went 27-16 over his next 43 starts, with a pro bowl appearance in 2018. His completion rate (65.3) was respectable over this stretch, but Trubisky settles for too many short passes (6.8 yards per pass attempt).
Last year, he went 2-3 with Pittsburgh over seven appearances with 1,252 passing yards, four passing touchdowns, and five interceptions. Trubisky lost his momentum in the run game (19/38/2).
Pittsburgh signed Trubisky to a two-year deal with a base pay of $14 million in 2022 with an upside of $27 million if he hits on all his incentives. They saw enough of his game to extend him for another two seasons in May.
Fantasy Outlook: Trubisky provides veteran experience at quarterback for the Steelers, but he should open the season behind Kenny Pickett on the depth chart. With no spark in any start last year, Trubisky has much to prove to the fantasy market before earning a bench role.
Other Options: Mason Rudolph, Tanner Morgan
RB Najee Harris, PIT - Solid/Safe Pick
In his first season in the NFL, Harris ranked third in fantasy scoring (300.70) in PPR formats. Pittsburgh had him on the field for 81.4% of their plays, leading to a massive workload (381 touches). In essence, Harris had a Le'Veon Bell opportunity in this offense with less explosiveness. Between Week 2 and Week 17, Harris has a floor of 16.80 fantasy points in 13 of his 15 starts. He was a better player at home (1,042 combined yards with five touchdowns and 44 catches) than on the road (653 combined yards with five touchdowns and 32 catches). His only three games with over 100 yards rushing (23/122/1, 26/105, and 28/188/1) came in Pittsburgh.
Harris came into last season with some concerns about a foot injury. He ended up playing all 17 games, leading to 1,263 combined yards, 10 touchdowns, and 41 catches. His yards per rush have been an issue in back-to-back years (3.9 and 3.8), along with his yards per catch (6.3 and 5.6). Last season, Harris gained more than 20 yards on only one of his 313 touches. He finished 14th in running back scoring (225.50) in PPR formats while reaching 20.00 fantasy points in only two outings (27.60 and 20.30). Harris scored seven of his 10 touchdowns over his final eight games. He had a gamer mentality based on playing through multiple injuries in 2022 (foot, knee, oblique, and hip).
The Steelers have tried to improve their offensive line through the draft and free agency over the past two seasons. The best help for Harris should be the addition of LT Broderick Jones this year.
Fantasy Outlook: The most significant negative for Harris may be the potential value of backup running back Jaylen Warren. He'll clearly get in the way in the passing game (28/214 on 33 targets), and Warren showed more explosiveness in yards per rush (4.9) and yards per catch (7.6). Harris comes off the board as the 14th running back in the early draft season in the high-stakes market. With 300 touches, he should gain a minimum of 1,300 yards with about a dozen scores and 50 catches. Harris has a high floor and a sneaky ceiling.
RB Jaylen Warren, PIT - Sleeper (undervalued)
Pittsburgh signed Warren as an undrafted free agent in 2022 after showing growth in his play in his final year at Oklahoma State (256/1,216/11 with 25 catches for 225 yards).
The Steelers gave him a minimal role over his first four games (77 combined yards and seven catches on 17 touches) before showing a spark in a chaser game vs. the Bills (63 yards and four catches). Warren gained more than 75 combined yards in Week 8 and Week 10 with a combined six catches. His season ended with a bump in touches (43) over the final four matchups (35/173/1 and eight catches for 47 yards).
Overall, Pittsburgh had Warren on the field for 29.4% of their plays compared to 65.7 by Najee Harris.
Fantasy Outlook: He's a must draft! With better offensive play by the Steelers, Warren should see his touches increase by 20 to 30%. In mid-May, he ranks 59th at running back, below his finish in fantasy points (93.30) in PPR leagues. The wide gap between him and Harris helps drafters willing to handcuff Pittsburgh's top two running backs.
RB Anthony McFarland, PIT - Not Draft Worthy
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 three seasons with Pittsburgh, he has 42 rushes for 146 yards with nine catches for 76 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 lbs.) to be trusted initially in pass protection.
Other Options: Jason Huntley, Alfonzo Graham
WR George Pickens, PIT - Sleeper (undervalued)
The Steelers made another aggressive move to upgrade their wide receiver position by adding Pickens in the second round of the 2022 NFL Draft. He performed well in his freshman year at Georgia (49/727/8 on 77 targets). However, the following season, he tore an ACL in his eight games (36/513/6), 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, but he had a couple of seasons of growth in his frame coming into 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.
In his rookie season, Pickens caught 52 of his 84 targets for 825 yards and five touchdowns. The Steelers barely got him the ball over his first three games (1/3, 1/23, and 3/39). His stock started to soar in three of his next four matchups (6/102, 6/83, and 6/61/1), but the Eagles shut him out the following week on three targets. Pittsburgh gave Pickens six or fewer targets in each of his final nine starts, leading to only three games of value (4/83/1, 5/57/1, and 3/72/1) despite gaining 17.8 yards per catch.
Fantasy Outlook: Pickens finished 40th in wide receiver scoring (166.50) in PPR formats while receiving 62 fewer targets than Diontae Johnson. In the early draft season, he comes off the board as the 34th wideout, three spots behind Johnson. His overall game is more dynamic, and I expect him to emerge as the Steelers' top wide receiver due to his scoring and big play ability. Next Step: 75 catches for 1,200 yards and seven touchdowns.