|By Shawn Childs, Monday, August 28, 2023|
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 - 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 - 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 Anthony McFarland - 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
Injury Status: Out - Coach's Decision
RB Najee Harris - 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 - 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.
WR Diontae Johnson - Solid/Safe Pick
In 2021, Johnson developed into a high-volume receiver, leading to him ranking tied for second in wide receiver targets (169) and fifth in catches (107). However, his lower yards per catch (10.9) led to a lower finish in receiving yards (1,161). Johnson had 15 drops in 2020, hurting his catch rate (61.1). Last year he improved his catch rate to 63.3, helped by only seven drops. Johnson had a floor of seven catches in nine starts, but he gained over 100 yards in only three games (9/105, 7/101/1, and 8/105/2). Pittsburgh gave him double-digit targets in 13 matchups.
Other than touchdowns (0), Johnson posted almost the same season in 2020 (88/923/7) as last season (86/882) with a similar opportunity in targets (144 and 147). However, his catch rate (58.5) regressed in 2022 while lowering his drops to six. He gained six yards or fewer in 12 of his 17 starts, with his best production coming in Week 15 (10/98). The Steelers gave him a career-high seven rushes, but they ended with only 25 yards of offense.
Fantasy Outlook: Based on potential targets, Johnson should be drafted higher than his 2022 finish in fantasy scoring (180.70 – 30th) and current ranking (31st). He does most of his work close to the line of scrimmage, giving him a six-catch opportunity in many weeks. Last year, Johnson had seven games with double-digit targets, and only seven of his 86 catches gained more than 20 yards. I still see a WR2 on a path to catch 90 balls for 900 yards with about five scores.
WR George Pickens - 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.
WR Allen Robinson - Bye Week Fill-in
Robinson finished eighth (254.90 fantasy points) and ninth (262.90 fantasy points) in scoring in PPR leagues in 2019 and 2020. Chicago looked his way 305 times over this span, leading to 200 catches for 2,397 yards and 13 touchdowns. His catch rate (65.6) has been strong over these two seasons.
In 2020, he gained over 100 yards in four contests (10/123/1, 7/101/1, 9/123/1, and 10/103). Robinson had a floor of six catches in 11 of his 17 games played. Twenty-two of his 102 catches in 2020 gained over 20 yards (one in each contest except Week 2).
The change at quarterback in Chicago in 2021 led to a sharp decline in Robinson's output (38/410/1 over 12 weeks) and his opportunity (5.5 targets per game). He missed four of the final seven contests with a hamstring issue and Covid-19. Earlier in the season, Robinson played through an ankle issue.
A move to the mighty Rams' offense ended with a bust season (33/339/3 on 52 targets) while missing the final seven games with a foot injury that required surgery. Robinson scored more than 10.00 fantasy points in four matchups (4/53/1, 5/63/1, 5/54, and 4/47/1).
Fantasy Outlook: By adding him to the Steelers' offense, Pittsburgh has two options to work the short areas of the field. Robinson gained more than 20 yards on only eight of his last 71 catches. He'll compete with Diontae Johnson for targets while working as the Steelers' WR3 in 2023. At the very least, Robinson provides veteran experience with handcuff value. My starting point is a 50/500/5 season, but Pittsburgh must throw the ball more successfully to reach these targets.
WR Calvin Austin III - Deep-league Only
Pittsburgh added another wideout in the fourth round of the 2022 NFL Draft. Austin brings an undersized skill set (5'8" and 170 lbs.) 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 3-Cone Drill (6.65 seconds). He projects 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: Austin missed his rookie season with a foot injury. He'll start the year as their WR4 while living in the free-agent pool until his game shows life on the field.
Other Options: Miles Boykin, Gunner Olszewski, Anthony Miller
TE Pat Freiermuth - Solid/Safe Pick
In the first two seasons, Penn State featured Freiermuth as a top-scoring threat in the passing game. 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.
Freiermuth earned staring snaps for most of the Steelers ' remaining matchups after a limited role over the first five games in 2021 (1/24, 4/36, 3/22/1, 1/11, and 2/7). From Week 6 to Week 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).
Despite a missed game and two zeros games in Week 15 and Week 18, Freiermuth set career-highs in catches (63), receiving yards (732), and targets (98) while bumping his yards per catch to 11.6 yards (3.3 yards more than 2021). He had four games (7/85, 8/75, 8/79, and 7/66) with seven catches or more but eight matchups with six targets or fewer.
Fantasy Outlook: The Steelers' lack of a WR3 last season helped Freiermuth's opportunity. Pittsburgh added another tight end threat in the offseason and upgraded their WR3. He finished last season seventh in tight end scoring (148.20) in PPR formats but a slight drop to ninth in the early rankings. Freiermuth has the talent to push to a 70/800/5 guy, and his chain-moving style should play well for Kenny Pickett.
TE Darnell Washington - Dynasty Only
The Georgia Bulldogs gave Washington minimal chances over his first two seasons (7/166 and 10/154/1). He upped his production to 28 catches for 454 yards and two touchdowns on 41 targets last season. His 17.2 yards per catch in college highlights his ability to beat a defense deep. Washington will see the field on many running plays, creating some scoring on play-action passes at the goal line.
Fantasy Outlook: Last year, the tight end depth behind Pat Freiermuth had 31 catches for 283 yards and one score. Washington most likely won't beat that stat line, other than possibly touchdowns.
Other Options: Zach Gentry, Connor Heyward, Rodney Williams
PK Chris Boswell - Not Draft Worthy
In his eight years in the NFL, Boswell made at least 90% of his field goals in five seasons. In 2021, he had the best year of his career (36-for-40), helped by his success from 50 yards or more (8-for-9). Over the past three seasons, Boswell missed six of his 85 extra points. Last year, he sat out five games with a groin issue. His leg had almost repeated value from long-range (7-for-9 from 50 yards or more), but Boswell finished with a poor success rate (71.4) in his field goal percentage.
Fantasy outlook: Pittsburgh should have a better offense this year, leading to more scoring chances for their kicker. Kenny Pickett will stall in the red zone until his passing in close improves. Boswell has enough experience to keep the kicking job, but his leash looks shorter. At best, a matchup-only option in the fantasy market.
Pittsburgh - Solid/Safe Pick
Pittsburgh climbed from last in the NFL vs. the run (2,483 yards) to eighth in 2022 (1,838 yards) while allowing a league-low seven rushing scores (tied with the Patriots and 10 fewer than in 2021). Ball carriers gained 4.2 yards per rush.
They dipped to 19th in passing yards allowed (3,779) with 29 touchdowns and 20 interceptions. The Steelers' defense had 40 sacks, down from 55 in 2021.
Pittsburgh's defense would have been much better last year if LB T.J. Watt didn't miss seven games. He finished with a career-low 5.5 sacks, well below his success over his previous 62 starts (65 sacks). He also has a high floor against the run.
The Steelers tried to address their inside linebacker positions by adding Cole Holcomb and Elandon Roberts. Both players have at least one season on their resumes with more than 100 tackles. Roberts has a better chance to help the pass rush. LB Alex Highsmith picked up the sack slack (14.5) after Pittsburgh lost Watts. His value in run support improved again in 2022.
DE Cam Heyward remains elite vs. the run while having back-to-back years with double-digit sacks. DT DeMarvin Leal has his rookie season cut short by a knee injury while failing to make an impact on his limited snaps. His build makes him a tweener on the defensive line. Incoming rookie DT Keeanu Benton should be their best bet to sure up the interior of their line.
CB Patrick Peterson had a bounce-back season for the Vikings, leading to 15 defended passes and five interceptions. He also set a career-high in tackles (66). Pittsburgh hopes Joey Porter can handle the other starting cornerback slot. Minkah Fitzpatrick continues to be a playmaking safety with top-tier play vs. the run. The other starting safety job is in limbo.
The Steelers' defense has an impact player at all three levels. Closing the passing window will be key to their secondary slowing down top wideouts. Pittsburgh needs Benton to emerge and Highsmith to repeat his breakthrough success to push higher up the defensive rankings. They will be drafted as a top-10 fantasy defense while needing to be micromanaged throughout the season.