By Alex Levin
With the draft complete and the bulk of the free agency rush over with, it’s time to start looking ahead to the 2020 season! And with that, I’m back with year 2 of my Opportunity series.
For those who didn’t see this series last year, I try to take a different approach to fantasy projections than your run-of-the-mill rankings. The basis of my process is that the number one indicator of fantasy success is opportunities to touch the ball. Obviously individual player skill can (and will) affect that, but at the end of the day players are at the mercy of playcalling and play design. Therefore, if we want to make accurate projections, we need to look at each coach’s scheme and how they like to spread the ball around.
As a result, this series is very coach-centric. I’ll touch on individual players, but only as they relate to their coaches’ schemes. On a related note, this series will only aim to establish projections on how touches will be split up, not what individual players will be able to accomplish with those touches. That will come later once depth charts settle through training camp. Think of this series more as a basis for realistic expectations.
Make sense? Good. Let’s dive in.
Most of my stats are pulled from Pro Football Reference. Please support them. They are awesome and are my primary source of statistical information.
Last Year’s Accuracy
For league wide stats, see this spreadsheet.
On the one hand, watching a juggernaut offense completely crash and burn because its star QB misses most of the season is rough. On the other hand, the Steelers were this close to making the playoffs anyway thanks to a top 5 defense that specialized in forcing turnovers. Head coach Mike Tomlin wasn’t on the hot seat before, and the surprisingly solid finish in spite of severe adversity isn’t going to put him there. He’ll return for 2020, as will his offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner and his defensive coordinator Keith Butler.
We now have two years of Fichtner calling the shots on offense and two completely different looks for this team. Granted, neither Mason Rudolph nor Devlin Hodges are Ben Roethlisberger. It doesn’t matter who’s calling the plays when your QB is among the worst in the league at keeping drives alive. Still, given the situations Pittsburgh’s offense has faced the last two years it’s safe to say that 2018 and 2019 represent the two extremes of what this offense might look like. Consider them the outer bounds of what might be realistic moving forward.
With that in mind, the total number of plays run dropped dramatically between 2018 and 2019, from a top-5 1058 to a bottom-2 937. The speed of the offense was mostly unchanged as was the defense’s ability to get off the field, so this one falls almost completely on the offense’s inability to execute in 2019. Meanwhile, the run-pass ratio flipped almost 10% between the two years (33/67 to 42/58) as the Roethlisberger/Brown/Smith-Schuster aerial attack gave way to Rudolph and Hodges throwing to JuJu and a rotating cast of WR2’s. Even the offensive line suffered compared to recent years, although the lack of offensive weapons likely didn’t help them.
There was some shakeup in the positional target shares as well, though nothing quite as drastic. The wide receivers unsurprisingly relinquished about 6% of their target share with the departure of Antonio Brown, dropping from 64.6% to 58.8%. This loss went almost entirely to the running backs as they jumped from 16.0% to 21.6%, mostly thanks to Jaylen Samuels proving to be a versatile weapon from anywhere on the field. Injury issues in the tight end group caused them to drop from an already low 17.4% target share to an even lower 14.7% target share. Interestingly, their lost target share went to no one. Whereas Ben Roethlisberger is not known for throwing the ball away very much, Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges both did at a remarkable rate, resulting in a 3% leap in no-target pass attempts.
It was a quiet offseason for the cash-strapped Steelers. The biggest free agent snag was tight end Eric Ebron and the only fantasy-relevant rookie from the draft was wide receiver Chase Claypool. Chalk it up to equal parts faith in Roethlisberger returning to form and not having enough cap space to make any major moves anyway. Roesthlisberger’s return can’t be understated though. Even if he returns a little worse for the wear, he is still a massive upgrade over Hodges and Rudolph. Fichtner’s offense won’t be as efficient as it was in 2018, but Pittsburgh should easily beat last year’s fiasco. Expect a major bounceback in total plays and a small-medium increase in pass rate.
Of course, with the jump in passing volume comes the question of who benefits the most. Even if Roethlisberger’s howitzer arm comes back a little more rusty than we’re used to, at least he’s willing to test downfield. Combined with the aforementioned new weapons at wide receiver and tight end, it’s likely that the running backs’ target share will return to its previous level in the high teens. Both the wideouts and tight ends should also benefit from Roethlisberger’s aversion to throwing the ball away.
The one thing we’ll have to keep an eye on is the offensive line. What had previously been a stalwart group dropped off a bit last year. It’s fair to wonder if the overall poor offensive play led to the line’s performance dip, but then the line was also the group hit hardest this offseason as they suffered from both free agency and the retirement of guard Ramon Foster. The Steelers’ brass seemed happy with the existing group so hopefully they can return to form with the return of a functional offense, but it’s definitely something to keep in mind.
Alex Levin – Projections/Redraft
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