Looking at the 2014 Fantasy Value of Two Key Steelers Sophomores
Aside from wide receiver Antonio Brown and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, the Pittsburgh Steelers didn’t have many players with high fantasy football value in 2013. Look for that to change significantly in 2014, with a pair of sophomores — running back Le’Veon Bell and wide receiver Markus Wheaton — both poised to break out. These two second-year Steelers should be major contributors on the real-life field and thus to your fantasy lineups, far more than they were in their rookie seasons.
Wheaton will be of greater fantasy value simply because his position on the Steelers depth chart is about to rise. Pittsburgh’s No. 2 wideout, Emmanuel Sanders, is an unrestricted free agent this year and the Steelers aren’t expected to keep him around. Considering that Sanders received an offer sheet from the New England Patriots last year and he’ll clearly be in demand elsewhere — the New York Daily News suggests that at least the New York Jets will be pursuing him.
Even if the Steelers retain veteran Jerricho Cotchery, the team seems poised to promote Wheaton. In his first season, Wheaton contributed very little, playing a total of 161 snaps and missing much of the season with a broken finger. He was targeted by Roethlisberger just 12 times and he caught only six of those passes, totaling 64 yards. He had no touchdowns and dropped two passes, bringing his total fantasy points to just 6.4 in standard-scoring leagues and 12.4 in PPR leagues.
He was a little less marginally used in the preseason, playing 143 snaps. He had 22 targets and nine receptions, for 139 yards, 42 yards after the catch and a touchdown. That 40.9 percent catch rate is a little problematic, but considering it was his first time on an NFL field in any capacity and not playing with the top tier of the Steelers offense for much of it, it doesn’t much dictate how he’ll perform in his second season.
The Steelers selected Wheaton in the third round of the 2013 draft as a sort-of replacement for departing wide receiver Mike Wallace. I say “sort-of” because it was clear the Steelers weren’t expecting him to start as a rookie (though if he could have done so it would have been a welcomed surprise). However, Wheaton has many comparable traits to Wallace, such as speed, and even former Steelers backup quarterback Charlie Batch expects Wheaton to be a Wallace clone in 2014.
However, Wheaton has one attractive quality that Wallace does not possess — strong route-running. Wallace is known as a one-trick, go-route pony but Wheaton has the route skills of the departing Sanders. Those two things combined point to a good 2014 season for Wheaton, giving him just slightly better fantasy usefulness than Sanders had last year. In 2013, Sanders was targeted 108 times. He had 67 catches for 720 yards, six touchdowns and five drops. This gave him a total of 110 points in standard-scoring leagues and 177 in PPR leagues.
Though Sanders is fast in his own right, Wheaton has the home-run hitting speed that should net him more touchdowns and yards and thus, fantasy points. His relative obscurity and low amount of playing time in his rookie season should also make him a huge value when your fantasy draft day rolls around. Wheaton should be a true No. 3 receiver in 2014 but you will easily be able to snag him in a later round.
Less under-the-radar is Bell, who earned a total of 174 fantasy points in standard-scoring leagues in 2013 and 219 in PPR leagues. Though Bell had only one game where he surpassed 100 rushing yards, his late-season improvement (owing partly to offensive line coach Jack Bicknell, Jr. losing most of his duties, which were handed off to Shaun Sarrett) has sufficiently opened enough eyes to his potential as a fantasy football powerhouse in 2014 and beyond.
It’s just that Bell looks to be on the precipice of having one of the best fantasy football performances by a running back. The Steelers have moved on from Bicknell, hiring former Tennessee Titans head coach Mike Munchak as offensive line coach. Like Bicknell, Munchak utilizes an outside-zone blocking scheme; unlike Bicknell, however, he’s not going to abandon it six snaps into the season if a lineman gets hurt, as the Steelers did in 2013 when center Maurkice Pouncey tore multiple knee ligaments in the team’s season opener.
Bell thrives in an outside zone scheme, which means that as long as the blocking works, he’ll be in a system practically designed to specifically get him yardage. The Steelers ranked just 20th in run blocking in 2013, thus leading to their 27th-in-the-league finish in rushing yards. However, the hiring of Munchak (along with James Saxon at running backs coach) shows that the Steelers have not only clearly identified the run game as their major offensive weakness but that they have taken aggressive measures to turn it around.
Though it may take a little faith, from a fantasy football perspective, to believe that the Steelers will indeed have a better run game and more stable offensive line this year, all the moves the team has made to address this part of their offense points to good things ahead for Bell. Even behind a poorly blocking line that shifted between scheme and no-scheme, he still averaged an acceptable 3.5 yards per carry. In 13 games, Bell rushed 244 times for 860 yards and had eight rushing touchdowns to just one fumble. He also added 45 receptions on 62 targets for 405 yards. Though he had seven dropped passes, he still caught a good 73 percent of footballs thrown his way.
There’s little doubt that Bell will exceed 1,000 rushing yards in 2014, but he has a good chance of reaching 1,300 yards from his carries this year if the transition to Munchak’s blocking works out. He could have close to or over 2,000 yards from scrimmage when his receptions are factored in, and an increase in both yardage and touches means eight touchdowns is a very pessimistic floor for his 2014 scoring.
Yes, Bell had just five rushes that went for 15 or more yards, giving him a breakaway percentage of only 15.1. Yes, he ranked a pedestrian 18th in elusive rating out of 32 backs. But he did have 2.11 yards after contact per attempt and, most importantly, forced 36 rushing missed tackles and 10 as a receiver, both top-12 numbers among backs. That was behind a rudderless offensive line and after starting the year with a foot injury. Bell holds a ton of potential, which should be better realized with a healthy 2014 season and a better organized line blocking for him.
Unlike Wheaton, Bell is squarely in the crosshairs of other in-the-know fantasy GMs in redraft leagues. He won’t be a later round diamond-in-the-rough like his teammate, Wheaton. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t snag him even if you have to do so late in the first or sometime in the second round. Bell is projected to be the type of fantasy workhorse running back that is becoming less and less common — and more and more valuable — every year. Don’t feel hesitant about targeting Bell early in your draft. Because if you don’t, someone else will.
The Steelers are an unpredictable team when it comes to producing high-value fantasy football contributors. However, that list of players will most certainly increase by two in 2014, with Bell and Wheaton both about to get very good opportunities that they should take excellent advantage of. Pencil them both in now on your early must-draft lists for the season and keep an eye on what happens in Pittsburgh between now and August.