For a fourth straight season, Razzball will be interviewing local NFL beat writers for some actual in-depth football knowledge to shed some additional light on our fantasy football knowledge. Keep your eye out for an interview for every NFL team through the summer. This installment comes courteous of Neal Coolong from leading Pittsburgh Steelers blog Behind the Steel Curtain (date of interview – August 1st):
1) Let’s start at running back, where rookie Le’Veon Bell looks like a strong candidate to win the starting role. Incumbent rushers Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman both loom as well. We’ve got Bell as our 27th ranked running back, do you see him having a big rookie season, or something more akin to a dreaded (for Fantasy) running-back-by-committee?
I think this camp is going to go a long way in determining that, but I think the competition will continue for Bell and either Redman or Dwyer – the other could be released – during the season. I don’t think the decision to platoon running backs in Pittsburgh last year was because they wanted to; I don’t think any one back stood out for long enough to have earned that designation. If Dwyer did well, he got injured. Same for Redman. Mendenhall was never healthy, and eventually stopped going to games.
Bell has the best chance of carrying the most this season. Whether it will be 20 times a game remains to be seen, but right now, I’d say it’ll be split to start the year.
2) I’ve always been a big Antonio Brown fan, and with no Mike Wallace, he’ll have to step up to be Big Ben’s top target. Do you see him breaking out this season into the top echelon of NFL WRs, or will he struggle moving into that role?
If we’re using “top echelon of NFL WRs” as a statistical marker, I’d say probably not. As far as his effectiveness in the game of football, I think he can finish the year on the higher side. Fantasy production, though? Nah. Probably not. For as outstanding as Brown has been at times in his career, he’s never been a touchdown scorer. He wasn’t utilized in the red zone often, and even with the Steelers throwing quite a bit in that space, Brown (or Emmanuel Sanders who often replaced Brown in those packages) didn’t get many targets.
I could see him topping 80 catches and 1,000 yards, but I’d be surprised (and very excited) if he scored more than five touchdowns, even with the absence of red zone target kid Heath Miller possibly missing time with a knee injury.
3) Speaking of Ben Roethlisberger, despite some games missed to injury he still put up 26 TDs last year, tying his second best output. If Ben can get through 16 games this season, do you think he can top 30 TDs this season and be a bottom end fantasy starter?
I do that. Roethlisberger put up some pretty impressive performances before his injury in Week 10. What we saw of him at the end of last season was not the player he’ll be when healthy this year. He worked very well within Todd Haley’s offense, and was, in many ways, a viable MVP candidate when the Steelers were 5-3 while averaging less than three yards a carry and allowing 25 points a game.
He’s an outstanding quarterback, and with more emphasis placed on the running game this year, I think passing opportunities are going to be more open, and he can be highly effective off play-action. I’m not concerned with the absence of certain big-play receivers; play-action passing gets even average receivers open down the field.
4) Since we’re here focused on fantasy, we often don’t get into other facets of the game in our preparation. The Steelers O Line has been problematic in years’ past with Big Ben getting beat up and not the same success in the ground game. I haven’t done much research into the Steelers improving the O Line and rather than look at moves, I’d like to just hear your thoughts on improving the front 5:
First and foremost, the group needs to start several games in a row together. Injuries have been a massive problem the last few years. The Steelers have started more different combinations of offensive linemen than any other team in the league. Continuity is critical for an offensive line, and they simply have not had it in Pittsburgh.
Individually, the group is outstanding from an athletic perspective. Maurkice Pouncey is a phenomenal athlete; he may not even have hit his highest level from a talent perspective. Mike Adams, another freak athlete, he hasn’t even scratched the surface yet (no pun intended). Ramon Foster is a very underrated player signed to a very team-friendly contract this year. Marcus Gilbert has been, at times, serviceable, but will be a question mark heading into the year. David DeCastro is 100 percent healthy, and fared pretty well in his three games last year.
The Steelers’ 2013 season rests largely on the offensive line. It could be great, it could be awful.
5) Emmanuel Sanders is playing for a big unrestricted free agency pay day next season, do you think he can be a big factor now lining up almost every down as the WR2 and be a fantasy sleeper?
Sanders seems more like a Steelers offensive lineman than a receiver, and I don’t mean his body structure. His biggest issue has always been staying on the field. He added fumbling to his list of concerns for this year as well. But when he’s been in there, he’s showed flashes of high-level ability. I think the contract situation will motivate him and hopefully it did this offseason in conditioning.
If he stays healthy, I feel he’ll have a big year. You have to go back a long way to find a Steelers split end who wasn’t successful – Wallace, Santonio Holmes, even Nate Washington did fairly well.
He’s a late draft pick, in my opinion, but also could be the guy someone in your league grabbed a minute after waivers opens after Week 1 because he gets up at 4 a.m. and ends up dominating because of him.
I’m not bitter about that kind of thing…don’t worry.