Fantasy football team previews: AFC North

Credit: Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

2021 records: 9-7-1

Notable coaching and system changes

It’s a transitional time in the Steel City to be sure, but Mike Tomlin will provide some stability as he enters his 16th season as head coach. Matt Canada returns for his second year as offensive coordinator, though with a lot of changes, including the retirement of Ben Roethlisberger, we’ll see how the game plan adjusts. Expect more misdirection aspects incorporated into the play designs, such as an increase in jet sweeps, RPOs, mesh routes, and pre-snap motions. Following the retirement of Keith Butler, Teryl Austin was promoted from secondary coach to defensive coordinator.

Key free-agent additions

  • QB Mitchell Trubisky (Buffalo Bills)

Key free-agent departures

  • QB Ben Roethlisberger (retired)
  • WR JuJu Smith-Schuster (Kansas City Chiefs)
  • WR James Washington (Dallas Cowboys)
  • TE Eric Ebron (unsigned)

Key draft additions

  • QB Kenny Pickett (Round 1)
  • WR George Pickens (Round 2)
  • WR Calvin Austin (Round 4)

Quarterback preview

For the first time since 2003, Ben Roethlisberger won’t be on the Steelers roster. In the short term, Mitchell Trubisky could get the nod. Although the former No. 2 overall pick never lived up to his draft slot in Chicago, seeing that offense without him last year makes you wonder if success in that system was ever attainable.

His outlook for 2022 is clouded by the arrival of Kenny Pickett, who’ll be in play for the starting job. The Pitt product was widely dubbed the most NFL-ready rookie quarterback of this weak class, and easily attainable financial incentives in Trubisky’s contract could become a factor in which player is under center come Week 1.

Neither is particularly of utility in fantasy leagues, although the weaponry available would make Trubisky an intriguing matchup play in cavernous formats, best-ball leagues, and the occasional DFS contest. Pickett probably takes over at some point in the year if he somehow doesn’t beat out Trubisky in camp, but the rookie is less reliable than the veteran in 2022.

Running back preview

Nobody had more combined offensive touches in the regular season than Najee Harris, who finished with 307 carries, 74 receptions, 1,667 total yards and 10 touchdowns. There weren’t a ton of big plays along the way as the then-rookie averaged just 3.9 YPC — making him one of only three RBs among the NFL’s top 25 in rushing to average fewer than 4.0 yards per carry.

That kind of workload creates some long-term concern, but at 24 and entering just his second year in the NFL, it feels too early to worry about his durability for the upcoming season. Harris figures to be a focal point of the offense once again, and he is a midrange RB1.

benny snell and Anthony McFarland Jr. will compete for the No. 2 spot in July. Snell was the backup last year but showed zero explosiveness, failing to gain more than nine yards on any of his 36 carries. McFarland, a fourth-round selection in 2020, has yet to make his mark at the highest level. He has collegiate ties to the OC, and we could see a smattering of manufactured touches to utilize McFarland in space as a means of giving Harris a break.

Wide receiver preview

One has to figure the extreme short-passing game the Steelers used with Roethlisberger will be overhauled this offseason, though into what exactly remains to be seen. Whatever it is, expect Diontae Johnson to get his. The fourth-year pro climbed to the top spot last year and showed he could be effective working all over the field. One need only look back on Trubisky’s time in Chicago with current Los Angeles Rams WR Allen Robinson to see he’s capable of getting the ball to his top guy. Should it be Pickett, it’s not uncommon for rookie quarterbacks to overly rely on the primary read. Pencil Johnson in as a strong WR2.

Chase Claypool didn’t have a bad second season, but he didn’t take another step, basically duplicating his rookie numbers minus a major regression in touchdowns. That seems to be a trend. After scoring 10 TDs in his first 10 games, Claypool has managed just three scores in his last 21. Until that starts to even out, or his usage of him ticks up, Claypool is best viewed as a high-end flex.

With the likes of JuJu Smith-Schuster and Ray-Ray McCloud gone, rookies George Pickens and calvin austin will get their chance to carve out roles as well, though neither is worth drafting in single-year formats. Austin probably takes over for Johnson in 2023 if the team cannot reach an extension. Regardless, neither will see enough passes this season without injury assistance.

tight end preview

Pat Freiermuth (60-497-7) was another excellent find in last year’s draft, and his immediate production made Eric Ebron expendable. Despite a strong debut campaign, there are two reasons for concern: 1) Freiermuth suffered a pair of concussions late in the year, which is worrisome so early in his career, and 2) there’s no guarantee he’ll be a favorite of Trubisky the way he was for Big Ben. In some regards, Pickett starting should work in Freiermuth’s favor. Rookie quarterbacks tend to rely on position as a safety outlet. Either way, Freiermuth is a borderline top-10 fantasy tight end.

Sleeper/breakout candidates

Much of the Trubisky narrative surrounds the quarterbacks he was selected before. No, he’ll never be Deshaun Watson or Patrick Mahomes. That doesn’t mean he’s irredeemable. Trubisky had some nice stretches in Chicago, and he’s a better athlete than many realize. In the right system, he could have moderate dual-threat potential. Here’s the “but” … it is unreasonable to draft him in conventional formats, so he’s more of a superflex QB2, DFS flier, or best-ball gamble. Even then, we all know Trubisky is on a short leash, and that assumes he even wins the job.

Bust potential/overvalued players

Ask yourself this: If Claypool hadn’t scored all those early touchdowns, would his name carry much weight for fantasy owners? As noted, he has managed just three TDs in his last 21 games; if one of the rookies delivers early on or either of the new QBs doesn’t develop chemistry with him, Claypool’s role could be further diminished.

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