Fantasy football impact: Will the Steelers replace their lost touchdowns?

Justin K. Aller

By letting Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery go after 2013, the Steelers are without a lot of their touchdowns. Can the new guys in rotation replace those scores? We break down the fantasy implications.

The American way says that you always strive for better things, and when you have better things, you strive to keep those better things. In other words, you add all the touchdowns you can, and you keep your touchdowns around.

In that way, I guess, the Pittsburgh Steelers are one of the most un-American teams in football (yes, Pittsburghians, I'm kidding, please don't send me letters).

In terms of a percentage of 2013 scores, only one team in football is returning fewer touchdowns in 2014 than the Steelers, who -- by dint of dropping Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery from the 2013 season -- are missing 16 of their touchdowns. This comes a year after the Steelers dropped nine touchdowns from 2012 to 2013 when Mike Wallace and Rashard Mendenhall left the team.

In short, the Steelers return 55.56 percent of their 2013 touchdowns, second-lowest in the NFL (I'm omitting scores from quarterbacks, since barely any teams changed quarterbacks between seasons; this is largely for running backs, wide receivers, and tight ends). See the chart:

Team 2013 Touchdowns 2014 Returning TDs Return TD %
Cincinnati Bengals 45 45 100
Miami Dolphins 31 31 100
St. Louis Rams 32 32 100
Dallas Cowboys 45 44 97.78
San Diego Chargers 41 40 97.56
Washington Redskins 34 33 97.06
Detroit Lions 42 40 95.24
Kansas City Chiefs 40 38 95
Minnesota Vikings 36 34 94.44
San Francisco 49ers 35 33 94.29
Buffalo Bills 28 25 89.29
New Orleans Saints 46 40 86.96
Seattle Seahawks 39 33 84.62
New York Jets 19 16 84.21
Green Bay Packers 41 34 82.93
Chicago Bears 44 36 81.82
New England Patriots 44 36 81.82
Oakland Raiders 31 25 80.65
Baltimore Ravens 25 20 80
Atlanta Falcons 37 29 78.38
Cleveland Browns 39 22 73.33
Houston Texans 25 18 72
Philadelphia Eagles 46 33 71.74
Tennessee Titans 33 23 69.7
Jacksonville Jaguars 23 16 69.57
Arizona Cardinals 36 25 69.44
New York Giants 28 19 67.86
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 28 19 67.86
Indianapolis Colts 34 23 67.65
Denver Broncos 70 46 65.71
Pittsburgh Steelers 36 20 55.56
Carolina Panthers 32 17 53.13

(The Cleveland Browns plummet to the bottom of the chart if you omit Josh Gordon from their 2014 incumbents; I chose to include him because this is mostly about the players teams are missing by choice. And also, who the heck knows what's going to happen with Gordon.)

In Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown, the Steelers are bringing back their biggest names and biggest offensive threats. But the losses of Cotchery and Sanders mean there are touchdowns that need to be replaced. And the Steelers have taken steps to replace those scores, bringing in LeGarrette Blount, Lance Moore, and Darrius Heyward-Bey as free agents, and Martavis Bryant and Dri Archer out of the draft. In addition, the team has second-year receiver Markus Wheaton theoretically primed and ready to take a step forward.

So, how will the Steelers make up for their lost scores? Let's see how they hope to do just that.

Quarterback

Ben Roethlisberger finished 12th among quarterbacks in fantasy scoring despite putting up the second-most passing yards (4,261) and second-most passing touchdowns (28) of his career. As the NFL has become more and more of a passing league, Roethlisberger hasn't really kept up.

Roethlisberger is entering his 11th season and has played the full 16 games in a season only twice, in 2008 and 2013. He has never finished higher than eighth among quarterbacks in fantasy scoring in a season. On the flip side, he's never finished lower than 21st, even in his more injury-plagued seasons.

Basically, Roethlisberger is a bye-week fill-in in shallow, one-quarterback leagues. In deeper and/or multi-QB leagues, he's a fine starter -- he'll get you points -- but anyone who takes him needs to have another quarterback rostered, as odds are great that Roethlisberger misses at least one game. Still, as a mid-teens quarterback and a guy you don't start unless you have to, Roethlisberger's single-game upside is as high as just about any quarterback (see his 400-yard, four-score game in Week 9 last year, or his 367-yard, four-score game in Week 1; his highs are really high).

I'd take Roethlisberger around 16 or 17 among quarterbacks, at the top end of the tier that includes other veteran non-superstars like Eli Manning and Carson Palmer.

Running backs

The Steelers' running back group could be really interesting in 2014. After Bell, who was basically the lone contributor in 2013 (he had 1,259 yards and eight touchdowns) Jonathan Dwyer was the next-most-productive running back at 261 yards and ... no scores. The team added the resurgent Blount in free agency and drafted joystick-type player Dri Archer.

Bell is still clearly the team's No. 1, proving his worth as the team's second-round pick in 2013. After missing the first three weeks of the season, Bell played from Week 4 onwards in 2013, reaching double-digit fantasy points eight times. He was the No. 14 fantasy running back last year, but his average of 12.3 fantasy points per game played would have made him seventh over the full season.

Blount, meanwhile, has had a weird career arc. He had a thousand-yard season as a Tampa Bay rookie in 2010, starting to look relevant. He slipped in 2011 to under 800 yards, then basically lost his job, putting up only 151 yards in 2012. After the Buccaneers released him, though, he latched on with New England. He wasn't much of a part of the offense early in the season, with only three touchdowns through the season's first 15 weeks and no games of more than 65 yards, but he came alive late in the season.

Blount had two touchdowns and 76 yards in Week 16, two touchdowns and 189 yards in Week 17, and four touchdowns and 166 yards in the team's playoff opener. In a three-week span, then, Blount had 431 yards and eight touchdowns, as good a three-game stretch as any running back had in the sport. The late-season production was enough for the Steelers to sign him to a two-year deal in the offseason. He's not a pass-catcher by any means with only 23 receptions in his career and only three since 2011, but his smash-mouth running ability is helpful as a third-down-type back.

Finally, the team drafted perhaps the yin to Blount's yang in Archer, who profiles as a Darren Sproles-type running back; a short speedster who might not be an every-down back but will be seen in plenty of highlights with his insane speed. He'll catch passes out of the backfield, like Sproles or Danny Woodhead.

Bell is an elite running back. While it's possible the presence of Blount and/or Archer will steal some touches, if you're the Steelers you still want Bell as your *ahem* bell-cow. I'd take him in the early-to-mid second round, maybe 15th overall, and eighth or ninth at the position.

Blount is a depth or handcuff play; if Bell gets hurt, he's the likely beneficiary. For all the good Bell did a year ago, he did miss three games and was on the injury report in two others, so the team needed a competent backup. For fantasy drafts, if I had Bell I would target Blount in the early 40s among running backs, around 100th overall. If I were not the Bell owner, I'd wait another round or two before diving on Blount.

Archer is interesting and will have point-per-reception value, but we'll need to see how he's used before he's anything but a super-deep depth play. Draft him with your last (non-kicker) pick and stash him if you want, but definitely don't rely on him.

Wide receivers

With the exception of one game, Antonio Brown didn't look like anything special a year ago. He had 196 yards and two touchdowns on nine catches in Week 3 of 2013, but outside of that he had no scores or 90-yard games through Week 8 and he looked like just another low-end WR2.

And then the second half of the season happened. Over the Steelers' last nine games, Brown had six touchdowns, 868 receiving yards, four hundred-yard games and seven double-digit fantasy outings. He averaged 13.8 fantasy points a game over that stretch. As a point of reference, Josh Gordon and Demaryius Thomas -- the league's leading fantasy wide receivers -- averaged 13.8 fantasy points a game over the season.

Brown struggled along with the entire Steelers team early in the season. Bell missed some early games and didn't start getting really productive until late in the year. Roethlisberger was a well below average fantasy quarterback through Week 8. The Steelers started the season 2-6, but went 6-2 the rest of the way, and the players produced at a similarly reversed clip.

Brown proved he could be the team's No. 1 receiver with the departure of Mike Wallace, and he's a fine WR1 in fantasy as well.

Behind Brown, no other Steelers wide receiver really shapes up as a fantasy starter.

Behind Brown, there is a lot of potential in the Steelers' receiver corps, but also a lot of variability. Markus Wheaton shapes up as the team's No. 2 receiver, and the team appears to be a big fan of him (his pre-draft NFL.com scouting report even listed Brown as his NFL player comp), but he also caught only six balls for 64 yards in his rookie year.

The team brought in Moore (who has low-end potential) and Heyward-Bey (who really doesn't) but the next-most intriguing option is fourth-round pick Martavis Bryant, who has loads and loads of raw talent. His skill set is that of an earlier draft pick, but his skills need refining, which probably is the reason he fell to the fourth round. The best bet is that he'll have some nice highlights in 2014 but won't be a real factor in fantasy until 2015 or later.

Brown ought to go as a late WR1 in fantasy drafts. I have him as my seventh overall receiver and in the mid-20s overall. Behind him, no other Steelers wide receiver really shapes up as a fantasy starter. If all goes right for Wheaton, he could be relevant, but I wouldn't take him in a standard 10-team league at all and he'd be around pick 200 overall for me in deeper leagues. I wouldn't draft Moore, though could see him being a bye-week fill-in a time or two over the season, and wouldn't touch Heyward-Bey at all.

As for Bryant, he's interesting, but probably not ready for the fantasy limelight yet. Like I said, he'll have highlights, but I have no idea when they'll be. I might draft him super-late in a deep league out of curiosity, but he's far from a sure thing.

Tight end

Heath Miller has got to be the most boring skill player in the NFL, and I don't really consider that a knock on him. He's played at least 14 games all nine years of his career, including all 16 five times. He's put up between 514 and 816 yards a season for seven in a row. He's only been a top-five fantasy tight end once (2012) and only been top-10 three times, but he's basically always been floating around.

You won't draft Miller in basically any league. He's a low-end TE2 at best, because he is almost entirely without high upside. But Miller will be on the roster of six different teams in your league over the season, for any number of reasons. When you end up picking him up, smile, shrug your shoulders, and drop him after your starter comes off his bye.

Miss out on any of the team pieces so far? Catch up here:
AFC EAST NFC EAST
Buffalo Bills Dallas Cowboys
Miami Dolphins New York Giants
New England Patriots Philadelphia Eagles
New York Jets Washington
AFC NORTH NFC NORTH
Baltimore Ravens Chicago Bears
Cincinnati Bengals Detroit Lions
Cleveland Browns Green Bay Packers
Pittsburgh Steelers (Howdy)
Minnesota Vikings
AFC SOUTH NFC SOUTH
Houston Texans Atlanta Falcons
Indianapolis Colts Carolina Panthers
Jacksonville Jaguars New Orleans Saints
Tennessee Titans Tampa Bay Buccaneers
AFC WEST NFC WEST
Denver Broncos Arizona Cardinals
Kansas City Chiefs San Francisco 49ers
Oakland Raiders Seattle Seahawks
San Diego Chargers St. Louis Rams

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