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Team Previews: Pittsburgh Steelers

Rick Kinigson

Rick has played fantasy sports since 1984 and has been writing for RotoWire since 2011. He's contributed to a fantasy football segment featured on CBS Sports, and has also written original material for ESPN Radio 1050AM in New York.

THE SKINNY
A nine-game winning streak ended with a loss in last season's AFC championship game. Behind a stout O-line, one of the NFL's most potent offenses averaged 25 points, and the defense rallied from an awful start to finish strong. With the team's nucleus intact, another competitive campaign is in order.

THREE THINGS TO KNOW

IS THE CLOCK WINDING DOWN FOR BIG BEN?
Though Ben Roethlisberger hinted after the Steelers were eliminated from the playoffs last season that he was unsure of his playing future, it was widely assumed that he'd continue to tough things out, despite missing six games over the past two seasons and often playing hobbled when he was in uniform. Through it all, Roethlisberger, who turned 35 this offseason, remains one of the NFL's top quarterbacks, coming off a 2016 campaign in which he threw for 3,819 yards, with a 29:13 TD:INT ratio over 14 games. Predictably, the 13-year-veteran will be back in 2017, but this wasn't the first time he's hinted at leaving the game and the Steelers took his words seriously enough to invest a fourth-round draft pick in fellow signal-caller Joshua Dobbs. Dobbs made 35 starts over four college campaigns with Tennessee, compiling a 61.5 percent completion rate and a 53:29 TD:INT ratio, while setting school records in rushing yards (2,160) and rushing touchdowns by a quarterback (32). At 6-3, 216 pounds, Dobbs isn't close to Big Ben's size, but he does possess good athleticism and outstanding intellect, traits that suggest he could develop nicely as a pro. For now, though, Landry Jones is still next in line for QB snaps if -- or more likely when -- Roethlisberger misses time this coming season.

Antonio Brown AND A CAST OF (SEEMINGLY) THOUSANDS
Over the last three campaigns, Antonio Brown -- RotoWire's No. 1 ranked fantasy wideout this year -- has tallied an impressive total of 371 catches for 4,816 yards and 35 TDs. The Steelers took note and signed the 28-year-old, who hauled in 106 passes in 15 contests in 2016, to a lucrative deal that runs through the 2021 season. After that, however, question marks exist beyond Brown on the squad's depth chart, despite the reinstatement of mercurial talent Martavis Bryant and the continued presence of slot man Eli Rogers, who caught 48 passes in 2016. Free-agent signee Justin Hunter and rookie Juju Smith-Schuster join a volatile wide receiver corps that also includes drop-prone Sammie Coates and veteran speedster Darrius Heyward-Bey. Cobi Hamilton and Demarcus Ayers are in the mix as well, with Marcus Tucker and Canaan Severin in reserve. Bryant's red-zone upside is tantalizing, but he's coming off a season-long suspension and needs to work his way back into the mix. The team's second-round selection of Smith-Schuster raised some eyebrows, given some of the team's other needs, but his toughness compares favorably to that of former Steeler stalwart Hines Ward. However things shake out, there's fantasy value to be mined here, especially considering the team's unsettled tight end situation.

YOUTH MOVEMENT CONTINUES ON DEFENSE
James Harrison remains a locker room leader but it's telling that at age 38, he led the team in sacks with five. Collectively, the Steelers had 21 sacks in 2016. Only the Raiders had fewer. That said, the unit as a whole is trending younger and faster and appears to be on the rebound. After a fruitful 2016 draft in which they added Artie Burns, Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave, Pittsburgh used two of its first three picks, and four overall, to further bolster the team's defense. First-round pick T.J. Watt is an above-average pass rusher with the skills to play the run. A perfect fit for the team's 3-4 scheme, he could shift inside, eliminating the need to start Vince Williams, L.J. Fort or Tyler Matakevich alongside Ryan Shazier. The secondary once again was addressed by the drafting of cornerbacks Cam Sutton in round three and Brian Allen in round five. Sutton is an upgrade over Ross Cockrell and Allen could develop into a quality starter. Meanwhile, free-agent addition Coty Sensabaugh figures to compete for the nickel corner job. The Steelers added outside linebacker depth with their pick of Keion Adams in the seventh round, and offseason pickup Tyson Alualu provides insurance on the defensive line in the event Cameron Heyward hasn't fully recovered from the pectoral injury that ended his 2016 season early.

PIVOTAL PLAYER: Le'Veon Bell
Bell profiles as a complete back who runs with power and extraordinary patience. Moreover, he's an extremely talented pass catcher who holds his own as a blocker. The only thing that seems to stop Bell is Bell, as the 25-year-old has missed multiple regular-season and postseason games over his pro career due to suspensions and injury.

BAROMETER

RISING: Juju Smith-Schuster
Checking in at 6-1, 215 pounds, Smith-Schuster has drawn comparisons to Anquan Boldin. He gives the Pittsburgh passing offense a physical and competitive player to pair with all-universe wideout Antonio Brown.

FALLING: Sammie Coates
After a solid start last year, a bothersome hand injury hampered Coates down the stretch. He's on notice now following Martavis Bryant's reinstatement, the signing of Justin Hunter, the drafting of Smith-Schuster and offseason arthroscopic knee surgery.

SLEEPER: James Conner
DeAngelo Williams' exit creates a void behind Le'Veon Bell, who has missed 20 games since joining the league. The physical Conner could have the edge over both Fitzgerald Toussaint and Knile Davis on that front.

KEY JOB BATTLE STARTING TIGHT END
Last season's highly anticipated tight end battle between Jesse James and free agent Ladarius Green never came to fruition. An ankle injury and concussion kept Green off the field for all but six games, resulting in James playing nearly 80 percent of the team's offensive snaps, which led to him totaling 338 yards and three scores on 39 receptions. Green has since been released and the job seems to belong to James, but he could face a challenge from Xavier Grimble, who was decent in his rookie season, catching 11 passes for 118 yards and two touchdowns in limited action. Grimble should see an increase in playing time, and could put pressure on James, making this one of the more interesting competitions to watch throughout training camp.

KEY ACQUISITIONS:
T.J. Watt LB (Rd. 1, No. 30 Wisconsin)
J.J.'s little brother is versatile and fortifies the pass rush.

Juju Smith-Schuster WR (Rd. 2, No. 62 USC)
With his ability to make difficult grabs, could supplant Sammie Coates.

James Conner RB (Rd. 3, No. 105 Pittsburgh)
Provides a bruising backfield complement to starter Le'Veon Bell.

Tyson Alualu DE (from Jaguars)
Brings versatility to the DL, with experience at both tackle and end.

KEY LOSSES:
Lawrence Timmons LB (to Dolphins)
Was the Steelers' top tackler the last four seasons.

Ladarius Green TE (FA)
Splashy 2016 offseason signing let go with failed physical designation.

DeAngelo Williams RB (FA)
Filled in well for Bell but starting to show signs of age.

Markus Wheaton WR (to Bears)
Missed 13 games last season with shoulder issue that required surgery.

THE INJURY FRONT
Le'Veon Bell, RB Bell underwent offseason groin surgery and was a no-show for minicamp, but that likely has more to do with receiving the franchise tag and his desire for a long-term deal than his health, and he is expected to be ready for the regular season.

Sammie Coates, WR Coates underwent offseason surgery to repair fractures and tendon damage in his left hand, then followed that up with groin and knee procedures, the latter of which will keep him sidelined at the initial practices of training camp.

Demarcus Ayers, WR After playing in just two games last season, Ayers underwent sports-hernia surgery on both sides of his legs, but now appears ready to face stiff competition for a spot on Pittsburgh's 53-man roster.