Pittsburgh Steelers' coach Mike Tomlin took out this past January's Divisional Playoff loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars on an unsuspecting coordinator. Instead of deriding the defense for allowing the Jags to score 45 points against Pitt in a home playoff game, Tomlin decided that the Steelers had to part ways with their offensive coordinator, Todd Haley.
The Cleveland Browns scooped up Haley, who had turned Pitt's offense into a 25.4 points and close to 400 yards on average machine. There's no doubt Haley will have some success with the Browns.
A bigger question is what the fantasy impact might be on the Pittsburgh Steelers. Under Haley, RB Le'Veon Bell, WR Antonio Brown, and to some extent QB Big Ben Roethlisberger became fantasy studs. Brown is, arguably, the safest play in fantasy football. Will Haley's successor, Randy Fichtner, have the same success on the scoreboard as Haley had?
NFL Fantasy: With Haley Out Can Steelers Offense Still Rock?
Before getting into how Fichtner is likely to use Pittsburgh's bevy of stars, it makes sense to look at Fichtner's background. Pitt's new offensive coordinator has in recent years served as the team's quarterbacks coach. What that means is that Fichtner and Roethlisberger should be on the same page more often than not. That's the real reason Tomlin decided to part ways with Haley, per more than one source.
The idea is that Fichtner will tweak the system that Haley has installed. By just tweaking the system to better reflect the abilities of Roethlisberger, Bell, and Brown, the hope is that the Steelers will field a more efficient, and slightly more dangerous offense. That's the goal.
Now, let's take a look at Pittsburgh's NFL Fantasy stars and how the move from Haley to Fichtner could impact their FF production this season.
QB Ben Roethlisberger
Roethlisberger had just a so-so 2017. He threw a decent 28 TD passes. But, he also threw 14 interceptions. The 4,251 yards were nice. The completion percentage of only 64% was well below that of Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and Aaron Rodgers.
The key to remember about Ben is that he and Fichtner have a decidedly better relationship than what Ben had with Haley. That should lead to better communication. Will that help Ben Roethlisberger return to Fantasy QB1 stud status? Probably not.
Word is that Roethlisberger wanted to run more no-huddle than Haley wanted to run. I'm not sure if that's the answer for the Steelers, a team that traditionally has relied on a strong rushing attack. We must wait and see, but my guess is that one of the tweaks Fichtner makes is to the passing game, meaning he won't run more no-huddle the way that Ben likes.
WR Antonio Brown
Last season, Brown caught 101 passes for 1,533 yards. He also caught 9 TD passes. It was the fifth straight season that Antonio had at least 100 catches, over 1,250 receiving yards, and at least 8 TD catches. Brown is a solid Fantasy Football WR1. Under Fichtner, Brown's numbers could remain relatively the same.
Or, they could end up slightly worse. The reason they could end up slightly worse is because for the first time in at least 5 seasons, the Pittsburgh Steelers have a legit WR2. JuJu Smith-Schuster is a gifted wide receiver. That means Antonio Brown's numbers could go down. They won't go down to the point where Antonio doesn't approach 100 catches on the season. They could go down in the amount of yardage and the TDs that Antonio scores.
The bottom line with Antonio Brown is that although he remains a Round 1 Fantasy Football pick, he almost certainly won't be the 10 TD, 1,500 yards automatic FF player he was before 2017. Those days are long gone.
WR JuJu Smith-Schuster
Smith-Schuster started 7 of 14 games played in his rookie season. His stats in those 7 games started is impressive. The 58 catches, 8 TDs, and 917 receiving yards should have JuJu on most every fantasy football player's map. He could, if Fichtner tweaks the offense the right way, be a WR1 on many season-long fantasy football teams.
Smith-Schuster's numbers could go up significantly this season. The reliance on Antonio Brown isn't has important as it has been since the 2013-2014 NFL Season. One of the tweaks Fichtner makes almost certainly will be to call Smith-Schuster's number more this season than Haley did in JuJu's rookie year.
RB Le'Veon Bell
There are some players where predicting their likely fantasy stats is as easy as looking at last season's fantasy stats. Bell's stats last season were awesome. He made his fantasy owners happy by catching 85 passes, scoring a combined 11 TDs, and racking up a combined 1,946 yards. When Bell's healthy, he's been one of the best performers in both the NFL, daily fantasy contests, and season long fantasy football contests.
That's makes Bell a home run pick in Round 1, right? Not exactly. The problem with drafting Le'Veon Bell too early is that you must rely on Randy Fichtner and Mike Tomlin to have the same faith in Bell that they've had in him these past few seasons. What I'm getting at is that for Bell to continue to be a Top 5 Fantasy Football Pick, he must get the ball.
Why wouldn't Pittsburgh give Bell the ball this season? That's where it gets tricky. If Pitt was all in on Le'Veon Bell, they'd have offered him more than a 1-year, franchised tendered, contract. Every off season, Bell complains about his contract. Every off season, it feels like Pittsburgh franchises their star running back.
Spotrac, who keep track of contracts in all the major sports, recently wrote an article where they said it's unlikely Pitt extends Le'Veon Bell. If they've already decided that they don't care if Bell leaves after this season, why give him the football as much as they have in the past?
RB James Connor
By his own admission, James Connor had a bad rookie season. From 32 carries, he only rushed for 144 yards. That's not good at all. But, there's a silver lining. The yardage that Connor gained from each carry was a sweet 4.5 yards per.
If Randy Fichtner, with Tomlin's blessing of course, decides to slow down Pitt's tempo and only go no-huddle under certain situations, Connor could benefit. If I'm right about Pitt having gotten tired of dealing with Le'Veon Bell every off season, Connor could be the diamond in the rough RB that most every season long fantasy football player craves.
My gut tells me that of Pittsburgh's skill players, Connor and Schuster-Smith offer the most fantasy football value because of where they're likely to be drafted. Beware drafting Brown and Bell too early while picking up Big Ben could go either way.