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Friday, August 21, 2009
Plenty of upside, but who will produce?

By Christopher Harris
ESPN.com

Do the defending Super Bowl champs have anyone on their offense fantasy players can get excited about?

32 Questions

How crazy would it be if they didn't? The Scott Van Pelt Memorial Fantasy Haters club must be having a field day with this one. The defending Super Bowl champion Steelers don't have a quarterback ranked among ESPN Fantasy's top 10 quarterbacks, or a rusher or receiver among our top 20 at their respective positions. In other words, per our own rankings, we're basically telling you that you shouldn't be planning on starting any Steelers skill-position players every week in a 10-team fantasy league.

Hey, I love fantasy football. But nobody ever claimed it was an exact replica of real-life football. Occasionally an NFL offense comes along that succeeds because it's stubborn, hard-nosed and can overcome relative inefficiencies with big plays in big moments. That was the '08 Steelers. Buoyed by the league's best defense, Ben Roethlisberger & Co. gave up 49 sacks, threw 19 touchdowns and 15 picks, scored the 20th-most points in the NFL while racking up the 22nd-most yards, and yet managed to win 15 games (playoffs included). The AFC's Super Bowl representative in 2007 was a poster child for pinball fantasy numbers, but the Patriots lost that title game. All the humdrum Steelers did in '08 was win one for the other thumb.

Ben Roethlisberger
Ben Roethlisberger is a great team leader who wins games, but he doesn't necessarily produce start-worthy fantasy numbers.

But are we being too hasty in our disdain for all things Roethlisberger-related this summer? After all, Big Ben tossed 32 touchdowns in '07, and in the past he has shown he can be a downfield stallion, having racked up two seasons of 8.9 yards per attempt; impressive indeed. And Willie Parker is only three seasons removed from a 16-touchdown campaign. And Hines Ward posted the fifth 1,000-yard season of his career last year. And Santonio Holmes is coming into his fourth year buoyed by his Super Bowl heroics. Surely there's something here for the black-and-gold fantasy owner to love?

Well, let's take 'em position by position. Roethlisberger is a tough son of a gun, but his better days came when he played behind a better offensive line. Max Starks doesn't rank in the top half of my league-wide list of reliable pass-blocking left tackles, and right tackle Willie Colon is undersized for his position. You can get to Big Ben now, and I think that explains why he's throwing fewer deep balls (his yards-per-attempt average has dipped from 7.9 in each of his first two seasons to 7.5, 7.8 and 7.0 in the past three), and why he's constantly banged up (he's currently battling an ankle injury). It's not as though he shouldn't be owned in a fantasy league; in the past, he has shown he can be a high-upside player, and I don't mind him at all as a fine No. 2 fantasy quarterback with the potential for more. But until his line gets better, I'm not starting him.

The backfield situation still finds the troika of Willie Parker, Rashard Mendenhall and Mewelde Moore, which produced no single rusher over 800 yards or five touchdowns last season. Parker and Mendenhall each got hurt (Parker missed five games, Mendenhall missed 12) and the immortal Gary Russell wound up stealing goal-line touches later in the season. In this summer's camp, Parker has been out with a bad back, Moore has missed time with a hurt hamstring, and Mendenhall has gotten rather insanely mixed reviews. One day John Clayton reports that Mendenhall is the team's "back of the future" and that he has looked good in camp; the next the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette rips Mendenhall, saying he has been "ordinary" and is an "enigma." Plus, Parker turns 29 in November and is in his walk year. He's the starter, yes, but he couldn't hold up health-wise last season, and I think he's a poor enough bet to do so this year that I wouldn't consider him a top-20 back.

And the receiving situation is similarly muddled. We keep hearing how Holmes is ready to be a big-play guy, but he never has caught more than 55 passes in a season, and he took a step back from eight touchdowns in '07 to five in '08. Meanwhile, Ward led the Steelers in targets, yards, catches, red-zone looks and receiving touchdowns, but is coming off yet another round of surgeries, this time to his knee and shoulder. Plus, he's 33 years old. So which horse do you back? I think it's still Ward, because last season Holmes caught only 48 percent of the passes thrown his way and didn't eclipse the 100-yard mark in any regular-season game. As long as Ward is healthy, it seems Holmes will always be foiled in the red zone, too (he had 11 red-zone targets in '08 to Ward's 21). Meanwhile, there also remains the possibility that second-year man Limas Sweed could get involved in the passing game, and while Heath Miller's primary value to Pittsburgh rests in his ability to be a sixth offensive lineman, he grabbed three scores last season and can be a nuisance to these fantasy receivers too.

And that sums up the Steelers in fantasyland this year: talented players, but a big ol' muddle at the skill positions. With so much ball-distribution uncertainty surrounding an offense that was -- let's face the facts -- not particularly strong in '08, there's too much risk to take any of these guys high enough in your fantasy draft to warrant starting them. That's not to say none of them will wind up producing top-20 stats for their respective positions; in fact, someone I've just discussed probably will. But it's very, very tough to single out whom it will be. Draft that Steelers defense with great passion and vigor, because it should be very good again. But wait on those Pittsburgh offensive players.

Christopher Harris is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com and is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writing Association award winner. You can find him at www.facebook.com/writerboy.