How will the upheaval on the Steelers' offensive line affect the fantasy value of the team's skill-position players?
On June 28, Pittsburgh Steelers tackle Willie Colon tore his Achilles' tendon while working out, ending his 2010-11 season before it ever began. Observers might look at that and feel relieved that Colon is a right tackle, the side where less-skilled offensive linemen (on teams with right-handed quarterbacks) tend to play. In Colon's case, however, that's not true. He was Pittsburgh's best offensive lineman, a relatively small player (315 pounds, which qualifies him as "small" by tackle standards) who nevertheless developed into one of the best run-blockers in football. And in '09, Colon also made himself into a serviceable pass-blocker. His loss is huge.
In contrast, starting left tackle Max Starks allowed eight sacks last season, putting him in the top 10 among all tackles. He's pretty much a league-average, all-around blocker. And the interior of this line was one of the worst in football last year: Right guard Trai Essex was awful (ProFootballFocus.com listed him as having led all guards in allowing quarterback pressures in '09), center Justin Hartwig wasn't much better (the 15 QB pressures he allowed according to PFF.com was second-worst among blockers at his position) and left guard Chris Kemoeatu has potential but was injured for much of last season. In short: Colon held this unit together. Now the Steelers have signed Flozell Adams, late of the Dallas Cowboys, to replace Colon at right tackle, and drafted Maurkice Pouncey (April's No. 18 overall pick), who figures to shore up some of the line's interior.
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Adams is still one of the league's best run-blockers, but his pass blocking has fallen off severely the past two seasons. With him replacing Colon on the right side, Ben Roethlisberger (once he returns from suspension) should be under as much pressure as ever. And remember, this is a quarterback who was sacked a league-high 50 times last year. Therefore, we have to add this to the list of question marks about Roethlisberger and the Steelers' passing game, which prominently includes Mike Wallace, Hines Ward and Heath Miller. Because I already had Big Ben as my No. 16 fantasy quarterback thanks to his league-imposed September absence, I'm not going to drop him any further in my rankings. You're probably still drafting him to be your fantasy second-stringer, and then hoping he comes on strong later in the season. I am also not ready to immediately downgrade Wallace, Ward or Miller, though if one receiver is likely to suffer if Roethlisberger has less time to throw, it's probably Wallace, who specializes in deep routes.
On the running side, things aren't as worrisome for Rashard Mendenhall. At age 35, Adams probably isn't a one-to-one equivalent for Colon, but he's a darned good run-blocker. And Mendenhall performed well enough once he took over the starting backfield gig from Willie Parker last season, even as the O-line was struggling (particularly in the interior, something Pouncey very well may help right away). I lowered Mendenhall in my RB ranks as a result of the Colon injury, to just outside my positional top 10. Rather than being a clear No. 1 fantasy back, I think he's now borderline, and better as a No. 2. But he should still be a big-time fantasy contributor.
The bottom line is that the real red alert is Pittsburgh's protection of (presumably) Byron Leftwich in the season's first month, especially around the edges. If Adams looks even worse against the pass than he did last season (and if his seemingly countless false-start penalties continue), Roethlisberger may be in some trouble when he returns. Meanwhile, the interior of this line has a long way to go and could be the Steelers' biggest weakness (Pouncey notwithstanding), but that was the case last season, and Mendenhall was pretty darned good in '09-10.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner. You can ask him questions at www.facebook.com/writerboy and follow him at www.twitter.com/thewriterboy.