There were some pretty impressive quarterback performances in 2015, with guys like Tom Brady, Cam Newton, Carson Palmer, and Russell Wilson all posting insane numbers, and Ben Roethlisberger was just as good as any of them, finishing 3rd among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus. Roethlisberger threw 16 interceptions, but other than that put up huge statistical numbers, completing 68.0% of his passes (4th in the NFL) and averaging 8.40 YPA (3rd in the NFL). He joined Russell Wilson as the only quarterbacks in the NFL to finish in the top-5 in both completion percentage and YPA and finished 2nd in QBR, with a career best 76.9.
Perhaps Roethlisberger’s value was most felt when he was off the field, as they moved the chains at a 75.00% rate in the 12 games he played (which would have been 5th best in the NFL over the whole season), as opposed to 63.64% in their other 4 games. Even when Roethlisberger was on the field, he was often playing hurt, which makes his season even more impressive. Perhaps most impressive was when he returned to the field against Cleveland the week after suffering a 4-6 week foot injury and played one of his best games of the season.
Roethlisberger is going into his age 34 season, but he’s playing as well as he ever has. Not only did he have an incredible year in 2015, but he also finished 3rd among quarterbacks in 2014, both career bests. Though the move was widely criticized as being a bad fit at first, Ben Roethlisberger has worked well with offensive coordinator Todd Haley and put up some very good numbers over the past 2 seasons. He’s completed a combined 67.5% of his passes for an average of 8.25 YPA, 53 touchdowns, and 25 interceptions, all well above his career averages. If he can stay healthy, he could have an incredible year in 2016.
Health is the obvious key. Roethlisberger has never had any major injuries, playing at least 12 games in every season in the league, but always ends up missing time for one reason or another. 21 games missed in 12 seasons in the league is not bad at all, but he’s also only played all 16 games three times in those 12 seasons. It’s definitely worth noting that two of those three 16-game seasons were 2013 and 2014 and that he takes significant fewer hits than he used to early in his career.
He still plays an aggressive style and is one of the toughest players in the league, but has improved pass protection around him and gets the ball out quicker in Todd Haley’s offense. Roethlisberger only took 20 sacks last season, so, as banged up as he was by the end of last season, you can’t blame it on him taking too many sacks. The Steelers will obviously pray he stays healthy, as Landry Jones remains as the primary backup quarterback and he struggled mightily in the first action of his career in 2015.
Though the Steelers have a solid overall offensive line, they did enter the off-season with a hole at left tackle. Kelvin Beachum was great there in 2014 and for the first half of 2015, but then tore his ACL and was replaced by Alejandro Villanueva, a 2010 undrafted free agent who was underwhelming in his first starting experience. Beachum signed with the Jaguars this off-season and the Steelers only signed veteran Ryan Harris and drafted LSU offensive tackle Jerald Hawkins in the 4th round. Hawkins is likely a year away at best, while Harris wasn’t any better than Villanueva was in 2015. He has more experience, with 70 career starts, but he’s going to his age 31 season, so, with experience, comes age and it’s unclear how much he has left in the tank. Villanueva seems like the favorite to keep the job.
Beachum wasn’t the only Steeler starting offensive lineman to suffer a major injury, as center Maurkice Pouncey ended up missing the whole season with a broken leg that required 7 total surgeries. He’s supposedly back to 100% now, but he’s been on the field for just 17 of 48 possible games over the past 3 seasons thanks to that broken leg and a torn ACL. Pouncey is only going into his age 27 season and was Pro Football Focus 6th ranked center in 2014, but repeated lower body injuries take a toll on a player. He may not be that good again this season, but he’s graded out above average in every healthy season he’s been in the NFL and I’d expect him to do so again in 2016, barring another injury.
While the Steelers did not re-sign left tackle Kelvin Beachum, leaving Villanueva to start there, they did keep left guard Ramon Foster and they got him on a great deal, 9.6 million over 3 years. Foster has made 76 of 80 starts in the past 5 seasons and has graded out above average in 4 of them, including 12th in 2013 and 18th last season. His age is beginning to become a concern, as he’s going into his age 30 season, but there’s no reason he couldn’t have gotten more elsewhere. He may have taken less to stay. Even if he didn’t, it’s a steal for Pittsburgh.
On the other side is a guard that is going to cost the Steelers a lot more to keep, as right guard David DeCastro, a 2012 1st round pick, is one of the best young interior offensive linemen in the league. Still only going in his age 26 season, and the final year of his rookie deal, DeCastro has shaken off a bad rookie year knee injury to make 47 starts in the last 3 seasons and has finished in the top-19 among guards on Pro Football Focus in all 3 of those seasons. The Steelers will likely try to extend him before free agency and the franchise tag may be an option to keep him off the open market if it comes to that.
Rounding out the offensive line is right tackle Marcus Gilbert, another solid player. A 2011 2nd round pick, Gilbert has made 62 starts in 5 seasons in the league and has graded out above average in 4 of those seasons, including 23th among offensive tackles in 2014 and 28th among offensive tackles in 2015. The big 6-6 329 pounder has only ever played right tackle in the NFL and doesn’t have the lateral quickness to move over to the left side; he barely played left tackle in college. That’s unfortunate because left tackle is the most important position on the offensive line and is currently a position of weakness for the Steelers, but it’s a strong offensive line otherwise.
The quarterback position is obviously the most valuable in the NFL, so Ben Roethlisberger is definitely the Steelers’ offensive MVP, but there might not be a non-quarterback as valuable to an offense as Steeler wide receiver Antonio Brown is to this offense. Together with Roethlisberger, they are a borderline unstoppable combination. In the 12 games Roethlisberger played last season, Antonio Brown caught 119 passes for 1599 yards and 10 touchdowns, a ridiculous 159/2132/13 pace over 16 games, which would shatter multiple records. He’s unlikely to quite put up those numbers this season, but the all-time record of 1964 receiving yards set 4 years ago by Calvin Johnson is certainly in reach if both Brown and Roethlisberger stay healthy.
Even with Roethlisberger missing time last season, Brown still finished with 136 catches for 1834 yards and 10 touchdowns. He’s no one-year wonder either as he’s played all 48 games in the past 3 seasons and has averaged 125 catches for 1677 yards and 10 touchdowns per season. Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked wide receiver in 2015, Brown has finished in the top-3 in three straight seasons and is the most dominant receiver in the league right now. The closest thing we’ve seen to Jerry Rice, Brown is simply uncoverable in the modern, spread out game and, still only going into his age 28 season, he has a chance to put up absurd career numbers and break a lot of records.
Brown could see even more targets and be an even bigger part of this offense this season because of off-season losses around him. Unlike on the offensive line, where the Steelers get center Maurkice Pouncey back from injury, in the receiving corps, the Steelers lost #2 wide receiver Martavis Bryant and starting tight end Heath Miller this off-season. The latter played well last season, but would have been going into his age 34 season this season, so his retirement isn’t a huge deal.
Bryant, however, was a promising young wide receiver who looked poised for a breakout year in his 3rd year in the league in 2016, before failing his 3rd drug test in as many years and being suspended for at least a year. A 2014 4th round pick by the Steelers, Bryant flashed on 306 snaps as a rookie, averaging 2.75 yards per route run and scoring 8 touchdowns on 26 catches and then caught 50 passes for 765 yards and 6 touchdowns in 11 games in 2015. He was going to be a much bigger part of their offense in 2016 than Miller.
To order to try to replace Bryant, the Steelers will start 4th year player Markus Wheaton opposite Brown, with 2nd year player Sammie Coates likely as the 3rd receiver. Coates has incredible upside and profiles similar to Martavis Bryant at 6-1 212 with 4.43 wheels, but was limited to just 60 snaps as a 3rd round rookie in 2015. The early off-season reports have been good, but he’s still really raw. Markus Wheaton, meanwhile, is experienced, with 19 starts in the past 2 seasons, and isn’t a bad starter at all, grading out above average in both of those seasons.
However, Wheaton is an unspectacular player going into the final year of his rookie contract, so the Steelers are probably hoping that Coates can push him to start outside and replace Bryant, but that seems unlikely. Most likely, Wheaton will start outside and move to his natural position on the slot in 3+ wide receiver sets, with Coates coming in as the 3rd receiver and playing outside. The Steelers also like 2nd year undrafted free agent Eli Rogers, even though he didn’t play a snap as a rookie, and he could also see snaps in 3-wide receiver sets. A natural slot receiver, he’d line up between Brown and Wheaton in that situation.
Miller they replaced with free agent with Ladarius Green, though it’s possible he never plays for them, as he didn’t practice all off-season and reportedly may have to retire because of lingering headaches from concussions. Green was drafted in the 4th round by the Chargers in 2012 and quickly became the heir apparent to aging future Hall-of-Fame tight end Antonio Gates, but Gates is somewhat remarkably still the starter in San Diego, going into his 14th season with the team, so Green signed in Pittsburgh on a 4-year, 20 million dollar deal as a free agent this off-season. He was expected to be the starter, but that’s up in the air now.
Even as the #2 tight end, Green actually played 665 snaps last season for the Chargers because they had so many injuries and he graded out above average for the 3rd straight season. He doesn’t come over completely inexperienced, though prior to 2015 he had never played more than 370 snaps in a season. If healthy, he’ll be a good replacement for Miller. Miller was a solid pass catcher, but never put up huge numbers and was primarily valuable as a run blocker at 6-5 256. The 11-year veteran Miller’s best receiving numbers season was probably 2012, when he caught 71 passes for 816 yards and 8 touchdowns.
Green is a great pass catcher when healthy, though the 6-6 237 pounder isn’t nearly as good as a blocker. Second year player Jesse James, who flashed on 211 snaps as a 5th round rookie last season, is the #2 tight end and would start in Green’s absence. He has upside, but is probably best as a #2 blocking tight end, so the Steelers are obviously hoping Green can suit up for them. If he can’t, they may be able to reclaim some or all of the 4.75 million dollar signing bonus they gave him this off-season, if they can prove that medical information was withheld. With Bryant and Miller gone and Green hurt, Antonio Brown will be targeted very often this season.
Roethlisberger, Beachum, and Pouncey weren’t the only Steeler starters on offense to miss time in 2015, as running back Le’Veon Bell was limited to just 6 games by a 2-game suspension and a knee injury that ended his season week 9. His healthy return should be huge for this offense, as Bell has been arguably the best running back in football over the past 2 seasons when healthy, though his return will be delayed by another 3-game suspension. The 2013 2nd round pick has rushed for 1917 yards and 11 touchdowns on 403 carries (4.76 YPC) in 22 games in the last 2 seasons, while adding 107 catches for 990 yards and another 3 touchdowns through the air.
Bell was Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked running back in 2014 and was #1 through week 9 last season before tearing his meniscus. Even coming off the injury, he figures to pick up right where he left off when he returns week 4, still only going into his age 24 season and his 4th year in the league. Going into the final year of his rookie deal, he’ll be in for a big payday if he can stay healthy, stay out of trouble, and run like he can this season. He’ll be an obvious candidate for the franchise tag next off-season.
The biggest reason why the Steelers moved the chains so easily even without Bell for most of the season was veteran backup running back DeAngelo Williams turning the clock back, rushing for 907 yards and 11 touchdowns on 200 carries (4.54 YPC) and adding 40 catches for another 367 yards. Part of that was the offensive line, but he still finished 8th among running backs on Pro Football Focus on his own. Williams was released by the Panthers following a 2014 season in which he played just 6 games and averaged 3.53 yards per carry, but he bounced back in a huge way in 2015. He’s the oldest running back in the NFL, going into his age 33 season, but has quietly averaged 4.75 yards per carry in his career and could still be effective in a smaller role with Bell back. He’ll be the starter for the first 3 weeks of the season and you can do a lot worse than him. Bell and Williams are arguably the best running back duo in the NFL.
Even with the Steelers’ offense banged up and not performing as well overall as they did in 2014, the Steelers still won 10 games and made the playoffs. That’s mostly because of an improved defense, which finished 12th in rate of moving the chains allowed in 2015. With their offense pretty set, the Steelers have used a lot of high draft picks on defense in the past few years, including their first 3 picks this off-season. Two of those picks who have really paid off for the Steelers are Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt. The two starting 3-4 defensive ends, Heyward and Tuitt finished 10th and 14th respectively among 3-4 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus in 2015.
Tuitt struggled as a 2nd round rookie in 2014, finishing 40th among 47 eligible 3-4 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus, but had a breakout year in 2015. He’s talented enough to continue playing at a high level going forward and his best football could still be ahead of him, still only going into his age 23 season, but he is a one-year wonder. Heyward, on the other hand, is not. The 2011 1st round pick has played in all 48 games over the past 3 seasons and has finished in the top-19 among 3-4 defensive ends in all 3 seasons, maxing out at 6th in 2014. The Steelers wisely locked him up for 59.2 million over 6 years last off-season, as he’s probably their best defensive player.
The Steelers also added South Carolina State’s Javon Hargrave in the 3rd round, as depth was an issue on the defensive line in 2015, but he could easily struggle as a rookie. Heyward and Tuitt will command the lion’s share of the snaps again anyway, so it shouldn’t be a huge issue. Hargrave could also see snaps at nose tackle at 6-1 309, where he’ll compete with Daniel McCullers to replace departed free agent Steve McClendon. McClendon wasn’t a great player, but McCullers has played just 215 snaps in 2 seasons in the league since going in the 6th round, so they’re very inexperienced at the position now. It’s a weakness on an overall strong defensive line.
Heyward is one of six former 1st round picks on Pittsburgh’s defense, including 4 linebackers. At outside linebacker, it’s Jarvis Jones (2013) and Bud Dupree (2015). Despite having a pair of recent high draft picks, the Steelers’ best outside linebacker last season was still veteran James Harrison, a 2002 undrafted free agent who is somehow still going strong, even though now he’s the oldest defensive player in the NFL. Going into his age 38 season, his abilities could certainly fall off a cliff quickly and it’s really, really tough to rely on players in their late 30s, but he’s graded out above average in all 9 seasons in Pro Football Focus’ history, including 6th among 3-4 outside linebackers on 714 snaps last season. He may not get into the Hall-of-Fame when it’s all said and done, but he deserves to. The Steelers will obviously be hoping he can keep it up and hold off father time for another season.
The Steelers will also be hoping that Jones and Dupree can be better this season, as neither has lived up their first round rookie billing yet. Dupree was just a rookie last season, but he was horrible, finishing 109th out of 110 eligible edge defenders on Pro Football Focus. It’s hard to call him a bust this early in his career, but he’s certainly not off to a good start. Jones, on the other hand, you can call a bust, as the Steelers declined his 5th year option for 2017, even though it was guaranteed for injury only, making 2016 his contract year. It was probably the right move though, as Jones does have a history of injuries, missing 12 games in 3 seasons in the league. He’s also graded out below average in all 3 seasons in the league and was limited to just 453 regular season snaps in 2015, despite playing a career best 15 games.
Arthur Moats is also in the mix for snaps, so Jones could easily be 4th in snaps played at the position for the 2nd straight season. Moats’ 554 regular season snaps in 2015 were a career high, but has graded about above average in 3 of 6 seasons in the league, specifically 2012-2014, and graded out just below average in 2015, outplaying Jones. He’s a solid rotational player for the Steelers, but little else. The Steelers will need Harrison to continue playing at a high level, Dupree to break out, or, less likely, Jones to break out, if they want this to be an above average group in 2016.
At middle linebacker, the Steelers are starting the other two former 1st round picks in this linebacking corps, Lawrence Timmons (2007) and Ryan Shazier (2014). However, they also both struggled in 2015, finishing 87th and 64th respectively among 97 linebackers on Pro Football Focus. Timmons has had better years, grading out above average in 6 of 9 seasons in the league and finishing 11th among middle linebackers as recently as 2014. He’s going into his age 30 season, so his best days might be behind him, but he still has bounce back potential.
Shazier does not have bounce back potential, as he struggled on 260 snaps as a rookie in 2014, before struggling last year on 667 snaps. He’s also missed 11 games with injury in 2 years in the league. Still only going into his age 24 season, he still has good upside, but the Steelers need him to take a step forward in 2016. It’s a linebacking corps with high upside, but that upside is all unlikely to be capitalized on. With the ancient James Harrison as easily their best linebacker, there isn’t a sure thing in the group.
The 6th former 1st round pick that’s expected to play a large role for the Steelers on defense this season is this year’s top pick, Miami’s cornerback Artie Burns. He didn’t have an obvious rookie role when the Steelers drafted him, with Ross Cockrell and William Gay playing well last season and 2015 2nd round pick Senquez Golston returning from an injury that cost him his entire rookie season. However, Golston is injured again and is not expected to return until late in the season, if at all, after breaking his foot this off-season. That locks Burns into at least a top-3 role with Cockell and Gay, though he could struggle. Widely regarded as raw and a reach, Burns received just a 5th round grade from Pro Football Focus before the draft. That may prove to be an exaggeration, but he figures to struggle as a rookie. If he pans out for the Steelers, it’ll be long-term as he just turned 21.
Cockrell and Gay, meanwhile, both graded out above average last season, so both will be hard to unseat. Cockrell was the better of the two last season, finishing 27th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in a breakout season. A 4th round pick of the Bills in 2014, who played just 11 snaps as rookie before being a final cut last September, Cockrell had the Bills kicking themselves for letting him go. He made just 7 starts last season (684 snaps) and is still a one-year wonder, but he could continue to play at a high level in 2016 and is penciled into a starting role.
Gay, meanwhile, has quietly been a solid cornerback for years, making 92 starts in the past 8 seasons and grading out above average in 6 of those 8 seasons. Aside from a disastrous 2012 season in Arizona, Gay has been a very dependable starter for several years. He’s also never missed a game in 9 years in the league and, even going into his age 31 season, he’s not at the point where his age is a serious concern. The Steelers made a great move this off-season, keeping him on 3-year, 7.5 million dollar deal. He’ll likely keep his starting job and play the slot in sub packages, with Burns and Cockrell playing outside.
Burns isn’t the only rookie defensive back competing for a job in the secondary, as 2nd round rookie Sean Davis could start at safety. Following the legendary Troy Polamalu’s retirement, veteran Will Allen filled in admirably in 2015, but is no longer with the team, leaving them to choose between 2013 4th round pick Shamarko Thomas, who has played just 216 snaps in 3 seasons in the league (including just 23 in 2014 and 2015 combined), and the rookie Davis, a converted collegiate cornerback and also a reach. It figures to be a position of weakness regardless of who wins the job.
Michael Mitchell fortunately remains as the other starting safety, following a strong 2015 season in which he finished 24th among safeties on Pro Football Focus. Unfortunately, Mitchell has been inconsistent throughout his career, grading out below average in 4 of 7 seasons. He’s proven to be a late bloomer though, making 46 of his 55 career starts in the past 3 seasons, and grading out above average in 2 of those 3 seasons. Coming off of arguably the best season of his career, he might not be quite as good again in 2016, but should have another solid season. He’s probably the best defensive back on an underwhelming secondary.
The Steelers had one of the best offenses in the league in 2014 (3rd in rate of moving the chains), but fell to 10th in 2015, largely as a result of injuries. Fortunately, their defense stepped up, allowing them to make the playoffs for the 2nd straight season, but ultimately lost a close one in Denver in the playoffs, a game they played without top receiver Antonio Brown, who was concussed. Injuries have already been a problem this off-season for the Steelers, as Senquez Golson and Ladarius Green could miss the entire season. On top of that, suspended wide receiver Martavis Bryant is out for the year, while running back Le’Veon Bell’s return from a torn meniscus will be delayed by a 3-game suspension. That being said, they’re still a talented team and they play in a wide open AFC where no team is without major flaws, so they’ll be in the mix once again, as long as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is healthy.
Prediction: 10-6 1st in AFC North