Injuries tore through the Pittsburgh Steelers locker room last season, costing them Big Ben Roethlisberger for fourteen games, James Conner for (all or most of) eight games, and JuJu Smith-Schuster for four games. This year, they’ve come prepared, fortifying their running back room, their wide receiver corps… and hoping Big Ben doesn’t hurt himself again. Who are the 2020 Pittsburgh Steelers sleeper, breakout, and bust candidates?
Sleeper – Diontae Johnson, Wide Receiver (WR44, 116 overall)
You, me, and everybody else already know the Steelers’ sleeper for 2020 is Diontae Johnson, and he’s reaching the end of his sleeper status. But, not yet! The Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Diontae as Antonio Brown’s heir apparent, sooner or later. But, sooner came before later, as Brown embroiled himself in a million different insane things and found his way off the Steelers roster before 2019 started. He was given the twelfth-biggest cushion by opposing defensive backs, but he worked his magic anyway, averaging the highest target separation in the league. What does that mean? The kid just gets open.
Diontae Johnson turned it on down the stretch last year, getting 31 targets in the last four games. He turned that into six catches for 64 yards per contest, chipping in a touchdown every other game. That puts a final season tally of 92 catches, 1,028 yards and eight touchdowns as his pace out of those four games. Might I remind you this was with the second- and third-string quarterbacks. He’s a name to circle in your predraft rankings.
Breakout – JuJu Smith-Schuster, Wide Receiver (WR16, 40 overall)
Okay, this is a cop-out. JuJu Smith-Schuster is only 23 years old and has one of the best career starts for a wide receiver ever. That is, except last season when he was injured and getting passes from Duck Hodges and Mason Rudolph all season long. Since the merger, only seven wide receivers had more receiving yardage in their first two years than JuJu in 2017 and 2019. Either he had terrible quarterback play that led to his demise in 2019, or he forgot how to play football at 23 years old. He was a top-ten wide receiver going into last year, and is outside the top-fifteen this year, meaning that as a community, we’ve counted out JuJu. Don’t count out JuJu.
Bust – James Conner, Running Back (RB20, 43 overall)
James Conner has some very high highs in his time as a starter, he had nearly a touchdown per game in 2018 as the de facto Le’Veon Bell in Bell’s absence. He turned in a top-five fantasy season on a per-game basis in 2018, but missed three games, bumping him down. Then in 2019, he missed six games (you can see where I’m going with this) and was ineffective for fantasy purposes in two games he left early due to injury. All told, half of James Conner’s 2019 was wiped out with injury. The Steelers are ready for this inevitability in 2020, adding Benny Snell and Anthony McFarland in consecutive fourth-rounds, and turning to Jaylen Samuels as a scatback if needed.
Mike Tomlin has a track record of leaning on one running back. Since he entered the league, only the St. Louis-turned-Los Angeles Rams have more games with one running back getting at least 20 touches than the Pittsburgh Steelers. But, they’ve built a stable of running backs and a running back room that doesn’t have to rely on one player so much. Conner will need a reduced workload if he is to make it through the season, and the Steelers seemed poised to make that happen. As such, I’m downgrading his fantasy football prospects for 2020… when he can even play.