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Sleepers, Busts and Bold Predictions: The 2023 Pittsburgh Steelers

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Nick Makowitz

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Welcome to Sleepers, Busts and Bold Predictions for the 2023 fantasy football season. All summer, our analysts, two at a time, will preview all 32 NFL teams for the upcoming season. We’ll pick a pair of sleepers, a pair of busts and a pair of bold predictions. Sometimes they’ll be the same pick! Sometimes they will directly disagree! And that’s fine. Today: The Pittsburgh Steelers.

 

Below, Nick Makowitz and Michael Dolan tackle the Steelers, starting with their picks in “The Answers,” then expanding on their picks in “The Explanation.”

2023 Sleepers, Busts & Bold Predictions: Pittsburgh Steelers

The Answers

Favorite Sleeper

Makowitz: Pat Freiermuth
Dolan: George Pickens

Biggest Bust

Makowitz: Najee Harris
Dolan: Pat Freiermuth

Bold Prediction

Makowitz: George Pickens is a top-24 receiver
Dolan: Najee Harris Is a Top-5 RB

The Explanations

Sleepers

Makowitz: Pat Freiermuth

Operating in an underwhelming offense that had a lot of mouths to feed, Pat Freiermuth managed to rank inside the top six in targets, yards, receptions and expected fantasy points among tight ends. He finished eighth at the position in actual fantasy points thanks to just two touchdowns, but he could see positive regression considering he was second on the team in red zone targets.

Behind an improved offensive line, it’s reasonable that Kenny Pickett takes a step forward as a passer. Last season, Freiermuth garnered more targets per route run than Darren Waller, George Kittle and T.J. Hockenson, so any development from Pickett could turn that impressive target-earning profile into more fantasy production. In an always weak tight end landscape, Freiermuth has the chance to become a consistent second-tier option behind Travis Kelce and Mark Andrews. His TE9 ADP feels more like his floor.

Dolan: George Pickens

George Pickens Pittsburgh Steelers Fantasy Football 2023 Sleepers, Busts & Bold Predictions

If there’s one thing that comes to mind when you hear the name “George Pickens,” it’s probably highlight-reel catches. Despite coming in as a raw prospect out of Georgia with some injury concerns, Pickens finished his rookie season second on the Steelers in receiving yards (801). 

Even though he barely got there, eclipsing the 800-yard mark is a great sign for the future outlook of rookie receivers. Some second-year growth – not only from Pickens but also from quarterback Kenny Pickett – is a reasonable expectation. Pickens’ ball-winning skills are already elite, and if he continues adding nuance to the rest of his game, he can turn into one of the game’s most dominant boundary receivers. Eclipsing the 1,000-receiving-yard mark in year two feels like a bar that Pickens can clear with ease. I think he finishes the season with somewhere between 1,000 and 1,200 yards and can easily serve as a WR2/flex play in fantasy leagues.

 

Busts

Makowitz: Najee Harris

Workload is the biggest argument for Najee Harris – and it’s a good one – but I struggle to find any other reason to back him. Jaylen Warren proved to be much more efficient last year, as his 5.65 yards per touch ranked 11th among all running backs with at least 75 touches while Harris’ 4.0 ranked fourth worst. Harris also hasn’t eclipsed four yards per carry in either of his two seasons and often looks slow getting to the edge, illustrated by his bottom-tier 2.6% breakaway rate.

It’s possible too that Harris’ undeniably massive workload takes a hit this season. His rushing attempts dropped from 18 per game in year one to 16 per game in year two, and his targets dropped from almost six to just above three. If he continues to turn touches into four yards or less, it’ll be difficult for the Steelers to keep him on the field over Warren. Without breakaway speed, high efficiency or a quarterback that wants to target him like Big Ben did, Najee doesn’t provide the upside most managers are looking for in Round 3.

Dolan: Pat Freiermuth

Finding a bust for the Steelers was not an easy task. In general, I’m bullish on their offense, and the only reason Freiermuth finds himself in this category is due to a lack of upside. He’s a talented tight end, but he’s at best the No. 3 option behind the aforementioned Pickens and Diontae Johnson in a passing game that’s likely not going to light the world on fire.

Last year, Kenny Pickett and Mitch Trubisky (who started seven games) combined for 3,656 passing yards. If we forecast a bump for Pickett entering Year 2 and assume he logs around 4,000 passing yards, I’m not sure that’s enough volume to keep Freiermuth fantasy managers happy. Freiermuth saw one less target per game when Pickett took over, and his 18% target share ranked second on the team. I think that No. 2 spot on the pecking order gets overtaken by Pickens, and I’m not sure a market share of around 15% in this passing attack is going to leave fantasy owners happy with the production.

Is Freiermuth a true bust in the sense that he’s going to be unplayable? No. But he’s currently being drafted as a back-end TE1, and he’s much more likely to finish the season outside the top 10 than vault inside the top five.

 

Bold Predictions

Makowitz: George Pickens Is a Top-24 Receiver

In his rookie season, George Pickens showed flashes of freak athleticism and elite ball skills. Unfortunately, he was touchdown- and big-play-dependent and therefore couldn’t find enough consistency to make himself a viable fantasy option each week. Luckily for him and prospective fantasy managers, he had a much better rapport with Kenny Pickett than he did with Mitch Trubisky. Per our Splits Tool, he averaged 5.2 targets, 53 receiving yards and 11.2 PPR points with Pickett compared to 4.5, 30 and 4.7, respectively, with Trubisky. 

If Pickens is able to cash in a bit more on his 15.1-yard aDOT and improve upon his pedestrian 16% target rate, he could see a huge uptick in production. While his target-earning metrics don’t all point to a breakout, Pickens’ talent profile and chemistry with Pickett are enough to take a chance on him at WR35. 

Dolan: Najee Harris Is a Top-5 RB

Najee Harris Pittsburgh Steelers Fantasy Football 2023 Sleepers, Busts & Bold Predictions

For whatever reason, the fantasy football community has had some good fun bashing Najee Harris’ efficiency recently. While I wouldn’t put Harris in the elite category when it comes to talent, he absolutely still is when it comes to fantasy football. Volume is the name of the game for fantasy, and there’s no back in the league you feel more confident in getting 20 or so touches per game than Harris. 

Sure, rookie undrafted free agent Jaylen Warren showed flashes in limited action last year, but I don’t see him as a serious threat to Harris’ role. The history of the Steelers and their coaching staff plus the draft capital they spent on Harris is all you really need to look at to feel confident in Harris’ workload. He’s going to be the centerpiece of the Steelers offense, and doing so with a healthy foot while operating behind a much improved offensive line means Harris is in line for a monstrous fantasy season.

 
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