Fantasy Football: James Conner, JuJu Smith-Schuster ready for starring roles in Pittsburgh
With Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown leaving Pittsburgh, the Steelers will have new stars in James Conner and JuJu Smith-Schuster. Jamey Eisenberg recently caught up with both about their outlooks for 2019.
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February has brought a lot of change to the Steelers. Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell, two of their biggest stars, are leaving Pittsburgh.
The black and gold will look different in 2019.
Bell's departure was inevitable after he sat out the 2018 campaign in a contract dispute. Wednesday, the Steelers said they will allow Bell to become an unrestricted free agent, prompting him to tweet he's now "free at last."
Brown's situation kind of came out of nowhere following a blowup with the team during practice in Week 17, which ended with him missing the season finale against the Bengals in a game that had playoff implications. He has since expressed his frustration with the Steelers, and he's expected to be traded in the near future.
Brown's impending departure has come as somewhat of a surprise to teammate JuJu Smith-Schuster, who told me on radio row at Super Bowl LIII that "I honestly believe he's not going anywhere."
But with Brown and Bell now on the way out, it's clear who the new stars are in Pittsburgh. And that's Smith-Schuster and James Conner.
While both emerged as household names to Fantasy owners in 2018, the pressure is now on them to perform at a high level again this season. And we're about to find out if they can handle it.
I asked Smith-Schuster if he's ready to be the No. 1 receiver should Brown leave, and he's not afraid of being in that position as the go-to option for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
"Obviously, being the No. 1 guy, I'm going to embrace that, taking that role," Smith-Schuster said. "It's going to be unbelievable. It's going to be an honor."
I also spoke with Conner at the Pro Bowl, and he already got a feel for being the No. 1 running back in Pittsburgh this past season. But there was always the chance of Bell returning in 2018, which never happened.
Now, Bell isn't coming back, but Conner still feels like he has something to prove despite showcasing his skills as the starting running back for the Steelers.
"My mindset is you still have to earn it," Conner said. "If I ever think I'm the guy and get relaxed, that's when I'll start to decline. I just try to bring it every day and never get satisfied."
Conner didn't exactly dominate in Bell-like fashion in 2018, but he wasn't far off. He finished as the No. 6 PPR running back with 215 carries for 973 yards (4.5 yards per carry) and 12 touchdowns, along with 55 catches for 497 yards and one touchdown on 71 targets in 13 games.
Conner, who had more than 18 PPR points in seven games, said he has more to offer in 2019.
"It could have been better," Conner said of his performance in 2018. "It was a good start. Just have to build on it for Year 3. I went down late with some injuries, so just try to build on it."
He missed three games from Weeks 14-16 with an ankle injury, which came at a crucial time for Fantasy owners during the playoffs. Still, he helped many Fantasy teams get to the playoffs as the No. 5 running back in terms of win percentage for all CBS Sports Fantasy leagues.
In regards to the ankle injury, I asked Conner if the grind of being the primary running back for the first time in his career caught up to him late in the season, but he disagreed with that notion.
"Injuries are going to happen," Conner said. "It's a physical game with physical people, so just try to stay injury free."
Let's hope he's healthy for most of the 2019 season, and Conner is now prepared to be the man in Pittsburgh's backfield. He's worth drafting toward the end of Round 1 or beginning of Round 2 in all formats.
And Jaylen Samuels is a great handcuff option with a late-round pick. Samuels played well when Conner was out with an average of 16.3 PPR points from Weeks 14-16.
As for Smith-Schuster, he finished as the No. 8 PPR receiver in 2018 with 111 catches for 1,426 yards and seven touchdowns on 166 targets. He was a sophomore sensation, and he was nearly a better Fantasy option than Brown, who had 104 catches for 1,297 yards and 15 touchdowns on 168 targets. The only difference was the touchdowns.
But now Smith-Schuster has to continue his success without Brown. That means more attention from opposing defenses and likely more double teams.
It will be an adjustment, but he also should continue to enhance his game heading into his third season in the NFL. We've already seen Smith-Schuster improve from Year 1 (58 catches for 917 yards and seven touchdowns) to Year 2, and we're anxiously awaiting his performance in Year 3.
He had a message for Fantasy owners to expect big things.
"In 2019, to all the Fantasy fans out there that's going to pick me, I love you guys," he said. "I appreciate you. I'm going to put up big numbers this year."
Let's hope he's right, and Smith-Schuster is worth drafting in Round 2 in all formats.
Now, without Bell and Brown, Roethlisberger will likely suffer as a Fantasy quarterback in 2019, especially if the receiving corps isn't upgraded with a significant piece this offseason. He finished as the No. 3 Fantasy quarterback in 2018 with 5,129 passing yards on 67 percent completions with 34 touchdowns and 16 interceptions, and he also added 98 rushing yards and three touchdowns.
Roethlisberger, as of February, should be considered a high-end No. 2 Fantasy quarterback, but he's worth drafting in all leagues with a late-round pick.
And another player to target with a mid- to late-round pick could be James Washington, who might become the starter opposite Smith-Schuster. As a rookie in 2018, Washington had only 16 catches for 217 yards and touchdown on 38 targets, but his role will clearly expand if he ends up as Brown's replacement.
Washington will likely be a popular sleeper in all formats this summer.
The Steelers will look different in 2019 with Bell and Brown gone. But Conner and Smith-Schuster will hopefully become the next stars in Pittsburgh for years to come.
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