IDP content is part of the ELITE package for Footballguys Premium Subscriptions. We're making this preview available so you can see the edge these subscribers are getting. Sign up here.
Welcome back for year 29 of the Eyes of the Guru column. Last summer, I started a new tradition with the EOTG, posting team-by-team rather than a division at a time. The goal here is to give our customers a more steady diet of information in smaller doses.
These teams have been covered so far:
There is another step in the evolution of the column this year as well. I have talked about the need for positional realignment among edge defenders and interior defensive linemen for several years now, and the True Position format has finally arrived. Not every league host site has come to see the light, but many have. The rest are eventually sure to follow.
Going forward, I will be treating and labeling all edge defenders as defensive ends. This will include 4-3 defensive ends, 3-4 outside linebackers, and anyone else in the new hybrid schemes of today's NFL that makes a living by chasing quarterbacks off the edge. Likewise, the defensive tackle position will include all interior defensive linemen in 4-3 schemes and all down linemen in 3-4 alignments. As a result of this approach, we have eliminated the constant arguments and flip-flopping of positions among these players.
For reference, when mentioning where players finished in the rankings last season, my model will be the standard Footballguys scoring system. This is the basic stuff:
- Tackles = 1.5
- Assists = .75
- Sacks = 4
- Forced fumbles = 3
- Fumble recoveries = 3
- Interceptions = 4
- Passes defended = 1.5
- Touchdowns = 6
When tackle numbers are mentioned, solo stops and assists are generally not lumped together. Unless there is a reference one way or the other, tackles refer to solo stops. When talking about the total number of takeaways for a player, I am counting interceptions, fumble recoveries, and fumbles forced since all of these are scored very similarly in most leagues. Keep in mind that based on scoring systems, rankings will vary (sometimes greatly) from league to league.
From time to time, the rookie corner rule will be referenced. For those who are new to IDP or the EOTG, the rookie corner rule is the basic fact that in the NFL, starting a rookie on the corner is like throwing chum to the sharks. Offensive coordinators will target young and inexperienced players as weaknesses. Thus, these guys have an accelerated number of opportunities. Often these players are the cream of the crop at the position (which is why they are starting so soon), and their numbers will begin to drop steadily after their rookie seasons.
The 2022 season was unusual for the Steelers defense for a few reasons. For the first time in memory, Pittsburgh led the league in interceptions with twenty, but also for the first time in memory, they forced fewer than ten fumbles and were dead last in recovering opponent’s fumbles with three. This is from a unit that, from 2018 through 2021, averaged 16.5 forced and better than 10 recovered. Even more un-Steeler-like were their sack numbers from 2022. Most teams would be satisfied with 40 sacks. For the Steelers, who led the league for an impressive five consecutive seasons with at least 52, it was disappointing.
There were some other disappointing numbers associated with the Steelers' defense in 2022. Only the Chiefs allowed more than Pittsburgh’s 29 passing touchdowns. And only three teams surrendered more yards per pass attempt. On the other hand, the run defense was strong, at least statistically. They tied New England for the fewest rushing scores allowed, were sixth in yards per carry, and ninth in rush yards allowed.
Not surprisingly, the organization made significant additions at all three levels of the defense, but the most important factor in them getting back on track will be having T.J. Watt healthy for an entire season. Watt suffered a partially torn pectoral in week one last year. It was not season-ending but cost him seven games and left him at less than 100% well beyond that. As a result, after four consecutive years with at least 14 sacks and a league-leading 22.5 in 2021, Watt totaled 5.5 last year.
With more than 55 combined tackles in each of his previous five seasons, 22 forced fumbles, 7 recoveries, and 32 batted passes, Watt is among the few 3-4 edge defenders to hold significant fantasy value regardless of positional designation. In the True Position format that many/most IDP leagues are turning to, Watt is a strong candidate to be the number one edge defender. At the very least, he joins Maxx Crosby, Myles Garrett, and Nick Bosa on the elite first tier. It would be impossible to argue against Watt as the first edge guy off the board and difficult to argue against him being the first defender overall.
Watt is the best but far from the only Pittsburgh defensive lineman to have significant IDP value. Alex Highsmith was the team’s third-round pick in 2020. Like most rookie edge defenders, he posted modest numbers in year one. In his second season, Highsmith began to show up. His sack totals remained modest at six, but the 46 solo stops and 28 assists were enough to put him on the IDP radar. Even without the help of Watt for much of the season, Highsmith broke out in 2022. With 62 combined tackles, 14 sacks, and 5 forced fumbles, he was top-ten among edge defenders. He turns 26 in August and is just entering the prime of what looks to be an outstanding NFL career.
When it comes to Highsmith’s IDP value, a lot of managers are late to the party. He is gaining recognition but is currently being drafted well below projected value. If you miss out on one of the elite guys, pick him up as a bargain DE1. If you land one of the elite and can get Highsmith as your second starter, no one in your league will have a better tandem of starters.
The Steelers were rather disappointed with the play of Malik Reed early last season. To guard against the possibility of such a drop-off in the future, the team added Markus Golden in free agency and used a fourth-round pick on Wisconsin’s Nick Herbig.
Golden is one of the league's more underrated edge defenders. A second-round pick of the Cardinals in 2015, he put up twelve sacks in 2016. Golden suffered a major injury early the following year, and the Cardinals were not patient enough to let him fully recover. He signed with the Giants in 2019, going 38-34-10 on the year. He was back with Arizona after a mid-season trade in 2020 and had another strong year with the team in 2021 at 33-15-11 with 5 turnovers. For some reason, he fell out of favor again in 2022 and was not re-signed. Golden’s role will be limited if everyone stays healthy. Keep his name in mind and move quickly if either Watt or Highsmith misses time.
The Steelers have a long and storied history of turning mid to late-round picks, and even an occasional undrafted free agent (James Harrison), into outstanding players. Nick Herbig could become another name on that list. He is undersized for an edge defender and will need to hit the weight room to stand up against NFL tackles, but is quick and slippery as a pass rusher. He certainly checks the box for college production, having tallied 72 tackles, 36 assists, 20 sacks, and 6 turnovers in 24 games as a starter at Wisconsin before declaring for the draft after his junior year. There is even some speculation that Herbig might get a look as an off-ball, inside linebacker. That would make sense, as it is a position the Steelers have struggled to fill since the loss of Ryan Shazier in 2017.
Cameron Heyward has twelve NFL seasons under his belt. He has been incredibly consistent throughout his career, but the last two years have been among his best. All he did at age 33 was pile up 75 combined tackles, 10 sacks, 2 turnovers, and 5 batted passes.
For most of his career, Heyward was considered a defensive end in the Steelers 3-4. With that designation, he was a good DE2. Recently, both the Steelers and IDP leagues using the True Position format, have him as a defensive tackle where his value is that of an elite, tier one. In 2021, Heyward was the fantasy game's top interior lineman, outscoring Aaron Donald by almost a point per game. Last year Heyward slipped to number two behind only Christian Wilkins. At age 34, Heyward’s IDP value in dynasty leagues may drop a few slots, but he has shown no sign of slowing down. If you are looking to win this year, he can help you get there.
Larry Ogunjobi and second-round rookie Keeanu Benton fill out the rest of the starting lineup at the first level. Ogunjobi has bounced around the league a bit in recent years, largely because he has trouble staying healthy. He is an athletic big man that played well at the three-technique for the Browns before the rash of annoying minor injuries started. Ogunjobi posted a career-best of seven sacks from that same position with the Bengals in 2021. Last year was his first with a team playing mostly three-man fronts. Statistically, it was a down season with 48 tackles but a lone sack. Ogunjobi’s skill set makes him a good fit in the Steelers' scheme, and a second year in the system should bring better numbers. That said, let him show us something before committing a valuable roster spot.
Keeanu Benton projects as the starting nose tackle, mostly because of the second-round investment the team made but also for his growth potential at the position. He played at around 317 pounds while at Wisconsin but had trimmed down to 309 during the draft process. Benton did not put up flashy numbers with the Badgers, but he did have nine career sacks. He will compete with Montravius Adams and possibly free-agent additions Breiden Fehoko and Armon Watts for playing time. We have not seen much production from the Steelers' nose guard over the years. There is no reason to think that will change.
- DE T.J. Watt – Elite tier DE1 with possible first defender drafted value
- DE Alex Highsmith – Priority DE2 with top-twelve upside
- DE Markus Golden – Keep him on speed dial in case of injury
- DE Nick Herbig – Developmental rookie with high long-term potential
- DT Cameron Heyward – Elite tier DT1
- DT Larry Ogunjobi – Potential depth in tackle-required leagues
- NT Keeanu Benton – No grand expectations for the rookie
- DT DeMarvin Leal – Second-year developmental prospect
- NT Montravius Adams – No impact
Continue reading this content with a ELITE subscription.
An ELITE subscription is required to access content for IDP (individual defensive players) leagues. If this league is not a IDP (individual defensive players) league, you can edit your leagues here.
"Footballguys is the best premium
fantasy football only site on the planet."
Matthew Berry, NBC Sports EDGE