I have long since come to terms with the fact that fantasy football is the single nerdiest thing I do. It's like Dungeons & Dragons for sports fans. Seriously, if you can tell me how hoping your third-year wide receiver statistically exceeds his draft position is different than casting a spell with your Level 3 Elvish Ranger (or whatever), I'd love to hear it.
However, one facet of fantasy football I have yet to come to terms with is the weird ambivalence that can arise when real-life and fantasy interests clash.
Case in point: During last year's shootout with the Packers, Greg Jennings, who had been a disappointment for fantasy owners throughout the season, torched a Polamalu-less Pittsburgh secondary for an 83-yard score.
As a Steelers fan, I was distraught. I hurled creative combinations of profanity (you don't wanna know) at the TV. I jumped up and down like a child at the checkout line. I mourned our once-mighty pass defense, blitzing through the five stages of grief before the Packers could even line up for the extra point.
Then, as a Jennings owner in fantasy, I found meager consolation: My real-life team got burnt, but at least my fantasy squad was up 14.3 points.
Bleh. That is a tough pill to swallow.
The point is that in fantasy football, sometimes real-life loyalties get checked at the door. I wasn't about to bench Jennings against the Steelers just to avoid feeling weird about his success (or failure).
This sentiment goes double on draft day. This August, plenty of Chicago fans will begrudgingly draft Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, and fantasy owners in Oakland may find themselves pulling the trigger on Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles.
Last week, I previewed the Steelers regular season, forecasting a nine- or 10-win year for the Black & Gold. But in fantasy football, we don't care about wins, per se. The name of the game is yardage accumulation and -- if you're lucky -- touchdowns, too.
Obviously, Pittsburgh fans want their Steelers to find statistical success en route to a real-life playoff berth. But you don't want to reach for your favorite player just because his name is familiar.
Let's take a look at what to expect from the most notable fantasy commodities on Pittsburgh's roster.
1. Rashard Mendenhall, RB
Mock Draft Central Average Draft Position (ADP): 10.36 (13.44 PPR (points per reception))
Rashard Mendenhall enters his third NFL season as somewhat of an endangered species in the league: He appears to be in line to receive a true featured back's workload, presumably 300+ touches. That kind of volume alone makes Mendenhall a viable fantasy running back.
But he also has the skills. Last year, Mendenhall rushed for over 1,100 yards at 4.6 yards a clip, despite only being featured Week 4 and beyond. If you stretch his production from that point over a 16-game slate, Mendenhall is a 1,300-yard back. Durability could be a concern, of course, since Mendenhall only has last season and one year at the University of Illinois on his resume.
However, assuming he stays healthy and third-down back Mewelde Moore and potential goal-line vulture Jonathan Dwyer don't cut too much into his workload, expect Mendehall to put up solid numbers as your best RB. I like him in the middle of the first round, after Chris Johnson, Adrian Peterson, Maurice Jones-Drew, Frank Gore, Ray Rice and Michael Turner are off the board.
2. Hines Ward, WR
ADP: 63.69 (81.56 PPR)
You'd have to be thrilled if Ward duplicated his totals from last year (1,167 yards, 6 TDs). And maybe it is possible for the ageless wonder. After all, speed has never been a huge part of his game and, when healthy, he's been consistent over the last nine seasons in providing around 65 yards per game and a decent amount of scoring opportunities.
What's more, I think Ward is the kind of receiver who can still find success during Roethlisberger's suspension. Assuming he and Byron Leftwich (or Dennis Dixon) can get their timing right in camp and in preseason, there's no reason Ward won't still be moving the chains, catching five or six balls a week for decent yardage and the occasional score. Although Ward has only had one season (2002) of true fantasy stardom, he's been an unheralded consistency king.
But I'm still not touching him on draft day, unless he falls into the seventh or eighth round -- an unlikely proposition in most of my leagues.
It breaks my heart to say it, but when old wide receivers fall, they fall hard. Just take a look at the dramatic declines in production endured by once-elite fantasy wideouts (and their owners): Marvin Harrison, Terrell Owens, Joe Horn, Jerry Rice, Torry Holt, Joey Galloway -- and that's just off the top of my head.
Maybe Ward continues to wow us and puts up another 1,100-yard stat line. I certainly hope that's the case. But it seems just as plausible that Father Time catches up with him. For my mid-round money, I'm always going to let another owner take chance on the elder statesmen and target a young, high-upside guy (Jeremy Maclin, Percy Harvin) instead.
3. Mike Wallace
ADP: 73.14 (78.63 PPR)
Boy oh boy are people high on Wallace this year. He made his money last year burning NFL nickelbacks for big gains (19.4 yards per catch). What remains to be seen in 2010 is if the second-year receiver can get it done against guys listed higher on their teams' depth charts. And can he run any routes besides streaks and deep posts?
You certainly have to like Wallace's physical tools (4.33 40-yard-dash time, soft hands) and the opportunity he has lining up across from mentor Hines Ward. But in the end, I think fantasy owners who are licking their chops at Wallace's upside are going to be a little disappointed.
Hopefully I'm wrong, but it seems likely that Wallace will need a full season learning how to be more of a route-running technician at split end and flanker -- to say nothing of learning to beat more competent press coverage -- before his fantasy stock can truly surge. Of course, Roethlisberger's suspension doesn't help Wallace's cause, either.
Wallace's total receptions from last year (39) should jump up into the low 60s, but that impressive yards per catch statistic has to go way down, resulting in an only marginal increase in yardage for Wallace. In the sixth or seventh round, I'm probably selecting a more proven wideout with a higher floor (Santana Moss or T.J. Houshmandzadeh), rolling the dice on Wes Welker, or looking for a sleeper candidate at RB like Montario Hardesty, Michael Bush, or Justin Forsett.
4. Ben Roethlisberger
ADP: 120.32 (PPR 115.83)
Despite his inexcusable behavior this offseason, I'm excited about Roethlisberger in 2010, for fantasy purposes. Even with the losses of wide receiver Santonio Holmes and tackle Willie Colon and the four- or six-game suspension, Roethlisberger is almost certain to outperform his ADP, at least in terms of fantasy points per game.
After all, when was the last time you could get a guy who spent the previous season throwing for almost 300 yards per contest in the 10th round? Sure, you'll have to weather the suspension, but when you have a solid QB to pair him with and you're drafting for depth, you're really in good shape.
5. Heath Miller, TE
ADP: 207.49 (203.6 PPR)
Disclaimer: As a Steelers fan and a Virginia alum, I suffer from Stage II Homeritis when it comes to Miller. That said, he's exactly the kind of tight end I usually select in fantasy drafts. Why shell out the big bucks for someone like Antonio Gates, Jason Witten, Vernon Davis or Dallas Clark when you can load your roster with depth at RB and WR, then select Miller (or John Carlson or Dustin Keller) sometimes more than 12 rounds later?
The production of premier fantasy tight ends can't be denied, but it rarely justifies jeopardizing depth at other positions when you can simply wait on selecting one altogether until the later rounds -- and still get six-to-eight fantasy points per game.
Miller had his best year as a pro in 2009, accumulating about 50 yards per game and finding the end zone six times. Most encouragingly, he notched 76 receptions, which is a great sign, even if you don't play in a PPR league; Miller is a big part of the Steelers' offensive attack. Expect him to be an active safety valve for Leftwich or Dixon during Roethlisberger's suspension.