Is Mitch Trubisky a Quarterback Upgrade for Pittsburgh?
On March 14, the Pittsburgh Steelers agreed to a two-year deal with sixth-year quarterback Mitch Trubisky. With Trubisky as the presumed starter in the Steel City, Pittsburgh will look to revamp an offense that was limited by an aging quarterback last season.
Mitch Trubisky’s Career Profile
Since coming into the league as the second overall pick in 2017, Trubisky has been a below-average talent, both in real football and fantasy. His sophomore season was his standout campaign, getting a Pro Bowl nod after throwing 24 touchdowns on 7.4 yards per attempt and finishing as fantasy’s QB12 on a per-game basis with 18.2 fantasy points per game. His cumulative stats as a four-year starter, however, suggest that Trubisky’s 2018 was the exception rather than the rule.
From his rookie season on, Trubisky’s 6.5 adjusted yards per pass attempt as a starter ranks 30th among 42 qualified active quarterbacks (min. 500 pass attempts)—23 signal-callers have averaged more fantasy points per game in the same time period.
Trubisky’s one saving grace has been his mobility. In his four seasons in Chicago, Trubisky averaged 3.7 rushes and 20.7 rushing yards per game. Compared to quarterbacks that played at least eight games in 2021, Trubisky would have ranked 13th in rush attempts and 10th in rushing yards per game last season, not enough to get overly excited, but numbers that could be significant in streaming situations.
Despite his shortcomings as a real-life quarterback, Trubisky has done enough to prop up at least one fantasy-relevant pass-catcher. In both 2019 and 2020, Allen Robinson rode 150+ targets to WR1 seasons, finishing in the top 14 in half-PPR points per game at his position both years.
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How Mitch Trubisky Fits in Pittsburgh’s Offense
With Ben Roethlisberger on his last leg (and elbow and pec and hip), Matt Canada was relatively conservative in his first season as Pittsburgh’s offensive play-caller. The Steelers threw at a top-10 rate in neutral situations and ranked similarly in pace but their passing attack was predicated on short passes that resulted in almost no explosiveness from the offense.
This is almost the exact inverse of Trubisky’s career—in Chicago, Trubisky offenses were typically run-first, which slowed the pace of those teams but once Matt Nagy took over as the Bear’s head coach, he wasn’t afraid to dial up some deep balls for Trubisky.
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*Pace data courtesy of Football Outsiders
Despite their contrasting approaches, 2021 Roethlisberger was similar to Chicago’s Trubisky in that both struggled with accuracy, resulting in offenses that had issues moving the ball or scoring.
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* On-target data courtesy of SportsInfoSolutions
The hope for Canada’s play-calling—and the Pittsburgh offense as a whole—is that Trubisky’s mobility will give them a layer to the playbook they lacked with Roethlisberger. Replacing Big Ben’s dead arm can hopefully help them unlock some explosiveness for players such as Chase Claypool who failed to maximize his potential with Roethlisberger dinking and dunking.
Mitch Trubisky’s Impact on Pittsburgh’s Pass-Catchers
Although Trubisky has typically thrown deep at a much higher rate than the Steelers did in 2021, his long passes have been juxtaposed with a high number of short passes, resulting in a career average throw depth of just 8.0 yards per attempt (SportsInfoSolutions), a number that would have ranked in the middle of the pack last season. This exacerbates Trubisky’s accuracy concerns mentioned above since his low on-target rate cannot simply be explained away by a plethora of deep balls.
For fantasy football’s sake, however, this barbell approach to throw depth could complement Pittsburgh’s weapons quite well, assuming Canada’s play-calling matches Trubisky’s history.
Trubisky has shown he can support a high-end fantasy receiver through volume and that is Diontae Johnson’s bread-and-butter, ranking third in total targets last season, brute-forcing his way to a WR9 half-PPR finish. Johnson’s 8.5-yard average depth of target (aDOT) in 2021 was the product of 67% of his targets coming under 10 air yards. Canada may not lean on the pass with Trubisky as much as he did with Roethlisberger, but with JuJu Smith-Schuster floating in free agency, Johnson should remain among the league leaders in target share and flirt with the top 10 in target volume.
Johnson’s moderate aDOT doesn’t mean he won’t be able to take advantage of more deep shots this year—as Pittsburgh’s primary receiver, Johnson actually saw five more targets of 20+ yards than Claypool last season. With a quarterback that can actually push the ball down the field, look for Claypool’s 11.4-yard aDOT and 18.4% deep rate (32nd among 89 qualified wide receivers) from last season to both spike in 2022.
Pat Friermuth is an industry favorite but he was unable to maintain consistent target volume behind Johnson, Claypool, and Najee Harris last year, and that was in an offense that ranked in the top 10 in neutral passing rate. If Canada leans toward a more run-heavy approach, which has been the norm for Trubisky-led offenses, the second-year tight end will be relegated to spot-start duty in traditional fantasy leagues.
As for Harris, Trubisky’s arrival may be a welcomed one, not just because the offense might be more run-heavy but because Trubisky has no problem checking down to a capable pass-catching back. In three of his four seasons as a starter, Trubisky’s offenses ranked in the top seven in target share to running backs and Chicago never ranked lower than 15th in that category with Trubisky under center. Those Bears offenses leaned heavily on pass-catching specialist Tarik Cohen but Harris proved to be just as valuable in the passing game, tied for the most targets among running backs last season.
The Bottom Line
- Mitch Trubisky’s arrival in Pittsburgh doesn’t boost the expectation of the offense but it does give them layers that they lacked in 2021. His mobility and arm strength (compared to Roethlisberger) allow for some upside that wasn’t there last year.
- As the QB32 in both 4for4’s Never-Too-Early Rankings and Underdog Pre-Draft ADP Trubisky is an afterthought in most formats.
- Pittsburgh’s primary pass-catchers, Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool, could both offer some marginal value with Trubisky under center. Trubisky showed he will lean heavily on a number one receiver with Allen Robinson; more deep balls would be a boon to Claypool’s value. Johnson is being drafted as the WR15 on Underdog while Claypool is the WR41—4for4 ranks them 13th and 38th.
- A likely dip in passing volume could put a hard stop to any hopes of a sophomore breakout for Pat Freiermuth. With 4.9 targets per game in 2021, Freiermuth finished as the TE13 but his value will likely be touchdown-dependent in 2022. He is currently 4for4’s TE14, borderline undraftable in traditional fantasy leagues.
- Trubisky’s willingness to dump the ball off means Najee Harris is a fair value as the RB5 in both ADP and 4for4 rankings. Take him with confidence in the first round, especially in full-PPR leagues after leading all running backs in targets last season.
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