The Fantasy Football Impact of Russell Wilson to the Pittsburgh Steelers

Mar 11, 2024
The Fantasy Impact of Russell Wilson to the Steelers

On Sunday, March 10, it was reported that the Pittsburgh Steelers would sign Russell Wilson to a one-year veteran minimum deal while the Broncos pay the rest of Wilson’s $37.8 million salary. Wilson will take over as the starting quarterback for an offense already expecting a new look after the hiring of offensive coordinator Arthur Smith earlier this year.

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Russell Wilson’s Recent History

In Wilson’s 10 seasons as the Seahawks starting quarterback, he was one of the most efficient passers in league history. After signing with the Broncos in 2022, that efficiency plummeted as Wilson posted career lows in touchdown rate (3.3%) and adjusted yards per attempt (6.9). Wilson did bounce back a bit in 2023 with a 5.8% touchdown rate and 7.2 adjusted yards per attempt, though the latter mark still ranked just 15th among the 35 quarterbacks with at least 200 pass attempts last year.

A staple of Wilson’s game throughout his career has been his deep-ball efficiency. While he struggled to place the ball down the field in 2022, Wilson ranked in the top 10 in on-target rate on passes of 20+ air yards last season. That deep-ball prowess will be welcomed by an offense that ranked in the bottom 10 in deep-ball accuracy in 2023.

The Steelers’ 2024 Passing Game Outlook

In addition to signing Wilson to play quarterback and Smith to call plays in 2024, it’s been reported that the Steelers are also entertaining trade offers for wide receiver Diontae Johnson. Even if Pittsburgh trades Johnson and ignores big-name pass-catchers in free agency or the Draft, Wilson, George Pickens, and Pat Freiermuth figure to be stuck in a run-heavy offense.

Wilson is leaving a Broncos team that ranked 24th in passing rate over expectation last year for an offense that ranked 30th and an OC whose team had the lowest passing rate relative to expectation in 2023.

However, even in an offense that may struggle to provide 500+ targets for their pass-catchers in 2024, the departure of Johnson would mean 140 total targets up for grabs from last year, targets that would presumably be filtered mainly to Pickens, Freiermuth, and the running backs. Pickens already commanded a healthy 22% target share last year while Freiermuth paced for 14% of targets had he played all 17 games—without Johnson in the mix, Freiermuth would have a legit chance to be a top-10 target-earner at his position.

Jaylen Warren already ranked fifth among running backs in targets last season and should remain among the league leaders in that category regardless of Johnson’s status with the team.

The Steelers’ 2024 Fantasy Football Outlook

Wilson finished as fantasy’s QB13 on a per-game basis in 2023 (minimum eight games) and with no reason to expect a huge spike in efficiency or volume in 2024, he should be treated as a QB2 in redraft and best ball leagues. Wilson is 4for4’s Never Too Early QB26 and the 30th quarterback off the board in early Underdog drafts.

Wilson provides an upgrade in efficiency over Pittsburgh’s 2023 passing attack, which would benefit Pickens and Freiermuth—and maybe Calvin Austin if Pittsburgh doesn’t add another big name—especially if the Steelers trade Johnson. Pickens was the WR32 in half-PPR points per game last year but could comfortably move into the WR2 ranks without Johnson. Freiermuth will likely be an early-season streamer with every week plug-and-play upside. Both players’ ADPs leave some meat on the bone with Pickens going off boards as the current WR37 and Freirmuth drafted behind 16 players at his position.

While the signing of Arthur Smith likely cemented a heavy backfield workload in Pittsburgh, Wilson does come in as a quarterback who targeted his running backs at a high rate last season, opening the door for even more PPR upside for Warren in 2024.

The Bottom Line

  • The Steelers were able to acquire Russell Wilson with virtually no risk and he will likely provide an immediate boost to the efficiency of Pittsburgh’s passing game. After an abysmal 2022, Wilson showed in 2023 that he can still be a starting-level passer.
  • Wilson did have the fifth-most rush attempts at his position last season but still finished as just the QB13 in fantasy. In an offense that will likely be even more run-heavy than the Denver team he just left, Wilson is a QB2 for both redraft and best ball purposes. Wilson is being drafted as the QB30 on Underdog.
  • Should the Steelers trade Diontae Johnson, George Pickens has the potential to be an every-week fantasy starter with Wilson under center. Pickens was the per-game WR32 in half-PPR leagues last season and could exceed 120 targets without Johnson, even in a low-volume passing attack. Pickens is currently 4for4’s WR40 and the WR37 by Underdog ADP.
  • Pat Freiermuth would need to absorb a huge chunk of the Steelers' available targets to project as a fantasy starter at his position but he would be in the streaming conversation without Johnson on the team. Freirmuth is being drafted behind 16 tight ends on Underdog and is 4for4’s Way Too Early TE18.
  • Jaylen Warren already ranked in the top five in running back targets in 2023 and could exceed that number in 2024 with Wilson throwing the ball and Arthur Smith calling plays. Warren is the 28th running back being drafted on Underdog.
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