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Rust vs. Rest: Can you trust Ben Roethlisberger in 2020 fantasy coming off his devastating elbow injury?

For years, fantasy managers have debated the merits of a player who’s had time to heal a particular injury versus the overall deterioration that could occur during the rehab process. Whether it’s a veteran stud showing signs of decline or a young turk striving to bounce back from an upended season, FF enthusiasts are always weighing the pros and cons of time spent away from the field.

Given the COVID-related question marks surrounding this particular offseason and the durability concerns of some star competitors, I decided to get a professional medical opinion before drawing any conclusions. And so was conceived … Rust vs. Rest. 

Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Pittsburgh Steelers

Ben Roethlisberger's fame extends well beyond fantasy football, but even the most casual of FF gamers have at least one Big Ben-adjacent tale to tell. Maybe the record-breaking five scores he lobbed on MNF against the division rival Ravens in Week 9 of his 2007 “comeback” season. Or perhaps the time he threw a 95-yard touchdown pass to Mike Wallace in Week 7 of 2011, vaulting the speedster to a top-five fantasy finish for the week. 

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The stories, however, aren’t all good. An injury to Ben’s MCL at the top of the 2015 season dampened the sting of the Killer Bees for a few weeks. And, most recently, a ligament tear to the QB’s right elbow wiped away the whole of his 2019 campaign while simultaneously sending the entire offense into a hapless and head-scratching downward spiral. 

After 16 years in the NFL, Roethlisberger has gained a reputation for being one of the toughest signal callers in the league. A player whose lunch-pail approach to the game is reflective of the city for which he plays, fantasy managers don’t roster Roethlisberger without expecting him to play through an oft-reported amount of pain. Yet, at 38-years-old and coming off of a season in which he managed just two starts, the worries over Ben’s durability are mounting. But should they be?

First, let’s review the facts. 

Roethlisberger suffered a muscle-tendon tear in his right elbow during Week 2 of the 2019 season versus the Seattle Seahawks. Eight days later he underwent surgery to repair the tear. The surgery was performed by Dr. Neal Elattrache. It did not require the Tommy John procedure. 

So … will the extended rest aid in a rebound? Or will the added rust be too much to shake off?

According to Dr. Alex Weber, Orthopedic Surgeon and Team Physician for the USC Trojans, the nature of this injury is such that once it’s healed post-surgery it should be fine and shouldn’t cause any further problems to the area. In fact, Dr. Weber believed the right elbow was at no greater risk for re-injury than the left (which has never been compromised). 

Sounds great, right? Fire up Big Ben without any concerns!

Not so fast. 

Will Big Ben return to form in 2020? (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images)

Dr. Weber went on to say that the time away from practice could lead to a separate injury. See, the issue is that given Roethlisberger’s age and past injuries, it’s likely he comes back a touch slower than he was before. As the doctor pointed out, “You can’t practice game speed.” It’s reasonable to expect Ben’s football skills to be out of practice which could cause him to hesitate and take unnecessary risks and/or hits. 

In Dr. Weber’s own words: “I’m worried about a 38-year-old player coming back from a long layoff. We know medically that as we age our reaction time and our fine motor skills decrease. The potential diminishment of those instincts is more of a concern to me than the elbow itself.” 

Basically, the rest is good for the elbow … but the rust is bad for everything else.

That makes Ben hard to trust. But he’s a player who has soldiered through a litany of bumps and bruises for the duration of his career. According to Sports Injury Predictor, the two-time Super Bowl Champ has a 41.5% chance of missing more than two-quarters of play and carries a medium risk for injury in 2020.  

It also makes sense that he’d be at a higher risk for injury at the start of the season while he’s still getting back to game shape. Luckily for Pittsburgh fans, the Steelers have a favorable schedule over the first month of the season. 

Big Ben/Steelers fantasy outlook for 2020

They open Week 1 @ NYG, which boasts a pass defense that closed out 2019 ranked 31st (31.3%) in Football Outsiders DVOA, and is relying heavily on newly acquired CB James Bradberry as well as second-round draft selection Xavier McKinney. In Week 2, the Steelers host the Broncos, which is good timing for the Steel City, as the no-longer-elite-but-still-solid unit works to incorporate the talents of DL Jurrell Casey and CB A.J. Bouye. The Steelers will then welcome the Texans, a squad that allowed the fifth-most passing scores (33) and sixth-fewest sacks (31) in 2019. In Week 4, the Back & Gold will travel to Nashville to take on a Dean Pees-less Titans defense whose pass rush could regress without the aforementioned Casey at the helm. 

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The probability of Ben shaking off rust while staying healthy over the first month of the season feels entirely possible. The only major medical question left afterward is whether his arm strength could be affected, as a result of the elbow surgery. 

Per Dr. Weber: “His full strength and range of motion should return. Having said that, the injury and surgery involved a group of muscles/tendons that are very important for generating accuracy and velocity when throwing. I think all of his accuracy and velocity will return but that the muscle/tendon group may get inflamed from time to time with throwing and therefore cause some aches that will have to be managed. Overall, however, he should have a full return to form in terms of throwing the football.”

This means that Ben still has a cannon … and will also have plenty of “hero games” whenever the pain flares up. It’s like any year since 2005. 

In all seriousness, from a fantasy perspective, this news makes me all the more confident about JuJu Smith-Schuster finding his way back inside of the top-12 fantasy producers at the position. A versatile player who is best deployed via the slot his rapport with Roethlisberger in tandem with his ability to work as a safety valve for the potentially achy-armed QB makes him a lock for 80 grabs. According to current ADP data, however, he’s being drafted outside of the top-25 FF WRs, behind A.J. Green and Robert Woods. 

Another solid value based on the above knowledge is James Conner. Last year Conner’s light-front carry rate (26.7%RB52decreased by nearly 10 percent with Roethlisberger sidelined. Yet he still managed to average the 16th-most fantasy points per game. An upright Big Ben would force defenders out of the box and more effectively utilize the Pitt product’s talents as a pass-catcher. 

Finally, while everyone is scrambling to take credit for “discovering” Diontae Johnson, I’ll admit to being bearish on the worst-kept secret of 2020. There’s no disputing his talent and rapidly evolving route prowess, but Johnson’s target volume isn’t guaranteed. Not with James Washington, Chase Claypool, and Eric Ebron on the roster. 

No, that wasn’t a typo. Ebron is now with the Steelers and he’s a legitimate streaming option at the most volatile position in fantasy. While 2019 was a down year, he posted a career effort in 2018 (66-750-13) with Andrew Luck feeding him red-zone looks (TE7). There are reports that Ben “pulled strings” to bring Ebron to Pittsburgh, which shouldn’t be a surprise given his proclivity towards involving the tight end position. While Vance McDonald is still on the team, Ebron presents more TD upside. 

Speaking of upside, Ben has plenty of it. Surrounded by dynamic pass-catchers and working behind a solid offensive line, the vet absolutely has a top-12 fantasy finish in his range of possible (to likely) outcomes. Let’s not forget that he was fantasy’s eighth-most productive QB in 2017. Better than that, he posted top-TWO numbers in 2018.

If the good doctor is right about his elbow and the season begins as gently as it should … then Ben will be back to winning big. 

Which Steelers are you targeting in 2020? Let Liz know on social @LizLoza_FF

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