Thu Feb 13 5:32pm ET
By WILL GRAVES
AP Sports Writer
Pittsburgh Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger watches from the sidelines during the second half of an NFL football game against the Arizona Cardinals, Sunday, Dec. 8, 2019, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, right, poses with the West Virginia Mountaineer Mascot before West Virginia's NCAA college basketball game against Kansas on Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2020, in Morgantown, W.Va. (AP Photo/Kathleen Batten)
PITTSBURGH (AP) The Pittsburgh Steelers are confident quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's surgically repaired right elbow will be ready to go in time for the 2020 regular season, so confident there are no plans to look around for a proven veteran backup just in case.
General manager Kevin Colbert said Thursday that ''all signs are good'' regarding Roethlisberger's rehab from an elbow injury that sidelined the two-time Super Bowl winner in the middle of Week 2 and forced him to miss the remainder of 2019. The Steelers finished 8-8 without him while jockeying between second-year quarterback Mason Rudolph and rookie undrafted free agent Devlin Hodges.
While Colbert described Pittsburgh's eventful season as ''below the standards we set,'' he credited the defense for taking a significant step forward and believes Roethlisberger's return should help push the Steelers back into contention in the AFC.
Roethlisberger, who turns 38 in March, will travel to Los Angeles to be evaluated on Feb. 21. There is no specific timetable for when he will be cleared to start throwing again but Colbert stressed ''optimistically he's on schedule to return and maybe return better a Ben Roethlisberger than he was before the injury.''
Pittsburgh hung tough in Roethlisberger's absence thanks in large part to a defense buoyed by the arrival of safety Minkah Fitzpatrick in a mid-September trade. The Steelers finished fifth in yards and points allowed but didn't get enough help down the stretch. Pittsburgh scored 20 points or fewer in seven of its final eight games and managed just 30 points combined during a three-game skid to end the season, a losing streak that dropped them out of the playoff race.
While Colbert praised Rudolph and Hodges for doing a ''representable'' job while filling in, Colbert thinks a little bit of Roethlisberger could go a long way in 2020.
''I think our defense was really good last year and they kept us in a lot of games,'' Colbert said. ''We always talk about when Ben was healthy and we held a team to 21 points, his record over the course of his career is 121-20.''
The Steelers went 7-3 when keeping opponents under that mark in 2019, but two of the losses came in Weeks 15 and 16 against Buffalo and the New York Jets as the charismatic Hodges became increasingly ineffective.
Colbert, however, was quick to spread blame all around. The offensive line struggled to create running room and third-year back James Conner couldn't seem to stay on the field. Wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster also dealt with injuries as his numbers took a steep drop with Roethlisberger out.
Both Conner and Smith-Schuster are about to enter the final years of their rookie contracts. Smith-Schuster is likely to be approached about a new deal, while Colbert indicated the team needs to see more from Conner.
''We know there's talent there,'' Colbert said. ''We hope James can regain it and if he's healthy, there's no reason (he can't.)''
Colbert also faces a decision on what to do with outside linebacker Bud Dupree, who is coming off a breakout season in which he had a career-high 11 1/2 sacks while teaming up with T.J. Watt to become one of the best edge rush duos in the NFL.
Dupree is scheduled to become a free agent next month unless the Steelers place the franchise tag on him by March 10. While coach Mike Tomlin called finding a way to keep Dupree ''a priority'' Colbert took a more vague approach.
''We have a good idea about where things stand at this point, but don't have concrete info as to whether or not we will tag,'' Colbert said.
Pittsburgh heads into the draft without a first-round pick for the first time since 1968 after sending it to Miami for Fitzpatrick. Colbert has zero second thoughts on the decision, not after Fitzpatrick was selected as an All-Pro following a season in which he intercepted five passes and returned an interception and a fumble for touchdowns.
''He is our first-round pick as we enter 2020 because he's still a young, ascending player,'' Colbert said. ''He came in his first game as a starter after one week of work and had an outstanding game I don't think we've seen the best of Minkah yet.''
In a way, the same holds true for inside linebacker Ryan Shazier. Shazier continues to recover from spine stabilization surgery in December, 2017. His contract expires next month, but Colbert said he's seen ''significant improvement'' from Shazier over the past 12 months. While Shazier's career remains on hold indefinitely, Colbert made it clear Shazier continues to have the club's full support.
''When you're dealing with Ryan Shazier, you're not dealing with a timetable,'' Colbert said. ''You're dealing with a young man that's trying to regain his career. We're always going to support that, whether it's by a certain date or certain terms. There's rules we have to live by, but again there's no ceiling and there's no time frame with Ryan Shazier's possibility of returning.''
Arizona Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury said that the team would like to have three running backs sharing the load in 2020. "D.J. was banged up last year," Kingsbury said. "We think he has a good skill set. But that's an area that we'd like to have three. You saw we got to (using) a third (running back in 2019). We'd like to have three that we feel like we could roll through and not lose much." Kenyan Drake, who signed his transition tender, will see the majority of touches, but Chase Edmonds and D.J. Foster will also get some work. Drake was one of the best running backs in the league after his trade over from the Dolphins, and he'll be a coveted RB1 in fantasy circles with Arizona's offense looking more explosive with the addition of receiver DeAndre Hopkins. Edmonds will merely be a handcuff for those that take Drake early in drafts.
The Kansas City Chiefs agreed to an undisclosed one-year deal with running back DeAndre Washington on Wednesday, according to a source. Washington was drafted in the fifth round by the Raiders back in 2016 and has rushed the ball 282 times for 1,122 yards (4.0 yards per carry) and seven touchdowns in his four years in the NFL. He's also added 88 catches on 110 targets for 613 yards and another score in 55 career games (five starts). The 27-year-old had 108 rushing attempts for 387 yards and three touchdowns in 16 games last year (three starts). He'll provide depth for the Chiefs backfield behind Damien Williams while also competing for touches with Darwin Thompson and Darrel Williams. He finds himself in an even more crowded backfield, meaning that it's unlikely Washington will yield any fantasy help.
Cincinnati Bengals head coach Zac Taylor said that wide receiver A.J. Green (ankle) is "fully healthy" and has been working out in Atlanta. It's good news after Green missed the entire 2019 season. He's scheduled to make around $18 million in 2020 on the franchise tag, but we may not get to see him until later this summer due to restrictions amid the coronavirus. Green will turn 32 in July and has played in just nine games in the last two seasons due to injuries. But he was a Pro Bowler each of his first seven seasons in the league from 2011 to 2017, surpassing the 1,000-yard receiving mark six times. He'll likely have rookie quarterback Joe Burrow throwing him passes in 2020, which could make fantasy owners even more hesitant to draft Green as even a WR2.
The Los Angeles Chargers remain "very high on" running back Justin Jackson. Melvin Gordon is now playing for the Broncos, so there will be more opportunity for Jackson behind Austin Ekeler moving forward. Jackson, a seventh-round pick by the Bolts in 2018, has rushed 79 times for 406 yards (5.1 yards per carry) and two touchdowns in his 20 games (one start) in two seasons for the Chargers. The soon-to-be 25-year-old also has 24 catches for 157 yards in his two years in the league. Ekeler should take over workhorse duties in this backfield with Gordon gone, but Jackson will have a role as a change-of-pace back and could be a great value pick late in fantasy drafts this fall.
There's a chance that the Los Angeles Chargers look to trade cornerback Desmond King. King is seemingly a man without a position now that the Bolts signed Chris Harris Jr. to defend the slot in the middle of the field in 2020. Casey Hayward and Michael Davis can work on the outside, so it remains to be seen what the team will do with King if they hold onto him. The 25-year-old fifth-round pick in 2017 was a first-team All-Pro in 2018 when he had a career-high three interceptions (one returned for a touchdown). King had 51 tackles (40 solo) and two passes defensed without an interception in 15 games (eight starts) in 2019. He could be part of a draft-day trade if the Chargers indeed move him.
Indianapolis Colts running back Nyheim Hines is expected to get "plenty more action" in the offense this season, in the opinion of The Athletic's Zak Keefer. And that could translate into much more fantasy success with new quarterback Philip Rivers under center, a veteran signal-caller who isn't afraid to dump the ball off to his pass-catching backs. Hines, 23, ran the ball just 52 times for 199 yards and two touchdowns behind Marlon Mack in 2019, adding 44 receptions for 320 yards. Both his rushing and receiving marks were down from his rookie season in 2018 when he was playing with Andrew Luck. With an offense that should attack more under Rivers, Hines could be a nice PPR sleeper late in drafts.
The Cincinnati Bengals have high expectations for tight end Drew Sample to take a "significant jump" in his second year with the team, especially with Tyler Eifert no longer in town. Sample caught just five passes on six targets for 30 yards in nine games (two starts) in his rookie season and he was drafted as mostly a blocking tight end. C.J. Uzomah will be the team's primary pass-catcher at the position, but Sample will inevitably see more snaps on offense and should see his offensive numbers take a sizeable rise over his rookie season. The soon-to-be 24-year-old former second-round pick could become interesting in dynasty/keeper leagues with the Bengals expected to take LSU QB Joe Burrow with the first overall pick later this month.
Los Angeles Chargers RB Austin Ekeler had an 85.2 percent catch percentage last season, which was the best rate of anyone with 45 receptions.
Fantasy Spin: Ekeler had just one drop and 92 grabs for 993 yards. He rushed 132 times for 557 yards (4.2 yards per carry) as well, and with Melvin Gordon gone, he should remain one of the top five backs in PPR.
Las Vegas Raiders QB Derek Carr has seen his teammates drop 216 passes over the course of his six-year career - the most drops a quarterback has witnessed over that span.
Dallas Cowboys WR Michael Gallup was charged with 11 drops in 2019 - the second-highest total in the league.
New Orleans Saints RB Latavius Murray averaged 2.7 yards before contact per rushing attempt in 2019 - tied for the sixth-best average among qualified rushers last season.
San Francisco 49ers TE George Kittle was charged with only two drops on 107 targets in 2019. He was one of only five players in the league with at least 100 targets - regardless of position - to finish with a drop rate below two percent.
Las Vegas Raiders TE Darren Waller was credited with eight broken tackles on his 90 catches in 2019 - tied with George Kittle for the second-highest total among tight ends.
Denver Broncos LB Von Miller has forced 640 quarterback pressures over the past decade, which are 40 more than any other player within that time.
Updating a previous story, free-agent WR Cody Latimer (Giants) officially signed an undisclosed contract with the Washington Redskins Tuesday, April 7.
Fantasy Spin: Latimer set career-highs with 24 receptions and 300 yards with the New York Giants in 2019. He has a viable path to a notable role within the Washington offense and could become a streaming option by mid-season.
Updating a previous story, free-agent DB P.J. Williams (Saints) officially signed an undisclosed contract with the New Orleans Saints Tuesday, April 7.
Updating a previous story, Dallas Cowboys TE Blake Bell officially signed Tuesday, April 7. Terms of the deal weren't disclosed.
Updating a previous story, free-agent DB Damarious Randall (Browns) officially signed with the Las Vegas Tuesday, April 7. Terms of the deal weren't disclosed.
Updating a previous story, free-agent LB Reggie Ragland (Chiefs) officially signed with the Detroit Lions Tuesday, April 7. Terms of the deal weren't disclosed.
Updating a previous story, free-agent DB Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (Bears) officially signed with the Dallas Cowboys Tuesday, April 7. Official terms of the deal were not disclosed.