Pittsburgh Steelers: AFC North crown leads list of five bold predictions for 2019

Surrounded by controversy and holdouts, the 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers missed the playoffs for the first time since 2013. The team featured some young players with some tremendous promise but were unable to come of age in time to make the playoffs.

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The 2019 Pittsburgh Steelers will be a talented team once again with some serious question marks. The quicker those questions get answered, the sooner the team can reach their unlimited potential. However, there are reasons to be bullish on the team for this upcoming year. Here are some bold predictions for the Steel City as the 2019 season approaches:

1. JuJu Smith-Schuster leads the league in receptions and receiving yards.

This prediction may seem bold on the surface, but based on JuJu’s career trajectory, this is also a potentially obvious call. Whether Smith-Schuster stays healthy for the full 16 games could decide this outcome. He managed a very productive breakout sophomore season with a strong receiving line of 111-1,426-7.

Smith-Schuster has been a big-play machine for the Steelers as well as a target hog in the passing game. He will be counted on more heavily in the wake of Antonio Brown’s departure. However, even with Antonio in the lineup, it appeared that JuJu had replaced him at times during the 2019 season as Ben’s favorite target. The rift between Brown and the veteran quarterback Roethlisberger could have contributed to this shift.

Nevertheless, JuJu took advantage of the extra targets last year and will be an even more commanding presence in 2019. He will be the official number one receiver in Pittsburgh moving forward. JuJu has unlimited energy and potential in this offense. He appears to be a significant up-and-coming star in the NFL. The 2019 season could see JuJu climb to the very top of the NFL’s elite wide-receiver ranks.

2. Ben Roethlisberger leads the league in passing yards for the second year in a row.

Even with things seemingly crumbling around him last year, Big Ben still managed to put up a career year. The loss of Le’Veon Bell and the antics of Antonio Brown should have crippled this talented Steelers offense. Instead, some young talent emerged, and the unit looked just as explosive as ever. James Connor replaced Bell in the starting lineup and put together a Pro Bowl season.

Roethlisberger truly put the offense on his back, as he managed a career-best in passing yards with 5,129. This total paced the entire league in 2018. Big Ben also threw for 34 touchdowns, which was another career-best for the veteran signal-caller.

He will need to reach into his bag of tricks again this season, as the team attempts to move on from both Brown and Bell. “The Killer B’s” will be no more, but Roethlisberger will remain the face of the offense as he has during his 15-year career.

3. The team wins the AFC North and goes back to the playoffs.

If my first two predictions become true, then this one should not be a surprise to anyone. Pittsburgh has become perennial playoff contenders coming out, and 2019 should see them return to the top of the pile in the AFC North.

The Ravens and rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson took the AFC by storm last year and captured the 2018 AFC North crown. They bested the Steelers win total by one and received the Wild Card berth in return.

The AFC North appears to be one of the stronger divisions in the league this year, with rookie sensations Lamar Jackson and Baker Mayfield entering their sophomore years and the Bengals always a threat to the Steelers. This division will be a stacked group, and the Steelers will have their work cut out for them. I believe the Steelers have the young talent combined with some great veteran leaders to make a deep run into the playoffs in 2019.

4. Devin Bush wins Defensive Rookie of the Year

The Steelers took a big leap of faith by trading into the top ten of the NFL Draft to select Devin Bush. Devin Bush is an excellent linebacker prospect coming out of Michigan and will be a great addition to this linebacker core.

The team has been looking for a playmaker in the mold of Ryan Shazier since the linebacker’s devastating spine injury in 2017. Shazier’s loss left a massive hole in the team’s defense and his leadership has been sorely missed.

That being said, the linebacker position is one that has translated well in recent years for rookies. The 2018 Defensive Rookie of the Year was Colts linebacker, Darius Leonard. Leonard was a tackling machine and provided a massive spark to the Colts young defense. I believe Bush can do the same and will surely be in the conversation for DROY in 2019.

5. James Connor and Jaylen Samuels each top 1,000 scrimmage yards

These two talented backs have Pittsburgh fans excited about life after Le’Veon. The two young running backs combined for over 1,800 scrimmage yards in 2018, and the best seems yet to come.

James Conner produced over 900 yards rushing and added over 400 yards receiving in his first season as the starters. As a rookie, Samuels added another 200 yards rushing and 200 receiving yards. Samuels also happens to be one of my candidates for a potential breakout year.

Samuels should be afforded a modest boost in touches in 2019, as the team attempts to keep Conner healthy for the long run. The two backs are both talented runners and more than adept in the passing game. Those contributions will help the offense keep chugging along nicely in the 2019 season.

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