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Steelers' James Conner, Martavis Bryant make case for fantasy relevance

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Is this the year a full Steelers roster makes fantasy noise? (2:15)

The Steelers have dealt with injuries and suspensions the last several years. Field Yates and Mike Clay preview Ben Roethlisberger's season and what the offensive numbers could look like for James Conner and Martavis Bryant. (2:15)

A pair of intriguing young Pittsburgh Steelers absent from the team’s preseason opener participated in the second game, a 17-13 win over the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday afternoon, and it will be interesting to see if and how fantasy owners react. Rookie running back James Conner turned his 21 touches into 101 total yards, while wide receiver Martavis Bryant caught two passes for 23 yards. Most fantasy owners know about Bryant, a terrific but troubled talent, while Conner is the potential handcuff for superstar Le’Veon Bell.

Conner, who starred locally at the University of Pittsburgh and has overcome Hodgkin lymphoma and a major knee injury, was a third-round pick by the Steelers in the spring and is battling veterans Fitzgerald Toussaint and Knile Davis for the No. 2 running back role. On this team, that’s obviously important. Bell is awesome and going first overall in ESPN average live drafts -- I’d take Bell second -- but with each week he continues his holdout, fantasy owners get concerned. Plus, Bell has missed considerable action due to injury and suspension.

DeAngelo Williams, currently looking for employment, was the beneficiary of Bell’s September absence last season, averaging nearly 30 PPR points the first two weeks on a huge Bell-like workload at age 33. Conner, 22, is fighting for the opportunity to do the same should Bell somehow not be available when games start in September. That seems unlikely, but injuries happen. Bell’s contract situation should get worked out soon, and as of now he’s healthy. Perhaps Bell just doesn’t feel like practicing. Conner’s heavy workload Sunday might mean nothing, but Toussaint handled only two rushing attempts. This could be the important hierarchy, and if so, those who select Bell really should target Conner as a handcuff after round 10 as well.

As for Bryant, seeking likely reinstatement to the NFL after missing the 2016 season for another violation of the league’s substance abuse policy, few question his dynamic, on-field talent. He’s scored 15 touchdowns in 21 career games. Eight scores came in his rookie season of 2014, as he averaged more than 21 yards per reception. The touchdown rate will be difficult to sustain and he’s not likely to pile on the receptions since Antonio Brown and Bell do. We’re also likely to never have complete confidence that Bryant can avoid future suspensions. Presuming he’s deemed eligible to play Week 1, he could surely be a top-30 wide receiver, so keep abreast of the news.

QB thoughts from the weekend: The top quarterbacks either aren’t participating in games or are playing sparingly. For example, the Steelers didn’t use Ben Roethlisberger. There’s no need. However, the Jacksonville Jaguars need to use their “top” guys. Blake Bortles continues to struggle, though it’s worth pointing out that the organization doesn’t have some hotshot rookie awaiting opportunity. It’s veteran Chad Henne. Why does this matter? Well, to be fair, Bortles has ended up a top-10 fantasy quarterback the past two seasons. He’s currently ranked outside the staff top 20. And a switch to Henne could actually aid wide receiver Allen Robinson. … Buffalo Bills starter Tyrod Taylor continues to struggle, but it would be more surprising if he lost the role to rookie Nathan Peterman. Taylor threw two interceptions at Philadelphia on Thursday. … Game No. 2 for Houston Texans rookie Deshaun Watson was a struggle and veteran Tom Savage was 8-of-9, so that should quiet talk of Watson starting Week 1. He’s still enticing in dynasty formats, though.

RB thoughts from the weekend: The Kansas City Chiefs are likely to go with veteran Spencer Ware to start Week 1, even as rookie Kareem Hunt flashes his considerable skills. On Saturday, Hunt ran eight times for 40 yards and caught three passes for 23 yards. Hunt could take the starting role soon, so be prepared. Charcandrick West had the big statistical performance, breaking a 50-yard run and rushing for 113 yards, but he did so late in the game with backups. … C.J. Anderson figures to start for the Broncos in September, but rookie De’Angelo Henderson -- an overlooked sixth-round pick from Coastal Carolina -- continues to impress and could vault to the No. 2 spot on the depth chart over injured Devontae Booker and Jamaal Charles, who might not even make the team. Henderson had 50 total yards against the 49ers on Saturday and had a touchdown called back. … There’s been nowhere to run for Philadelphia Eagles starter LeGarrette Blount, and his 17 rushing yards on nine carries has some speculating he could get cut. That seems unlikely at this point. The Eagles haven’t played yet with the full complement of their offensive line and Blount doesn’t have a long history of big statistical preseasons. … DeMarco Murray did not suit up for the Tennessee Titans, but second-year man Derrick Henry scored two touchdowns, though he turned his 16 carries into a mere 36 yards. Murray owners shouldn’t be worried about this, though Henry is a wise handcuff. David Fluellen, who has been around for years but with nary a rushing attempt, totaled 91 yards from scrimmage on 12 chances and could be the team’s No. 3 running back.

WR/TE thoughts from the weekend: Veteran receiver Anquan Boldin decided he wanted no part of the rebuilding Buffalo Bills, so he simply announced his retirement Sunday night. A logical fantasy reaction to this news is to move rookie Zay Jones up in the rankings and perhaps Jordan Matthews as well. Preseason game No. 3 could be interesting to see whether Andre Holmes or Rod Streater can establish himself on the outside as well. Don’t ignore this passing offense. … Speaking of, perhaps we’re all underestimating the Los Angeles Rams offense. Second-year quarterback Jared Goff was 16-for-20 and his main target was rookie wide receiver Cooper Kupp, who scored a touchdown on the first drive and had 70 receiving yards overall. Newcomer Sammy Watkins did play and obviously attracts defensive attention. It’s too early to consider Kupp a must-own in a standard league, but it’s also too early to simply dismiss Goff and this offense simply because of last season. … Veteran receiver Bruce Ellington worked well with Texans starter Savage, turning four catches into 93 yards. Jaelen Strong caught a short touchdown pass and continues to battle Braxton Miller, who did not suit up, to start opposite DeAndre Hopkins. … Washington second-year man Josh Doctson is recovered from his hamstring injury and caught one pass for 12 yards. If Doctson plays well next week, he could earn a starting role. Finally, tight end Jordan Reed did not play this weekend but was activated off the PUP list, so he can join team practices. Reed is going as fantasy’s No. 3 tight end, having fallen behind the Chiefs’ Travis Kelce in ESPN ADP this weekend.