By Jeremy Hritz
The wide receiving corps is deep, talented, and experienced, and you could make the argument that it is the best group Ben Roethlisberger has ever had in his 19 years as the Steelers starter. Sure, a big-playmaker like Antonio Brown is not on the roster, but the players who are comprise a collection of unique skill sets and talents when combined together, create a formidable football-Transformer of sorts. Factor in that all of the receivers have a rapport with Roethlisberger and understand his tendencies and approach to the game, and it is difficult not to envision 2021 being a fruitful one for the passing game.
What is missing in elite deep speed to stretch defenses is compensated for by the group’s balance of talents, which on their own are not deadly, but together, make for a powerful force.
The Top 4
It all starts at the top with Juju Smith-Schuster, who yesterday indicated his desire to play more outside, as that is where he experienced his most successful season in his 2nd year with the team. Juju is a possession receiver who can be physical, make the combat catch when needed, and pick up a critical third down. Along with that, however, come lapses in focus, resulting in ill-timed drops and frustrating turnovers that have negatively impacted outcomes of games in the past. The last two seasons have not been great for Juju, and on a one-year deal, he has the incentive to show the league he is worthy of a generous multi-year contract. Whether or not that will be in Pittsburgh will depend on what he can produce, and he must be more explosive and prolific if the Steelers are to make a legitimate run at him for a long term contract.
While there is no true number two, Diontae Johnson’s shiftiness and acceleration make his style complimentary to Smith-Schuster’s. Johnson can maneuver around defenders and turn a short catch into a big gain, shifting his attention upfield to gather as much YAC as possible. He can also, at times, as showcased against the Colts last year, make an explosive, down-the-field reception. Unfortunately, his strength of being able to turn his attention upfield to create a big play can also be a detriment, as it sometimes leads to drops and just-missed big plays.
Chase Claypool emerged as reliable target in his first season and proved to be a balanced receiver who could stretch the field, pick up a tough first down in traffic, and even take a handoff in for a score. He set a Steelers rookie record scoring 4 touchdowns against the Eagles, showing he has a penchant for the end zone. Claypool has room to grow. Only a second year player, there is reason to believe he will take another step in his development and contribute even more for the Steelers. Like Juju and Johnson, there were instances of lapses in concentration and lulls in production; however, these are to be expected from such a young player. Look for Claypool to make the receiving corps even more dynamic next season.
Rounding out the top four is James Washington, who is the closest thing to a deep threat on the roster. At Oklahoma State, Washington showed the ability to stretch the field and haul in bombs for TDs from Mason Rudolph, and he has occasionally showcased that with the Steelers. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, he has not been used as much as he should, so his talents have not been fully utilized. Because the wide receiving unit is as deep as it is, it is difficult to distribute the opportunities evenly, but a concentrated effort to get Washington more involved should be made in 2021.
Hey, You, Get Off of McCloud
The fifth receiver spot should be maintained by Ray Ray McCloud, who is speedy and offers value as a return man on special teams. McCloud also showed the ability to break for a big gain on end-arounds early in the 2020 season, so he could have an expanded role with Matt Canada now fully at the helm.
Beyond the top 4 and McCloud, there are two UDRFAs in Rico Bussey and Isaiah McKoy who will be in camp to compete, in addition to Anthony Johnson, Cody White, and Matthew Sexton. Possibly, one could be kept around on the practice squad if enough is shown in camp, but it will take a stellar effort to unseat McCloud, as his familiarity with the organization, and Canada assuming the play calling role, there is reason to believe he will increase his output in 2021.
Overall, the Steelers are equipped with an outstanding set of wide receivers, and even in the event of injury, they will be able to maintain productivity. Factor in the weapons at tight end and the potential of Najee Harris, and the receivers could receive less defensive attention, opening up more opportunities for them in the passing game.
This will be the most fun position to watch this year for the Steelers, and it could be a special year with the combination and meshing of all of their talents.