By Jeremy Hritz
While there have many players who have stood out so far in Steelers training camp, an undrafted rookie free agent wide receiver out of the University of Hawaii has consistently made plays and his presence felt: Rico Bussey. Donning number 84, a number associated with wide-receiver greatness (and yes, some mercurial and eccentric behavior), Bussey has made significant plays in camp to give the coaching staff pause to consider whether or not there is a place for him on the roster.
Just take a look at this brief snapshot of his plays over the last few days in training camp:
- On Thursday, Bussey hauled in a long touchdown pass from Dwayne Haskins at the conclusion of practice in a two-minute drill. Additionally, he demonstrated the ability to focus and concentrate and pull in a long pass that was deflected into the air.
- Under the lights on Friday, he made another spectacular catch in the endzone for a touchdown.
Following Friday’s practice, Aditi Kinkhabwala who covers the Steelers for the NFL Network had this to say via Twitter: “Forget it, I’m sold on the kid.” Head Coach Mike Tomlin on the other hand is cautious in jumping too early with his praise, pointing out similar types of plays being made by the undrafted Mathew Sexton, minus the recognition: “He made a play or two, but Sexton made a play or two the other day, and you guys didn’t call Sexton over.”
While it is still very early in the team development process, and the Steelers have not even lined up for a preseason contest, they have to be encouraged from what they have seen from Bussey, and the potential options he could possibly provide should he continue his upward trajectory throughout camp.
“Forget it, I’m sold on the kid.”Aditi Kinkhabwala on Rico Bussey
Bussey’s Draft Profile
At 6′, 186 pounds with an injury history, Bussey went undrafted, which provided the Steelers the opportunity to sign him and bring him into camp. He played at North Texas, where he enjoyed his best season in 2018, catching 68 passes for 1017 yards and 12 touchdowns. In 2019, however, he was injured and required surgery to repair his ACL, and then transferred to Hawaii for his final season in 2020 in which he caught 31 balls for 274 yards and 1 touchdown.
Entering the draft, scouts acknowledged his ability to serve teams as a vertical threat but questioned his hands and ability to make combat catches, as is desired in Pittsburgh. There was also concern that his speed had declined following his ACL injury, hampering his primary strength as a receiver.
In terms of strengths, Bussey demonstrated explosiveness and the ability to immediately advance the ball up the field following the reception, making him a YAC collector.
Humility From the Rookie
Despite the success he has achieved early on in camp, Bussey seems to be keeping a humble perspective in his approach to trying to make a place for himself on the Steelers roster. He talked about the importance of learning from the veterans: “I just follow the old guys,” which is encouraging, as he is surrounding by a strong group of receivers whom he can learn from. Also, in discussing getting number 84, he made it a point to note that is was by random chance, and not a projection of the caliber of receiver he believe he is: “It was just the number they gave to me. I wasn’t really in a position to ask for nothing, really.”
Keeping this type of mindset will be important for Bussey to continue to improve and show the coaches his skill and ability to contribute.
Continued Improvement from Bussey Gives the Steelers Options
The Steelers have had great success in developing wide-receivers, and Bussey potentially could be the next in line. Again, while it is very early in the player evaluation process, if Bussey continues to shine and make plays as he has done the first two weeks of camp and can carry those performances over into the preseason contests, he will provide the Steelers with options and some difficult decisions to make.
If he shows enough, could he displace Ray Ray McCloud as the number 5 receiver? The challenge to this is the value McCloud provides on special teams as a return man, which Bussey has not shown he can do. Could his play force the Steelers to keep 6 receivers, keeping one less player at another position? Or, does he make a player like James Washington expendable, and do the Steelers attempt to trade him for future draft picks, or another player to shore up their depth at another position? To reiterate, this is all dependent on continued impressive play from the rookie receiver.
How Will It Unfold?
The Bussey question is a new one to add to the list of many questions that the Steelers face as they work through training camp, but it is a positive, and potentially, valuable one. The Thursday night contest against the Cowboys will provide a primetime stage for Bussey to show that he can do it in a game, and should he deliver, he will take another step to forcing himself into the Steelers wide receiver room. Bussey’s success spells success for the team on many levels, so as you watch Thursday, keep a close eye on his performance, and root for his continued production.