By Jeremy Hritz
Wide receiver has always been a position of strength for the Pittsburgh Steelers, and as it stands right now, this is a good, but not great group of pass catchers. Based on the way things transpired this season, this unit will more than likely look very different in 2022, as there are several free agents, and a need for a burner to help stretch the field and keep defenses honest.
Diontae Johnson will be 26 entering the 2022 season in the final year of his contract, and more than likely this offseason, he will negotiate an extension with the Steelers. Johnson had his best year with the team this season, catching 107 balls for 1161 yards and 8 touchdowns. Johnson has great burst and agility, able to get open and shake defenders, and he also showed the ability to stretch the field at times this year and make long receptions down field, at times for scores. At the same time, what has become evident as part of Johnson’s game is inconsistency in terms of drops and ball security. Though he greatly improved from 2020 to 2021, this is still an element to his game that must continue to improve, though the reality is, lack of focus will periodically rear its ugly head for him. He is a nice complimentary receiver, and close to being a true #1, but his unsteadiness prevents this.
James Washington is a free agent, and he will not be returning to Pittsburgh. There were high hopes about Washington, and he did flash at times, but he was disgruntled from the outset of the season, and that lasted up until the final game. Washington has skills, no doubt, and he will take them elsewhere and get the opportunity he is seeking. In the right offense, he can be a quality player, let’s just hope that isn’t with an AFC North opponent. The Steelers missed an opportunity earlier this season to unload Washington for a later round draft pick, and now will have nothing to show for his departure. Good character guy, I wish him nothing but the best moving forward.
Juju Smith-Schuster is a free agent, but he has communicated that he wants to remain in Pittsburgh, and following what appeared to be a season ending injury that he later surprisingly returned from, there may be a possibility the team can re-sign him at an affordable price for a 4-year deal. Smith-Schuster is a physical, possession receiver who can make difficult combat catches and would be helpful to whomever is taking the snaps next season. Monitoring his situation this offseason will be interesting, and hopefully it concludes with a contract extension with the team.
Chase Claypool had a disappointing sophomore season characterized by unevenness: one moment he was making a big play, the other, committing a bonehead penalty, or dropping the football. Claypool has tremendous size and speed, though he is not a burner, and when focused, can secure contested catches, in addition to drawing pass interference calls. He also provides value in the running game through jet sweeps and can complement the traditional running game. This offseason, Claypool has to work on his concentration and consistency so that his game is more stable from start to finish, from beginning of the season until the end. There were games were he was electric, and other games in which he disappeared. Such growing pains are not uncommon, but he must show progression in year three in order for him to validate his selection in the second round by the Steelers. Claypool is brimming with talent, and if he can put it all together this offseason, it will go a long way in strengthening what will be an unknown passing game in 2022.
Ray Ray McCloud is 25 years old and will become a free agent. In his second season with the Steelers, he not only made contributions as a return man, both kick and punt, but also as a receiver, which was not forecasted at the start of the season. However, when Smith-Schuster went down with his shoulder injury, McCloud became the replacement, and not Washington. McCloud caught 39 passes for 277 yards, which is good for a paltry 7.1 yards per reception, yet despite this meager average, McCloud was still a favorite target of Ben Roethlisberger. Even though he wasn’t an explosive receiver, he was gritty, putting himself out there in the blocking game, and making critical catches (see the Baltimore 4th and 8). He endeared himself to the fans, though that may not be even for him to be re-signed. The Steelers could look for other options, and possibly give Steven Sims, who spent the season on the Steelers practice squad, a long look. But there is something to be said for the familiarity and comfort the team has with McCloud, especially in the return game, and at only age 25, there is a good chance he returns.
Finally, Cody White was a player who impressed in camp and found a way to stick on the roster. Not fast, not explosive, just a guy. White contributed some on special teams, and made 5 receptions for 33 yards. While he is signed for 2022, if the team can find better depth elsewhere, White’s tenure with the team will be short-lived.
The Path Forward at WR
If you look at the position in totality, it is clear to see there is a definite need. Because Johnson and Claypool have been so inconsistent, the Steelers would be prudent to re-sign Smith-Schuster who can provide veteran leadership and help to direct the wide receiver room. If they do not re-sign him, the team will have to find a similar receiver via free agency which does not seem prudent when considering the massive change to the offense coming as a result of Roethlisberger’s retirement.
The Steelers will have wide receiver on their minds in the 2022 draft, and while I would not predict them to select one early unless a premier talent happens to fall, they will need to target a receiver with elite speed who can diversify the talents of the group. I spoke before the season about the need for a deep threat and how it could hurt the offense, and we all witnessed how things played out. That cannot happen two years in a row, and the Steelers have to make such a prospect a priority.
There is one free agent receiver the Steelers could be interested in, and that is DJ Chark who’s contract is up with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Chark ran a 4.34 at the 2018 NFL Scouting Combine, and he has the type of explosiveness this team needs. During his 4 years with the Jaguars, he has caught 147 balls for 2042 yards for 15 touchdowns, so there is some value as demonstrated through his numbers. Chark would be a moderately priced prospect, and with the Steelers cap space, they could make it work. Making such a decision would mean they don’t believe in any of the available speedster receivers in this year’s draft, or feel that they will have the opportunity to draft the player they need.
There is work to do at wide receiver, and while some of the parts will look the same, there is a chance there will be a few new faces. What happens with Smith-Schuster will be a significant indicator in terms of how the Steelers approach this offseason at the position, so keep a close eye on what happens there.