2023 Steelers Positional Evaluations: Wide Receiver

By Jeremy Hritz

If there is one position I’m betting on the Steelers to draft this coming spring, it’s wide receiver. Sure, they have talent, and yes, George Pickens has the potential to become a superstar, but beyond that, Diontae Johnson is inconsistent, Steven Sims is primarily a return man, and Gunnar Olzewski and Miles Boykin role players/special teams contributors. While many are asserting that the return of Calvin Austin next year will bolster the group, there is no guarantee that he will produce, let alone stay healthy. The team needs to find a consistent, physical possession receiver who can complement the big play, down the field ability to Pickens, and the lateral shiftiness of Johnson. And it is this type of player I believe they will target in the draft.

Pickens had a solid rookie season, despite having to manage the uncertainty of the quarterback situation early in the season. He finished the year with 52 receptions, 801 yards, and 4 touchdowns, but more importantly, he flashed powerful concentration and acrobatic-like body control to haul in seemingly uncatchable passes. Factor in his deceptive speed, and the contributions that Pickens can make to the Steelers offense are unlimited, as he has a rare blend of hands, body control, and speed to make him a top-5 type receiver. Year #2 for Pickens can potentially be something special. 

Johnson did not catch a touchdown pass in 2022, despite hauling in 86 balls for 882 yards. Still plagued by the occasional drop, and showing a penchant for running backwards, away from the first down marker, Johnson was a source of frustration numerous times during the year. What he does possess in elusiveness and burst is often negated due to his lack of concentration and failure to understand the response needed from his post-reception movements to pick up the first down. Unfortunately, these are simply elements of Johnson’s game that must be accepted along with the good he provides, because as he tries to make big plays, sometimes these hiccups occur. There is a place for him in this offense to be highly effective, but he needs to develop his consistency to truly benefit the team. 

Beyond Pickens and Johnson, it’s a group of good to average. Sims is a quality return man who can provide some splash in the passing game, but he is not an every down player. Olzewski is too slight and too careless with the football to be trusted for the duration of a game. Whereas Boykin is a special teams ace, who also can only contribute in spot duty and not as a full time starter.

Some may argue that trading Chase Claypool was not a good idea, but Pickens provides everything and more of what the organization hoped for from the Notre Dame product. The value the team received for the trade now puts them in a position in which they can draft a talented wide receiver, if they so choose, at the beginning of the second round. 

Pickens and Johnson will be your top two receivers next season, but the team is in desperate need of a third receiver, and as I mentioned earlier, a steady possession-type player who can be counted on by Kenny Pickett at any point in the game. While I don’t see the Steelers drafting a receiver in the 1st round, if the best player happens to be a wide receiver at #17, then I would not be surprised. I believe the more likely drafting spot is between rounds 2 and 3, as the team is looking to surround their potential franchise quarterback with talent. 

Sims, Olzewski, and Boykin will all return to camp, but I’m doubtful all three remain, with Olzewski being the odd man out. The team will probably bring in a free agent receiver as well to complete, in addition to a few UDRFAs. 

When it all shakes out for the first game in September, look for it to be Pickens, Johnson, and a rookie who are the targets of Pickett’s second season passes.

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