This article will examine the Steelers' passing attack, including the current options at WR, TE, and RB. The goal is to figure out what the team wants and/or needs after taking the deep, dark recesses of the roster into account. A follow-up article will consider the options to fill those holes in the draft - with a twist. We've pretty much exhausted the benefits and drawbacks of the 1st and 2nd day possibilities, so that article will focus on who might be available in Day 3. But first ... what do the Steelers have, and what do the Steelers want?
THE ESTABLISHED STARTERS
#1 – Antonio Brown – AB is The Man. He is a 5’10", 186 lbs. 5th year player with all-pro quickness and route running, plus all-world work ethic.
#2 – Markus Wheaton - 5’11", 182 lbs. 2013 pick at 3:79. Broken fingers kept him from contributing as a rookie, but the Steelers are very high on him and great things are expected. Similar to Brown in that his game is based on quickness and route running.
SLOT - Lance Moore. 5’9", 190 lbs. Free agent from the Saints. In the words of Mike Tomlin: "Similar to Jerricho [Cotchery], he’s a savvy veteran that is capable of winning above the neck, [who] can create space at break points." Going into his 10th year after a down season with the Saints.
TE – Heath Miller – 6’5", 256 lbs. One of the game’s great all-around tight ends, Miller had a down season in 2013 because he was recovering from a knee injury. He is expected to be back to form in 2014 and probably 2015. But 2016 is iffy because he is getting older for the NFL, and 2017 is doubtful.
RB – LeVeon Bell – 6’1", 244 lbs. The Steelers pick at 2:48 in the 2013 draft. No need to go into it. Bell is our bell-cow back and a fine receiver.
FB – Will Johnson – 6’2", 248 lbs. A 3rd year player who is a pretty good receiver for a fullback. It’s one of the few positions where the team is unequivocally set.
RB (scat) – Empty. This spot could be occupied, in theory, by LaRod Stephens-Howling but he is not actually on the roster and we do not know if he will return to form after a torn ACL in early 2013.
Brown is an all-star, clear #1. His only weakness is in the red zone where the narrow field limits his agility and plays up his lack of size.
The team will have a gaping need for a #2 receiver if Wheaton fails to develop, but all accounts have been very positive on that front. It’s safe to assume that Wheaton will be a solid #2 who will play like a middle-class-man’s Antonio Brown. Same strengths, same weaknesses.
Lance Moore is there for his veteran savvy and is not a long-term solution. The team can improve at the slot position, either by adding an outside receiver and moving Markus Wheaton in, or by adding a younger man who can beat out Lance Moore.
At TE, Miller is an effective but aging receiver who is also the team's only red zone or jump-ball-winning 3rd down threat. There is room for a second TE receiver and also for an eventual heir.
At RB, the team has a gaping hole for a starting 3rd-down, change-of-pace scatback.
WAYS TO IMPROVE:
- Add a (or two) tall receiving threats to complement Heath Miller. Note that this could be addressed with a tall receiver and/or a receiving tight end.
- Add another dynamic receiver (a #3 threat) to turn this unit into a dominant asset. Note that this could be addressed with either a possession receiver or another AB clone. This would simultaneously improve the slot receiver position by either adding a new player who can beat out Lance Moore or by allowing Markus Wheaton to move inside.
- Add a true, dual-purpose TE to be Miller's eventual heir. If this isn’t addressed in 2014 it will be a very serious need in 2015, but addressing it early would not be a problem because of the two-TE sets that could be played.
- It would be nice to have a kick returner that could relieve AB from that risk.
- Add a 3rd down, change-of-pace scatback.
It's draft season so everyone tends to look there for the possible solutions. But we need to remember that the team also has access to already-signed players who may be able to fill one of those wants/needs without the need to spend an extra draft pick on the position. At the very least, it makes no sense to pick a player would merely duplicate the skill-set that's already available in-house.
WR Derek Moye (a potential "tall receiver") – 6’5", 210 lbs. 2012 UDFA by the Dolphins out of Penn State. Very tall and very thin. Spent time as the team’s invisible 4th receiver last year and had some chances last year but couldn’t quite cash in. If he’s continued to improve, Moye will compete with Justin Brown and maybe a new rookie for the "red zone threat" and "3rd down receiver" positions.
WR Justin Brown (a potential "tall receiver") – 6’3", 209 lbs. 2013 pick at 6:186 from Oklahoma by way of Penn State. When drafted the reports could be summed up as ‘very raw route running, moderate and somewhat monotone 4.60 speed, but good height and very good hands.’ Justin (who can't be called "Brown" because of Antonio) spent his rookie year on the practice squad. A lot depends on how well he developed, which we can't even guess at in a legitimate way. If he learned to run routes, he will compete with Moye and maybe a new rookie for the "red zone threat" and "3rd down receiver" positions. If not, he'll be one of those late 3rd day picks that didn't pan out.
WR Darrius Heyward-Bay (#3 guy) – 6’2", 220 lbs. No need to go into the story. If some miracle endows DHB with a newfound ability to reliably catch the ball, he could easily fill that open slot for a dominant 3rd receiver; but he’s going into his seventh year and it hasn’t happened yet even with Andrew Luck as his 2013 QB. On the other hand, he adds some veteran presence to soften a rookie's learning curve and he's supposed to be a good teammate and willing contributor on special teams. Much like Lance Moore, DHB is there as a quality placeholder until someone develops into a full-time pro and takes the position over.
WR Jasper Collins (a potential slot guy/KR) – 5’10", 190 lbs. 2012 UDFA by the Dolphins. According to scouting reports Collins is a classic punt returner cum receiver type. Great acceleration and shiftiness with 4.47 long speed. The Dolphins waived him before the 2013 season due to an undisclosed injury.
WR Kashif Moore (slot guy/KR) – 5’10", 175 lbs. 2012 UDFA by the Bengals, released after the pre-season and then bounced on the practice squads of multiple teams. A smaller receiver with tremendous athleticism who blew up the 2012 Combine. 4.4 speed, best-in-class vertical (43-½") and cone drills, etc. Obviously a case of someone who has the talent but not the skill. Like Collins, he is a swing-for-the-fences longshot with a small chance of developing into something special and a large chance of washing out.
WR Danny Coale (slot guy) – 6’0", 187 lbs. 2012 pick at 5:152 by the Cowboys. Broke a toe, which cost him the preseason, but was signed to the Dallas practice squad. Promptly tore an ACL that wasn’t healed in time for the 2013 preseason. According to pre-draft scouting reports he has good hands, is a good route runner, and is a high-effort, high-character player. Only average athleticism, speed, and build. 2014 will be his first real chance to compete for an NFL role. There is no way to know how effective he'll be.
WR Lanear Simpson (slot guy) – 5’11", 185 lbs., 2012 UDFA signed by the Colts, then the Cowboys practice squad, and now the Steelers. Fantastic straight-line speed (4.35) but not known to play up to that speed, and in severe need of some shiftiness and route running. Decent hands. Probably the furthest down on the roster, but that speed is enough to earn him a final chance. He's had two years to study route running under professional coaches, however, so it's possible that this will be the year it clicks.
TE Matt Spaeth – 6’7", 270 lbs. Spaeth is the team’s clear #2 tight end because he is a great blocker. As a receiving threat, however, Spaeth makes a great blocker. With Spaeth on the team we can at least be sure the Steelers won't be looking at a blocking-first tight end prospect.
TE Michael Palmer – 6’5", 252 lbs. 2010 UDFA signed by the Falcons. Played there for three years, nondescriptly. Bounced to the Giants, then the Seahawks, and then the Steelers to fill in during the injury-devastated 2013 season. Was on the roster all year but had only one reception for eight yards. Palmer looks like a career depth guy. Great to have as insurance, but he'll only see the field if disaster strikes.
TE David Paulson – 6’4", 246 lbs. 2011 pick at 7:240 by the Steelers. Last year in training camp Mike Tomlin challenged the linebackers to cover Paulson. They could not do it. During the season Tomlin challenged Paulson to block an opposing defender. He could not do it; and he could not carve himself a spot as a receiving-first red zone threat. The bottom line is that he's a classic tight end 'tweener with good receiving skills and poor blocking skills. If he cannot improve the receiving part to "special," or the blocking part to "acceptable," Paulson won’t make it out of training camp again
RB LeGarrette Blount – 6’0", 250 lbs. Running back, hell yes. Receiving back, not so much.
RB Alvester Alexander – 5’11", 213 lbs. 2012 UDFA by the Bears. Bounced to the Colts, on and off several times, then to the Steelers. A decent backup who can catch, but isn’t a 3rd down scatback by any means. He will be competing with Maysonet and Poole for the backup position behind Bell and Blount.
RB Miguel Maysonet – 5’10", 210 lbs. 2013 UDFA by the Eagles, bounced to several teams. A "power back" with everything he needs but an extra 20 lbs. of muscle. Not a genuine receiving option. He will be competing with Alexander and Poole for the backup position behind Bell and Blount.
RB Tauron Poole – 5’10", 210 lbs. 2012 UDFA by the Panthers. A decent runner who can also catch, but definitely not a scatback type. He will be competing with Alexander and Maysonet for the backup position behind Bell and Blount.
So that is the current state of the Steelers. The team could use two new WR's in any of three categories: a tall red-zone threat; a speedy slot guy; or a #3 possession guy. The categories overlap enough that one or two players could fill all those spots. The team could also use a dual purpose tight end (also an overlap possibility), and a 3rd down scatback.
The follow-up article(s) will explore who might be available in Day 3 of the draft to improve each of those positions.