Darrius Heyward-Bey has been, by all accounts, the perfect team player during his time in Pittsburgh. Heck, he's been that way his entire career, really. Despite his absurdly high (and, if we are being even a little honest with ourselves, unwarranted) draft slot, he never fell into the trap that nabs a seemingly large percentage of highly drafted receivers: he never became a "diva". He's a guy you can't help but root for.
The sad reality is that he may need to lean on that humbleness and humility when final rosters are announced, because there is a possibility that he will not make it another year with the Steelers. That's all thanks to second-year player C.J. Goodwin. And possibly a small nudge from 2015 third-round draft pick Sammie Coates.
To dispel any implications: Coates already made the team. He did that the moment he was drafted in the third round and then did not choose to dropkick Mike Tomlin's aunt's dog through the south-end uprights at Heinz Field, because that's about the minimum amount of stupidity that would have been required for him to not be given a full year to prove his worth. This isn't about Coates -- but he will make an appearance in the scenario. For now, just go with it.
This is about Goodwin, who was in a battle with fellow youngster Eli Rogers until Wednesday, when an injury prematurely ended Rogers' tenure with the team. Up to that point, both had played so well that choosing between them was a decision few would have wanted to make. Now, though, the calculus has changed.
For his part, Goodwin has been doing everything right. He catches well, he fights for the ball like it's his only worldly possession, and he's been putting in extra work when he isn't practicing. Basically, he sounds like Antonio Brown, when he was a fresh, new face. And, thanks to injuries to Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton, Goodwin has found himself getting exposure by playing with the starters a fair amount.
Until Rogers went down, there was a decent chance the team would keep six receivers. They did last season, after all, but that was because Heyward-Bey contributed both veteran leadership and special-teams play. Now, Brown is entering his sixth season and is the defacto leader of this group -- and is in a very narrow discussion for the best receiver in the NFL, period. Heyward-Bey's leadership presence is marginalized by the effort Brown puts in each and every day, and the example he sets for others through deeds and performance rather than words. He also has dropped several passes in camp thus far. And now Coates is being used in practice as a special-teams gunner, which had been Heyward-Bey's bread-and-butter.
See? I told you we'd get back to Coates.
Last season, the Steelers never dressed more than five of their six receivers for any given game. Keeping six on the roster gave them flexibility during the week, but not on gameday. That purpose can be better served by keeping a marginal reserve at a position of deeper need, while better leveraging the existing players. The fact that Heyward-Bey may no longer bring anything unique to the position group means that he is just another body taking a spot from someone who might be called on to contribute -- Say, Dri Archer or Josh Harris, or maybe it makes room for the lesser of Doran Grant and Kevin Fogg.
Rogers' injury and Goodwin's excellent play may not directly change the numbers at the position -- it's likely that Coates, who possesses great size and speed for a receiver, would have found his way to a shot at being a special-teams gunner at some point -- but it did help eliminate some possibilities for how the roster would be structured. And, if Coates excels, it will likely spell doom for a good-guy receiver who hasn't publicly said a cross word about the organization. It was bound to happen sooner or later, but it really is a shame.
It's not personal, Darrius. It's strictly business.