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With Ryan Switzer on board, Steelers may challenge Patriots for ‘Smurf Power’

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Steelers already were loaded with quality receivers, but Switzer could add a new dimension.

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NFL: Washington Redskins at Dallas Cowboys Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

With their diminutive-but-deadly wide-receiver corps, the New England Patriots popularized the “Smurfs” concept in recent years as a viable alternative to the prototypical, big-body wide receiver (e.g. Martavis Bryant) that almost every other NFL team seems to covet. With Monday’s acquisition of kick-return specialist/slot receiver Ryan Switzer, the Steelers might have found themselves a bookend threat to complement Antonio Brown, arguably the league’s best small-body receiver.

Like many other Steelers fans, my initial reaction when learning about this trade was to question why the Black-and-gold needed to sign another receiver. But then I looked at some college and pro film on Switzer and understood right away how well he fits the Steelers’ overall needs and scheme. It’s no secret that the Steelers were scraping the bottom of the barrel in their quest to find a credible kick-return specialist to step in for Brown, their most valuable and game-altering wide receiver. Having returned seven punts for TDs during his college career, Switzer certainly appears to meet this overriding need quite nicely.

But that’s only the most obvious element of the repertoire Switzer brings to the Steel City. There’s little doubt that the ex-Cowboy/ex-Raider now finds himself teamed up with the best quarterback he’s ever seen at any level of organized football. Despite the Steelers’ history of under-utilizing smurfy speedsters, if Switzer is able to find chemistry with No. 7 as a reliable slot receiver — plus potentially becoming a legitimate threat on reverses and various gadget plays — this might be one of those trades we look back on someday as a steal.

When ProFootballFocus.com analyzed Switzer ahead of the 2017 NFL Draft, they cited quickness as his greatest attribute, and this certainly comes through in his highlights reel. He’s able to reach full speed quickly and changes direction effortlessly. Switzer also is a precise route runner who generally doesn’t try to improvise unless the play breaks down. In three seasons at the University of North Carolina, he dropped only 11 of 224 catchable throws for a drop rate of only 4.9 percent.

Strangely enough, two things in the PFF analysis which really caught my attention were items listed under Switzer’s shortcomings — his small catch radius and his lack of physicality on contested throws. According to PFF’s scouting report, because Switzer isn’t the Antonio Brown or James Washington type of receiver who can out-jump or out-fight defenders, he needs “a very accurate quarterback to put it on him every throw.” In this regard, the Steelers seem tailor-made for Switzer because, when he’s in his usual groove, few NFL quarterbacks possess the sheer arm strength or deadly accuracy of Ben Roethlisberger.

Time will tell, of course, and there’s always the nagging suspicion that Big Ben’s game, geared as it’s been historically to longer-range throws, cannot fully exploit the slot-receiver position. But with Switzer’s signing, the Steelers’ front office has at least opened the door for what might be the beginning of a Smurf-Power Era in Pittsburgh. After all, why let the Patriots have all the fun with Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman?

As the first surprise roster move for Pittsburgh in the window between the end of preseason and Opening Day, Switzer’s acquisition spurs even greater excitement and anticipation for the upcoming regular season. Steelers Nation can now envision Special Teams Coordinator Danny Smith and Big Ben finally getting the bookend Smurf monster they’ve always wanted — and not a day too soon, with the 2018 season kickoff just around the corner.