Over the past few years the Steelers have devoted real effort to building a set of receiving weapons so deep and awe inspiring that Big Ben will never want to retire at all. It centered on future Hall of Fame receiver Antonio Brown, and the final game against Cincinnati went a long way toward proving how much everyone else has benefited from the perpetual double- and triple-coverage aimed toward that primary weapon. Juju Smith-Schuster look unstoppable throughout the season while playing Robin to AB’s Batman. When asked to carry the load on his own, he looked like a true #1 receiver but not the 100+ catch guy you see in the stat line.
It now seems entirely possible that AB will be gone from the team in 2019. Not certain by any means, but probably more likely than not depending on how you read into this January 10 statement by Art Rooney II in an interview:
There’s not much we can do right now; we have time to make a decision. We’ll look at all the options. We’re not going to release him, that’s not on the table. But I will say all other options are on the table... Whether the situation can be reconciled and have him back on the team next year, we’re a long way away from thinking that can happen. We’re not closing the door on anything at this point.”
“I’m not going to use those words [trade]. All options are on the table. We have two months to go before we can do anything. There’s no sense making the decision now. We’ll see how things play out. Maybe he decides to come talk to us some day and we learn more about where he is. We’ll see.
Yikes. Tony Toetap may be the one who has added the sparkle to Pittsburgh’s champagne for the past several years, but consistency, physicality and a famously collegial, family environment have been the team’s 12th man for decades. Mess with that and you simply won’t be welcome, no matter how great your individual skills. Your humble author really, really hopes the two sides can reconcile but this article will assume that Colbert & Co. believe that AB will be gone for the 2019 season - and 2020 at the latest.
So - does that instantly vault us into panic mode and make WR the #1 priority? No. As discussed below the receiving corps is pretty solid even without Mr. Brown; there is no reason to assume the team would get a draft-altering pick in exchange for his services; and there is even less reason to believe that BPA and want will coincide in a Round 1 pick. Here is the current roster:
Antonio Brown.This article assumes he will be gone for the 2019 season.
NOTE: If AB and the team manage to reconcile we will install a hard floor that lowers all higher grades to 2:24, and discount the Round 2 and 3 listings by appropriate amounts to emphasize the lack of space in the wide receiver room. Added discounts will be applied to receivers who bring neither extraordinary height or field stretching speed because those are the two assets that would be most useful even if our all-star stays in place.
- Juju Smith-Schuster. A true #1 receiver on most other teams and going into Year #3. The core of his success rests on being a 6’1”, 210 lb. tough guy with sneaky speed, really good hands, and boatloads of attitude. Pittsburgh drafted JJSS straight out of the cradle and thus he will no doubt continue to improve for the next several years. At this point he seems destined for no less than a fringe HOF career similar to the one that Hines Ward put together.
- James Washington. The 2018 Round 2 pick showed flashes but never seemed to fully “get it.” The biggest issue seemed to be static in that special 6th-sense connection that good receivers build with the man who throws them the ball. Washington needs to make a Sophomore leap. That said, almost no one seems to doubt that he will. All the pieces are there, he flashed them ever more often as his rookie year went on, and he just needs to put them together on a consistent basis. James Washington is a classic, slippery-type receiver with almost-elite speed, excellent hands, great leaping ability and body control, and the ability to make combat catches. An eager blocker and hard worker too. He projects as nothing less than a WR2 (assuming the leap) and has a ceiling in fantasy land.
- Ryan Switzer. The team’s kick and punt returner. He has blossomed into a solid slot receiver of the quicker-than-fast variety.
- Eli Rogers. The team’s designated, super-quick slot receiver despite the snaps that Switzer managed to poach. Unlike Washington, Eli Rogers definitely has formed a successful telepathic bond with his QB.
- Justin Hunter. 6’4” and lightning fast, he was a Round 1 pick some years ago but has spent his career underachieving. His hands are a particular problem, he got hurt in 2018, and he is also a free agent. It would make a lot of sense to replace him with a big-and-tall youngster who’d bring better long term potential.
- Darrius Heyward-Bey. Everyone knows the story by now. Drafted at #7 overall in one of Al Davis’ final acts of desperate reaching for a 6’2” man with 4.30 speed, DHB became a legendary bust because he has neither NFL hands nor the ability to run precision routes. That debacle would destroy most young men but it turns out that DHB is a genuine football player at heart. He reinvented himself as a locker room glue-guy, special teams ace, and a very occasional receiving weapon who’s done nothing but earn respect with both his team and its fans. You’ve got to love the guy but he is also holding a roster spot that could be improved from the long term perspective.
- GUYS NAMED JOE. Digging down into the practice squad would make this even longer. Your thanks are appreciated [rolling eyes ruefully].
Bottom line? If AB stays then the Steelers’ depth at WR amounts to, “Wow!” Their interest in draft prospects would be far more focused on specific measurements like exceptional height or speed. If AB gets traded? The position is still in pretty good shape if you assume even a typical Sophomore Leap from James Washington. A stud WR would definitely be in the cards even so in order to recreate the overwhelming set of assets that Ben has gotten used to. Plus there is the real if unspoken reality that Pittsburgh’s front office hates to focus any draft class to heavily on one side of the ball, and all the other priority wants seem to be on defense (reliable Corner with upside, explosive ILB, a stud Edge if someone falls, and a Cover 2-capable Safety to back up Sean Davis and free up Terrell Edmunds for Big Nickel packages).
Here is a list of the Wide Receiver talent that Nick Farabaugh and I have managed to compile for the initial BTSC Big Board (with TE’s getting their own article later on): [fn]
- 9:99 WR Marquise “Hollywood” Brown, Oklahoma. 5’10”, 170 lbs. Ain’t Gonna Happen. Yes, Antonio Brown’s cousin might be the fastest guy in the draft. Yes, he is a “true deep threat” who sets the precedent for polished, NFL-ready receivers in the 2019 class. Yes, we would rank him up there at 1:20 or 1:25 if the relationship didn’t matter. But it does. Drafting Hollywood Brown would stick him right in the middle of the emotional divorce that will (we are assuming) have just finished up with Antonio Brown. The Steelers organization would not do that to the young man. Excising AB because he threatens the team’s family environment, and then threatening an actual family...? No. Nor would Colbert & Co. fail to see how adding the cousin could continue the internal issues. It ain’t gonna happen.
With that out of the way...
- 1:15 WR D.K. Metcalf,Ole Miss. 6’4”, 230 lbs. The #1 WR on most boards and on ours as well. Metcalf suffered a season-ending neck injury but that doesn’t sound like something that will impact his performance moving forward, and the potential is beyond belief. The technical skills are all a bit raw in all the little ways that separate college receivers from the pros but you would be hard pressed to think of any physical asset that D.K. Metcalf doesn’t have in spades. Height, weight, speed, hands, body control, competitiveness, etc. If you’ve been doing this for more than a few years he will remind you strongly of a less polished but slightly more athletic Mike Adams, with a few more things that need to be projected. Daniel Jeremiah preferred a comparison to Josh Gordon without the problems upstairs. Here’s a 3-reviewer scouting report from The Draft Network.
- 1:20 WR N’Keal Harry, Arizona St. 6’3”, 216 lbs. This year’s class is full of tough, strong Juju-type WR’s who are fast enough to succeed but have a game that centers on great hands, winning contested catches, and a physical intensity that punishes smaller CB’s. N’Keal Harry could not fit that stereotype any better except he’s two inches taller, ten pounds bigger, and probably a little faster than JJSS. Here is a 3-reviewer January scouting profile.
- 1:25 Kelvin Harmon, N.C. State. 6’3”, 215 lbs. Big, tough, strong, blocks like a TE but runs like a WR and never gets caught from behind despite what the 40-time may show. Projects as a bigger & nastier version of Juju or Anquan Boldin. This goes to a 2-reviewer December scouting profile.
- 2:01 WR J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, Stanford. 6’2”, 220 lbs. Juju Smith-Schuster has a next generation clone that stands an inch taller, ten pounds heavier, and is Stanford smart. Like JJSS the only questions go to his top end speed. This grade assumes that he will test somewhere in the 4.5 range, which is perfectly acceptable but not special. Someone needs to watch some film to tell us if, like Juju, he plays faster than he tests...
- 2:01 WR Riley Ridley, Georgia. 6’2”, 200 lbs. A technician with athletic skills, Calvin Ridley’s little brother is the best pure route runner and one of the most polished overall receivers in the draft.
- 2:12 WR A.J. Brown, Ole Miss. 6’1”, 225 lbs. Brad Kelly called him “an efficient route runner”, and he primarily operates out of the slot despite his size. Brown also can be a good vertical threat but he definitely has room to develop.
- 2:12 WR Hakeem Butler, Iowa St. 6’6”, 230 lbs. The best red zone target in the draft. He’s almost the size of a receiving TE but has evolved into a complete-for-college outside weapon, was all but dominant against a good Washington State team in the bowl game, and has the potential to be an NFL all star. The issues? Route running, using his size to its full and appropriate extent, and avoiding the dropsies. He improved notably in all three areas over the 2018 season but work remains to be done. ‘Kelvin Benjamin without the head and heart problems?’ That would be a heck of a player… Here is a good October scouting report from Benjamin Solak. This goes to a January scouting profile that ends with a Round 2 grade, but seems to have missed the upward curve shown at the end of the season.
- 2:12 WR DaMarkus Lodge, Ole Miss. 6’2”, 205 lbs. Serious, deep threat speed and a player who knows how to use it. Alas, he also comes with some questions about his hands. That is something the process will examine with care. Here is a great scouting report from Jon Ledyard.
- 2:12 WR Deebo Samuel, S. Car. 6’0”, 210 lbs. An exceptionally well rounded player who will remind you of James Washington; or rather of what Washington’s college career would have looked like if he’d suffered through bad QB play instead of lucking out with a Mason Rudolph to throw him the ball. Here is a 3-reviewer December scouting profile.
- 2:12 WR Antoine Wesley, Texas Tech. 6’5”, 200 lbs. A 6’5” receiver that can run any route, do it well, and snag any ball that is almost in reach? Nah. Who needs a player like that? Here is a good December scouting report from Brad Kelly.
- 3:01 WR Keesean Johnson, Fresno St. 6’2”, 199 lbs. A sleeper who’s likely to rise up the Board because he has absolutely brilliant hands paired with a fairly polished skill set and excellent size. Could easily go early in Round 2 if he runs a 4.3-something dash or leaps out of the building. Or he could run a 4.45 and become one of those mid-round steals that fans will chortle about for years to come... Here is a November scouting profile.
- 3:01 WR Denzel Mims, Baylor. 6’3”, 207 lbs. A contested catch specialist with the explosive ability to break almost any catch into a TD, held back by still-developing skills as a route runner. If the coaches see something specific that might be fixed...
- 3:01 WR Alex Wesley, Northern Colorado. 6’0”, 195 lbs. An electric, small school player, he has grown as a route runner and become one of the better deep threats in the class.
- 3:12 WR Van Jefferson, Florida. 6’1”, 195 lbs. Tremendous hands and sophistication but will that be enough against NFL Corners with a lot more athleticism than he can boast?
- 3:12 WR Gary Jennings, W. Va. 6’0”, 210 lbs. A straight up solid football player who won’t blow up the Combine but has the film to make up for it. He has shown the ability to create separation and our own Nick Farabaugh describes him as “the classic possession receiver”. Can you have too many Hines Ward types on your team?
- 3:12 WR Tyler Johnson, Minnesota. 6’2”, 200 lbs. A sleeper, Johnson is a well-rounded receiver who’s great on contested catches and a YAC monster, but inconsistencies in route running and questions about his hands could hurt his value.
- 3:24 WR Parris Campbell, Ohio St. 6’0”, 208 lbs. This is a grade that will disappoint his fans. Campbell really is a premier deep threat with legit 4.3 speed and also superb quickness. That matters. But he isn’t a good route runner and he hasn’t flashed NFL hands, and those flaws matter too. Like they say, he’s a one trick pony but it’s a darned good trick.
- 3:24 WR Andy Isabella, U. Mass. 5’10”, 190 lbs. He might not have the size but he certainly has the shiftiness and quickness to be an ideal slot receiver. A technician at heart who gets compared to Julian Edelman. Here is a November scouting report by Kyle Crabbs.
- 4:01 WR Lil’ Jordan Humphrey, Texas. 6’4”, 225 lbs. A “junkyard dog at WR” who can grab anything out of the air and would battle hell itself to do so, Humphrey has been both a red zone monster and a big play threat in college, but his lack of speed and limited route tree drop his grade from an NFL perspective.
- 4:01 WR Jalen Hurd, Baylor. 6’4”, 225 lbs. Stop! Read this article at NFL.com about how this all-star RB on the eve of NFL draft glory walked out of Tennessee, transferred to Baylor, and started all over again at a new position. I mean it! You can’t understand this prospect without understanding the backstory. The assets are all there, and his season as a WR shows that he really can play the position. No known issues with any of the physical things like hands and ability to separate, willingness to block, or (lord knows) run after catch. The “flaws” are all about that backstory and the year or two it will take for a genius athlete to fully master a new position. Here is a New Year’s scouting profile that covers the physical and technical assets and issues. But the backstory is what you need to know.
- 4:16 WR Emanuel Hall, Missouri. 6’2”, 200 lbs. Has the speed and COD skills you expect from a 5’9” jitterbug, which is enough to raise serious eyebrows. The downsides are very raw route running skills on a limited route tree, and inconsistent hands, which could be an actual problem or just a discipline/concentration thing.
- 4:16 WR Alexander Hollins, Eastern Illinois. 6’1”, 196 lbs. Height, weight and especially speed makes him tempting as a pure deep threat with pretty good size.
Notice a pattern? This class has much more talent that features 6’1” to 6’3” tough guys than we’ve seen for many years, if ever. Some of that will be generational - people getting bigger over time - but is it also a harbinger of how the college game has evolved and the sort of talent it will feed the league moving forward? The supply of similarly sized Corner prospects is equally remarkable... There are also a lot of titan-sized 6’4” to 6’6” receivers designed by nature to tower over the likes of Joe Haden. Those may be a particular target for Pittsburgh because Justin Hunter has not panned out as hoped and there is no one else on the roster to fill that role.
So what is going to happen? I am not a prophet but it is easy to see that our Board contains a lot of receiving weapons clustered densely in the range from late 1st to mid 3rd, with a steady stream of viable talents or both Round 4 and Round 5 (or in the Steelers’ case 6:02). If nothing happens to alter the Board, fans should look for a pick in that 2-4 range where a BPA bargain should be available. That said, the 2019 class is so top-heavy with defensive stars that even the teams with screaming offensive may bow toward BPA and pick some clearly better talent when they pick toward the top of the draft. The logical result would be to a huge run on Wide Receivers in the top half of the 2nd. If the Steelers do trade Brown, and do end up with a late 1st or early 2nd as compensation, and do want to make a show of maintaining the WR corps by adding an extraordinary talent rather than just an excellent one... well, in that case it might make sense to use the extra pick before that run can begin. It all depends on what level of compensation a 31 year old HOF player with locker room problems will bring, whether the Steelers would prefer to fill in their defensive ‘wants’ first, and of course how the board plays out in real life. Teams rarely act as we fans would have wanted or predicted.
What a twisted situation. I can only close with a pair of quotes, both equally apt. I defer to the wise man from the Middle East with regard to how the situation will play out: “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof”. With regard to the situation itself I’m drawn to China: “May you live in interesting times.”
[FN] For those who don’t know, we organize the BTSC Big Board by a grade called “Highest Value”. An HV of 1:20 means the player is a reach for the Steelers at any point before Pick # 20 overall but good value at any point from the end of the 1st on. Getting that player in the early 2nd would be fine, while getting him at 2:12 would almost be a steal. Yes, this system results in a certain amount of grade inflation for positions of need because we are talking about the “highest” grade rather than where a player is expected to go; but it’s balanced by never, ever pushing a grade up because of need. Players with the same HV# are more-or-less equivalent and organized alphabetically.