So far the off season for the Pittsburgh Steelers has been rather eventful to say the least. Steelers off seasons are usually quite boring actually, aside from the occasional injury or arrest. The last couple have been spent speculating whether the team would be able to sign Le'Veon Bell to a long term contract, or would they be forced to tag him to keep him from walking away. We all know how that turned out and thankfully for all parties involved that situation is over.
With the Steelers seldom being players in the initial wave of free agency, we the fans were left to ponder what oft injured retread of a free agent the Steelers would gamble on, usually with disappointing results. That could all change this free agency period, but we will believe it when we see it. Our first order of business is this week's NFL Scouting Combine, where league GM's are like kids in a candy store.
This off season has basically been a continuation of the past drama filled season, thanks mainly to Antonio Brown and the national media. Although it appears AB's time as a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers is coming to an end, his departure may only be the start of a great exodus from the wide receiver group. There is a high probability of some new faces in new places next season.
Only three receivers can be considered locks for next season: JuJu Smith Schuster, James Washington, and Ryan Switzer. The remaining positions are anything but settled, partly due to contract status, and partly due to on field performance.
JuJu is the unquestioned WR1 and leader of the group moving forward. He has achieved more on the field than any receiver his age in league history, and barring injury there is no reason to not expect that success to continue moving forward. There will undoubtedly be growing pains without Brown patrolling the other side of the formation, but JuJu has displayed the talent necessary to overcome all challenges thus far. He has proven to be a genuine person off the field and is insanely popular with Steelers Nation. His playing chemistry with Ben Roethlisberger seems to grow each game.
James Washington has to be feeling the pressure of future expectations. Drafted in the second round last year after a Biletnikoff Award winning senior season, he joined the best receiver duo in the league. Washington found the professional game to be a far greater challenge than he probably expected, struggling to gain separation against NFL cornerbacks and in building a relationship of trust with his franchise quarterback. Although Washington flashed glimpses of potential sporadically toward the end of last season, it was enough to provide the team a glimmer of hope that he will be able to step up his game next season. His production could prove paramount for the Steelers offense moving forward.
Ryan Switzer was acquired before the start of last season to solidify the team's kick return units, mainly to finally relieve Antonio Brown of his punt return duties. Switzer was merely functional as a returner, but revealed after the season he had been dealing with a lower leg injury that limited his effectiveness. His short area quickness allowed him some production from the slot position, but he offered next to nothing in YAC ability. Hopefully his successful off season surgery will allow him to show what he can really do when 100% healthy.
The other three receivers on the roster to see minutes last season are all free agents who the Steelers may not be interested in bringing back next season. Eli Rogers, Justin Hunter, and Darrius Heyward-Bey all missed time with injuries last season at some point and offered little production when they actually did see the playing field.
To be fair, Eli Rogers spent the majority of the season on the PUP list working his way back from a ACL injury he suffered during the playoff loss to Jacksonville the season prior. He actually made a rather remarkable recovery seeing how it often takes an individual a full year to regain the strength to return to action. Ben's comfort level with Rogers was evident as Rogers was able to produce immediately after returning to the field. That alone may increase his value in the Steelers eyes for next season, especially if they do indeed trade Antonio Brown, but I wouldn't even consider resigning him unless the price was right. Like Switzer, he lacks strength and elusiveness after the catch, coupled with a smaller catch radius due to his diminutive size. He also isn't an effective special teams player and just so happens to be coming off a devastating knee injury as previously mentioned. All these extenuating circumstances should keep his cost down and limit his offers in free agency. He may very well suit up again next season for the Steelers.
Justin Hunter has proven to be a huge waste of talent. He looks like he should be a star, but somehow his head and his heart didn't get the memo. He appears to be one of Mike Tomlin's boys, but I don't even think that can save him now. There are countless UDFA's that have more to offer than Hunter and are more deserving of the opportunity.
That brings us to Darrius Heyward-Bey. I have went on record in the past supporting DHB and his value to the team. That is no longer the case. It isn't just because he had but a single catch last season, he hasn't been a true receiving threat for a couple years now. It's because he is no longer a standout special teams performer, and he made multiple miscues last season. He was also a calming influence on AB in the past, but that ship has sailed. I will always value his contributions for the Steelers, but his time has come to an end.
There very well could be, no should be, two or three new faces in the wide receivers meetings next season. Darryl Drake will have to break out the name tags and make the introductions. Changes are a coming, and it's about time.