While it would be fair to say that the Pittsburgh Steelers 2019 roster looks set at several positions, there are still a handful of starting roles yet to be decided and a number of backup up roles remain up for grabs.
Over the coming weeks, BTSC editor Jeff Hartman and myself will take a look at some of the more obvious key names that will be fighting position battles throughout minicamp, OTAs and training camp later in the year, each taking a different side in the fight and providing our thoughts on why our pick will be the winner.
So far we have weighed in on the impending battles between quarterbacks Joshua Dobbs and Mason Rudolph and runnings backs Jaylen Samuel and Benny Snell Jr., today we move onto the wide receivers.
James Washington vs. Donte Moncrief
If Antonio Brown had not forced his way off the team this offseason, James Washington would be fighting to retain his role as the third choice wide receiver and Donte Moncrief would be playing for another team in 2019, but that is not the hand Pittsburgh was dealt this year.
Instead, Washington and Moncrief will battle for the right to line up opposite JuJu Smith-Schuster, a fight that will likely take most of training camp for the winner to emerge and one that could yet become a three-way contest if third-round draft pick Diontae Johnson can make an early impact with the coaching staff.
The reality of replacing Brown should mean that all three players will see playing time as the situation dictates, but someone has to be listed at the top of the depth chart across from Smith-Schuster when the regular season begins. And while we are not completely discounting Johnson’s chances, history would seem to suggest that it will ultimately be one of the two veteran receivers in that role, at least at the start of the season.
When faced with this decision, fans love to point at Moncrief’s lack of production in his previous locations as a reason why fans shouldn’t expect much from him in Pittsburgh. But the one factor which can’t be overstated is who was throwing him the football. When he had success in Indianapolis, Andrew Luck was the signal caller. But when Luck got hurt, so did Moncrief’s production.
After Luck, Moncrief caught passes from quarterbacks like Curtis Painter, Jacoby Brissett and the best of all, Blake Bortles. If history shows us anything, it is Moncrief can produce when a capable quarterback is throwing the football.
This isn’t as if I have no confidence in James Washington, but moreso I think Moncrief’s experience will give him the edge. To be completely honest, I foresee both of them playing regularly with JuJu Smith-Schuster moving around between the slot and outside.
While it is hard to overlook the comparative experience of the two players, Washington at least has the advantage of an extra year in the system over Moncrief, albeit as a rookie adjusting to life in the NFL. And offering no argument that the former Oklahoma State product struggled in the early stages of his debut season, there was enough to like about his final few games of the year to be optimistic about the future.
Expecting a jump in his second season seems reasonable and his slimmed down form suggests he could be a touch faster in 2019. If Washington has added to his route tree and retained the strength that he showed in college, the Steelers could see a significant improvement in his numbers. Given his reputation for hard work and the lack of a diva attitude, there can be little doubt he will be have been working on his craft either.
Much of his success will depend upon his relationship with Ben Roethlisberger and the confidence the veteran quarterback feels he can place in the young receiver. After a rocky start as a rookie, Washington appeared to be winning Roethlisberger over by the end of the year and should he be able to build on that this offseason, there is every reason to believe he will win the starting role over Moncrief.
Who wins this camp battle?
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