While the loss of disgruntled wideout Antonio Brown was a necessity, the departure leaves a large volume of targets, catches, touchdowns, and playing time up for grabs for unproven or new talent to absorb. Pittsburgh Steelers fans know what JuJu Smith-Schuster could bring to the table the past two seasons playing opposite of Brown but can he expect more volume after a 111 catch season with 1,426 yards? Even with Smith-Schuster, there is a looming question mark. And what about the other Steelers receivers?
Questions needing answering in training camp and preseason.
Can Smith-Schuster transition into a true #1 receiver with heavier coverage than he has seen in the past?
Who will emerge as the wideout on the other side of the field to take the pressure off?
Can Donte Moncrief remain healthy, bond with Ben Roethlisberger, and find the success he flashed with Andrew Luck and Blake Bortles?
Was James Washington’s poor rookie season growing pains or missed evaluation of his talent?
Who will emerge as the Steelers slot wide receiver?
Will Dontae Johnson’s role be competing for the slot or is he seen as a candidate to play on the outside?
Will the team run more four-wide receiver sets compared to years past?
How many wideouts does the team carry?
Smith-Schuster smashed fans’ expectations in 2018 with his phenomenal season but can he repeat in 2019 with heavier coverage attention? With his crisp route running, sure hands, and ability to shield defenders from the ball, the answer will be yes. The Steelers are looking to run a more balanced attack but a decrease in yards may be supplanted with more catches and touchdowns.
Moncrief has been plagued throughout his career with injuries and subpar quarterbacks heaving him the ball. During his five-year career, Moncrief has never started 16 games and has played 37 of a possible 48 games over the past three seasons. In 2015, his most productive season, the Mississippi Rebel product dealt with poor quarterback play even with Andrew Luck at the helm for seven games. Luck and four other quarterbacks combined to post a 57.4 completion rate and 26 touchdowns to 19 interceptions. Even with the quarterback play, Moncrief had a career year with 64 receptions, 733 yards, and six touchdowns.
In 2018, Moncrief started a career-high 14 games and remained healthy the entire season. But again he was haunted by poor quarterback play. Bortles played in 13 games while winning three games and tossing a meager 13 touchdowns and 209 yards per game. Backup Cody Kessler did not do Moncrief any favors with two touchdowns, 142 passing yards per game in his four starts. Even with the inconsistent quarterback play, Moncrief amassed 48 receptions for 668 yards and three scores.
Moncrief’s a veteran player who has put up fine production given the level of quarterback play over his career gives him a leg up on his competition who have not seen the field or struggled to produce. Monitor how he bonds with Roethlisberger in the preseason, that will be the main factor that would limit his ceiling in 2019.
Steelers fans have little love for Eli Rogers. He is not overly fast, not really shifty, and goes down with minimal contact but there is one person who relishes his presence especially in big games. Roethlisberger. In his last three playoff games, the former Louisville Cardinals posted 17 receptions for 135 yards and seven first downs. Solid numbers for a player who fans dismiss as expendable.
Roethlisberger’s reliance on Rogers does not stop at the playoffs as was prevalent in the must-win game against the Bengals during the last game in 2018. The 5-10 187 pounder snared seven of Roethlisberger’s 31 completions for 57 yards. Again, not flashy but three of them went for first downs which extended Steelers drives in a close game.
Washington’s season was one to forget not only for him but Steelers fans alike. Even with making six starts and playing 526 snaps, the former Oklahoma State Cowboys receiver produced 16 receptions for 217 yards and a lone touchdown. Poor production when his 38 targets are factored in. Weeks 2, 3, and 4 Washington took part in 153 snaps on offense but came away with five receptions for 39 yards while Roethlisberger compiled 1,079 yards over the span.
The entire season was not bleak for the 5-11 213 pounder as he showed glimpses of his talent against the New England Patriots and Cincinnati Bengals late in the season when he scooped up six receptions for 129 yards in the two contests combined.
With Moncrief the primary #2 wideout, Washington will have to hope to get into four-wide receiver sets, to give the speedy Moncrief a breather, Smith-Schuster seeing playing time in the slot, or insurance in case of injury. If an injury does not occur, it would not be surprising to see him put up similar numbers in 2019 with a decreased snap count.
Rookie third-round selection Diontae Johnson will also vie for playing time in 2019 but his role might not be known until deep into the preseason. Fans along with “draft experts” speculated if the former Toledo Rockets star would be utilized on the outside or out of the slot. His clearest path to playing time would appear to be the slot due to Moncrief and Washington’s draft pedigree lining up outside.
The value of Johnson does not stop on offense but special teams as well which could earn him a hat on Sundays. Johnson was last year’s Mid-American Conference Special Teams Player of the Year and with the Steelers middling return game, he has an opportunity to showcase his ability on both kickoffs and punt returns.
Joe Marino of The Draft Network disparaged Johnson’s freelancing route running and his inconsistent hands that led to drops which would lead to trust issues. Trust is something that Johnson addressed earlier in OTAs.
“Just being able to show [Roethlisberger] that I could be consistent and that he can rely on me,” Johnson said when asked what he wanted to show Roethlisberger during OTAs. “I showed him that I can retain information. Just trying to get that connection down with Ben is crazy [important] for me.”
In an article I wrote earlier in the offseason I introduced Steelers fans to Diontae Spencer. While Spencer will add very little to the offense in 2019, he has the pedigree from playing in the CFL to lock up both special teams return spots. Fans may scoff at Spencer being a two time CFL All-Star or his first 1,000-yard season last year, or his 5-8 and 165 pound frame but the playing experience and his level of play in the CFL along with his tape has to give fans pause to write him off before the preseason even starts.
Pittsburgh traded for Ryan Switzer prior to 2018 when it became clear that Rogers would not be ready for the season and to shore up the return game. The 5-8 and 185 ponder had 36 receptions for 253 yards and a touchdown over 16 games last season which was not lofty numbers but adequate when factoring in his return ability. Switzer was just outside of the top 10 in both kickoff and punt returns not impressive but not as bad as some fans would have you believe.
With Rogers fully recovered from his ACL injury and Switzer not putting up flashy return stats last season, the combination should doom his chances of cracking the 53-man roster. A trade during training camp or later in the preseason is the likely scenario. (Third trade in three years.)
Rounding out the depth chart is returning 2018 practice squad members Trey Griffey and Tevin Jones along with veteran newcomer Johnny Holton. Griffey and Jones could return to those roles again this year while Holton will try to continue his path with another team as he is not practice squad eligible.
For the Steelers to get back to the playoffs and be successful they need to get back to being a more balanced attack team. With that being said there will be fewer targets to go around compared to 2018 but losing Brown and Jessie James could open up more opportunities for wideouts to see the field in three and four wideout sets. From watching tape on Moncrief, if he can stay healthy, he will be the main benefactor and spend the season as the #2 wideout only giving way to Washington sparingly. Rogers returns to his old but boring form and keeps his slot duties that Roethlisberger trusts so much and fends off Johnson. While Johnson flashes his return abilities, it will ultimately be Spencer who snares the wideout duties which will mean Johnson will be the weekly inactive until an injury strikes. The CFL is the CFL and the Mid-American Conference is still a low-level college conference.
WR1 — JuJu Smith-Schuster
WR2 — Donte Moncrief
WR3 — Eli Rogers (slot)
WR4 — James Washington (backup outside receiver)
WR5 — Diontae Johnson (backup slot receiver)
WR6 — Diontae Spencer (return specialist)