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Pittsburgh Steelers Offseason Needs, Part 3: Wide Receivers

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The Steelers have three promising young receivers. Would a star or a specialist push that unit over the top?

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at New York Jets Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Steelers’ No. 1 need is obvious: a guaranteed, blue chip, future Hall of Fame quarterback who will push Ben Roethlisberger for snaps, even in his rookie year. Picking at #18 in the second round that quarterback will be...[crickets]. Besides, who’s to say Roethlisberger won’t play for another three years? So let’s ignore that position and move on to the next tier of priorities. The most likely targets at 2:18 (49th overall) in the 2020 NFL Draft appear to be a star running back, a star wide receiver or an infusion into the offensive line. Today we look at the offensive line, but if you missed a day of the series, you can check them below:

Part 1: Running Backs

Part 2: Offensive Linemen

WIDE RECEIVERS ON THE CURRENT ROSTER:

* WR-1 Juju Smith-Schuster. 6’1”, 215 lbs. Age 23, going into year 4. FA 2021. After a spectacular 2018 run as the WR2 behind Antonio Brown, JJSS suffered a down year in 2019 when asked to be the WR1 while dealing with multiple nagging injuries plus the combination of Mason Rudolph and Duck Hodges at QB.

* WR-2a James Washington. 5’11”, 213 lbs. Age 23, going into year 3. FA 2022. A 2018 pick I loved, James Washington is slowly proving his worth. He won a lot of combat catches in 2019 and is now an acceptable WR2 who occasionally backslides toward WR3… with Mason Rudolph and Duck Hodges at QB.

* WR-2b Diontae Johnson. 5’10”, 183 lbs. Age 23, going into year 2. FA 2023. The last pound-the-table draft pick of beloved WR coach Darryl Drake, Johnson proved why by the end of 2019. He has become the Steelers’ best punt returner for several years and can use that quickness as both a slot and outside receiver. A rising star who earned WR2 status in 2019 and has shown flashes of a good deal more… with Mason Rudolph and Duck Hodges at QB.

* WR-4a Ryan Switzer. 5’8”, 185 lbs. Age 25, going into year 4. FA 2021. Bet you didn’t realize he was still that young, did you? IMHO Ryan Switzer comes in for a lot more criticism than he deserves because people placed unjustified expectations on his shoulders. He is a proven WR4 or 5 talent in the slot, a decent but not special return man, an emotional fireplug on the field, and a sound presence in the locker room. Those are assets. Upgradeable, yes; a problem, no. He was injured for most of 2019.

* WR-4b Deon Cain. 6’2”, 202 lbs. Age 23, going into year 3. ERFA 2021. Promise oozes but hasn’t quite arrived. Drafted by Indy in the 6th Round of the 2018 draft, Cain looked great in his rookie preseason but tore an ACL before the real games could start. He looked merely good in 2019, so the Colts tried to hide him on the practice squad. Pittsburgh poached him away when JJSS got hurt, and by the end of this season he looked like the Steelers’ clear WR4 to these aging eyes. 4.43 speed could offer that elusive deep threat if he can take the next step.

* WR-6a Amara Darboh. 6’2”, 215 lbs. Age 25, going into year 4. Restricted Free Agent. A 2017 3:comp pick by the Seahawks who many thought was a steal. He turned out to be the sort of “almost there…” guy that fans love but coaches never quite accept. Reliability? Learning the play book? Chemistry with the QB? Issues on the practice field? We can only speculate. Our peers at Field Gulls still miss him but they are no better at avoiding the camp-darling-bias than we are. His 4.45 speed is all but identical to Cain’s 4.43, and he offers similar upside.

* WR-6b Johnny Holton. 6’3”, 190 lbs. Age 28, going into year 4. FA 2021. Tall and fast, he gets open but has trouble catching the ball. A fine special teams player but unlikely to be a weapon at WR.

CURRENT PRACTICE SQUAD/FUTURES PLAYERS

* WR-8 Jamal Custis. 6’5”, 213 lbs. Age 24, going into year 2. Futures contract. The Chiefs’ #1 prize as a 2019 UDFA, he failed to make even their practice squad. Pittsburgh signed him off the street to our practice squad in December. His hands were the main question marks going into the draft.

NOTABLE CAP ISSUES

* The WR unit is cheap right now because everyone is on a rookie deal. That starts to change in 2021, when Juju needs to get paid, and will continue year after year beyond that.

First observation: the Pittsburgh starters are young. All three are still on their rookie contract; all three are 23 years old; and and all three are still getting better, as we saw throughout the difficult 2019 run. Second observation: the rest of the corps is also young. No receiver on the entire team has lived through four NFL seasons!

I don’t view that as a negative, except in glass-half-empty hindsight. Quite the opposite. It seems clear to me that this is an ascending group, and our expectations for WR play should be slowly expanding over the next several years. Which is not to say they have actually arrived.

There are maybe 10-12 truly elite Wide Receivers in the entire NFL. The teams that have one gain a great advantage in numerous respects – especially when they are paired with a high end Quarterback. The presence of a Julio Jones, Mike Evans, or not-yet-insane Antonio Brown forces opponents into predictable defensive structures, and makes it especially hard to bring an 8th defender into the box in order to stop the run. Sometimes they find it hard to get out of Nickel by bringing the full complement of 7! That is why receivers have suddenly started to earn the big bucks when they never used to back in the day. The Steelers have had that advantage for the better part of a decade, but now they no longer do thanks to the exploding fruitcake [Sorry about the holiday hangover].

I will argue with anyone who doubts that Juju Smith-Schuster is a legit WR1, and I will freely admit to some not-so-vain hopes that Diontae Johnson might grow into that status as well. (Especially with Roethlisberger coming back because I believe that super-quick receivers rely even more heavily on the guy who throws the ball than the other types of pass catcher). Heck, I wouldn’t begin to rule out WR1 status for James Washington either. He isn’t that far away. Pittsburgh may end up with three Top 50 receivers! What we are missing is one of those special Top 10.

Is it essential? No, of course not. Give a healthy Ben Roethlisberger three really good receivers and he will chew through defenses like a lion through the sheepfold. One of them will always be open, and a QB at his level is going to find that man. But if you could add in that superstar… Wowza! Our outside weapons would send spasms of terror through opposing defenses for the next decade, even after Ben retires. And there would be no significant drop when one of them inevitably goes down.

But be realistic Hammer! What are the odds of landing a tilt-the-field receiving talent in the middle of Round 2? The draft class where that could happen would have to be the best in a decade, and maybe even ever.

Welcome to 2019 my friends. I’ve been following the NFL draft for quite a few years and I could not name a better collection of WR talent. Maybe a few that came close at the top end, and others that could challenge for Day 3 depth, but none that offered as much of both.

Defense is just too important in the modern NFL for teams to ignore it. The Edge Rushers, Corners and miracle athletes at DL, Safety and ILB simply aren’t going to fall. Neither are the QB’s. Which means that our beloved Steelers will get a steal at either OL or RB – or, if there is a run on both of those, at this incredibly deep WR class.

Again, don’t get me wrong. I am not putting Wide Receiver in the same tier of “want” as I do the RB’s and the linemen. Show me the mythical “equivalent talent” at either of those positions and I will take him over his WR counterpart. But the old saw is true. You pick players, not positions, and I will absolutely, 100% take a great WR over a good prospect somewhere else. Best Player Available (“BPA”) can, should, and will rule the day.

But that isn’t all. If the Steelers do not pick a WR early on, I fully expect them to dip into the pool for a Round 4-6 pick.

Many pundits like to say that you build the ideal receiving corps much like a basketball team because you want to be able to attack the weakness of any given defense. Basketball teams have five starters. Pittsburgh has only three proven receivers. That leaves two roles open for the right set of talents.

Smith-Schuster and Washington make a great analogy to Point- and Shooting Guards. They are generalists who do everything well and have no weaknesses to rule them out of any given play. Diontae Johnson and (at a lower level) Ryan Switzer are your Forwards: super quick and deadly in confined spaces. Johnson adds the football benefit of breakaway scoring potential, which is what makes him so exciting. What’s missing are the super-fast deep threat, and the giant who wins the red zone jump balls.

The Steelers have two “almost” guys competing for the deep threat position: Deon Cain and Amora Darboh. I have nothing against either young man, but the 2019 draft offers several players who’d come into the league with even more promise than they possess. Watch the Combine for this one. Speed and hands are the essential components. Someone is making the 2020 Steelers in order to fill that role, and you can bet that Mike Tomlin believes in maximal competition to find out who it should be.

The football equivalent of a Center is even emptier. Jamal Custis is tall enough but has shown nothing to make us think he’s that guy. Hope springs eternal and I won’t rule the young man out, but the candle looks a bit dim from out here. The 2019 class offers several Day 2 and 3 versions of this prototype as well.

So the bottom line is that Pittsburgh will be looking at this very, very loaded WR class for (A) a potential star, (B) a speedy deep threat, or (C) a big man to win in the red zone. The star could get picked anywhere, even in Round 2 if he fits on of the other two categories. The role player who is “only” a potential deep- or red zone threat would be targeted on Day 3, probably with a 4th or 6th Round pick.

Here is the list to choose from. Just as before, I emphasize that these grades are PRELIMINARY AND FOR THE SAKE OF DISCUSSION. I have watched no film of these players and only a game or two in which some of them appeared. Almost all the descriptions are summaries of what I found with a quick scan of the Internet. Please consider yourselves invited – actively requested – to make corrections and suggestions in the Comments, and to provide links that we can add to the few I’ve included.

WIDE RECEIVER PROSPECTS

1:15 WR Jerry Jeudy, Alabama. (Junior). 6’1”, 192 lbs. Going in the top 10, but no WR gets a higher grade than mid-1st for this particular team in this particular year.

1:15 WR CeeDee Lamb, Oklahoma. (Junior). 6’2”, 189 lbs. Going in the top 10, but no WR gets a higher grade than mid-1st for this particular team in this particular year.

1:15 WR Henry Ruggs III, Alabama. (Junior). 6’0”, 190 lbs. The dream speedster, but no WR gets a higher grade for this particular team in this particular year.

1:20 WR Laviska Shenault Jr., Colorado. (Junior). 6’2”, 220 lbs. Round 1 talent all day long, with a well rounded skillset and all the physical assets. He’d be in the Top 10 talk if he played at a Top 10 school. Ain’t Gonna Happen.

1:25 WR Tee Higgins, Clemson. (Junior). 6’4”, 215 lbs. Gets compared to Mike Evans. This Ain’t Gonna Happen either except on mock draft simulators.

2:01 WR Jalen Reagor, TCU. (Junior). 5’11”, 195 lbs. A blazing fast, quick twitch deep threat who can operate from the slot as well as the outside. A legitimate, if unlikely, target at 2:18. Think “higher pedigree Mike Wallace.”

2:24 WR Brandon Aiyuk, Arizona State. (Senior). 6’1”, 206 lbs. A 2019 version of Juju Smith-Schuster, but a bit faster, a bit more athletic, and a few years older on draft day. Would get a higher grade if JJSS wasn’t already on the team.

2:24 WR K.J. Hamler, Penn State. (RS Sophomore). 5’9”, 176 lbs. A killer quick, big play slot receiver with excellent speed, but earns a small downgrade because the Steelers picked that guy last year in Diontae Johnson, have to be happy with the result, and Johnson is small, not tiny.

2:24 WR Justin Jefferson, LSU. (Junior). 6’3”, 192 lbs. A 2019 version of James Washington, but a few inches taller. Hard to see what he would bring to a WR unit that already contains comparable players. And how much of his production is due to having Joe Burrow as his QB? But he is tall, and he is as young as the Steelers seem to prefer...

3:01 WR Tyler Johnson, Minnesota. (Senior). 6’2”, 205 lbs. A crafty, all-around receiver with a very high WR3 floor and a decent chance to become a solid WR1. A taller version of James Washington as a prospect – which explains why the Steelers might hesitate to pull the trigger in Round 2, when someone darned well ought to.

3:01 WR Donovan Peoples-Jones, Michigan. (Junior). 6’2”, 208 lbs. He isn’t small and he isn’t slow, but he plays even bigger and faster than he is. A really likeable prospect who fits the Steelers profile, whatever that is. His grade will go up if further study and evidence show that he can fill the deep threat role. If not, he will be stay right here as ‘just another Juju’ (as if that was a knock).

3:01 WR Devin Duvernay, Texas. (Senior). 5’11”, 210 lbs. Serious, breakaway deep threat speed and great hands, combined with a nasty attitude once the ball is in his hands. What he lacks is ideal height for a field stretching receiver, and the route running talent to quickly develop into more than he’s currently shown. A good showing in the agility drills would really help his stock. A little older than the F.O. prefers, but he gets a full retail grade because of the speed and toughness.

3:01 WR Collin Johnson, Texas. (Senior). 6’6”, 220 lbs. A full retail grade because CJ would be that monstrous, mismatch, jump-ball-winning, red zone threat we do not have on the roster. He’s big; he plays big; he blocks; and he could even, in theory, bulk up into a true “Move TE”. One to keep an eye on.

3:01 WR Denzel Mims, Baylor. (Senior). 6’3”, 215 lbs. The DTH January draft crush. I see in Mims the exact sort of prospect who is going to rise in the draft, and would be ideal as the missing deep threat in Pittsburgh’s passing attack. He has track level speed, terrific size, a great catch radius, and topped it off with a tremendous 2019 season – done with a broken bone in his foot! That last tidbit is what sold me. Playing through the injury shows Steeler-esque toughness, and also a good chance that he’s actually better than his Senior year suggests. The main drawback is that word “Senior” because the Steelers like to draft youngsters at the WR position (he will turn 23 in late October of 2020).

3:24 WR Gabriel Davis, UCF. (Junior). 6’3”, 212 lbs. Good at everything, but where is he great? Discounted by a full round because it isn’t clear what he might bring that the current group doesn’t already provide. If that is unfair, he’s still getting a “good value at 3:comp” grade.

3:24 WR Bryan Edwards, South Carolina. (Senior). 6’3”, 215 lbs. One of those “almost there” players who is frustratingly hard to grade. He has the size to be a jump ball threat and has flashed those skills, but he hasn’t done it enough to jump up the board. He is shifty, and has shown good COD skills, but is still undeveloped as a route runner. He is fast but not a blazer. Etc. Gets some extra credit for flashing despite some very weak play at QB, but that is counterbalanced by being a little older than the F.O. usually prefers.

3:24 WR K.J. Hill, Ohio State. (RS Senior). 6’0”, 195 lbs. Another really good, all around receiver who’s discounted by a full round on this Board because he isn’t as young as the Steelers prefer, and tends to duplicate a skillset they already have.

4:01 WR Chase Claypool, Notre Dame. (Senior). 6’4”, 229 lbs. Run down the field, jump high in the air, and big-boy those pesky little DB gnats out of your way… That’s his trick, he excelled at the job in college, he’s got the size and skills to do it even in the NFL, and it’s something the Steelers could use. This goes to what seems like a fair December scouting profile.

4:01 WR Quartney Davis, Texas A&M. (RS Junior). 6’2”, 200 lbs. Smooth, crisp, quick, and full of promise, this is a young man who runs, moves, cuts, and catches like a WR ought to. His stock has been depressed by a 2016 ACL and a 2019 issue with his back, but he has genuine WR1 potential. Would grade out higher in a weaker class, but especially if you could wish away the injury record. This January article describes him as a classic sleeper prospect.

4:01 WR Isaiah Hodgins, Oregon State. (Junior). 6’4”, 209 lbs. One to watch if the Steelers really want to chase a jump ball specialist who does it with length and jumping ability rather than massive size. (A calling card of James Washington too fwiw). Hodgins’ Combine results will be interesting to see. This grade assumes some sneaky-good long speed with a pedestrian 10-yard split, long limbs, and solid jumping ability. Expect the description to change as more nuanced reviews come in.

4:01 WR Michael Pittman Jr., USC. (Senior). 6’4”, 220 lbs. A player the Steelers could covet if he falls to Day 3, Pittman is your classic jump ball possession receiver. The thing he really lacks is strength and physicality, but he has the requisite size and an NFL weight room can work wonders. This goes to a decent, if optimistic December scouting profile. His stock would be higher if he had the straight line speed to really stretch a defense. His 40 time could actually matter. Dropped by a solid half-round for the sin of being older than the Steelers prefer (he will turn 23 in his rookie season).

For those less familiar with the offseason discussions than the rest of us, the annual BTSC Big Boards are organized by Highest Value (“HV#”) to the Steelers. Great players for other teams get downgraded here, as do positions where Pittsburgh has limited “want.” An HV of 1:25 means the player is a reach for the Steelers at any point before Pick # 25 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 late in Round 2 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, not the one where a player is expected to go; but grades are never pushed up just because of need. Players with the same HV# are organized alphabetically.

Rounds are subdivided as follows:

  • 1st Round grades: 1:01, 1:05, 1:10, 1:15, 1:20, or 1:25.
  • 2nd & 3rd Round grades: Early (#:01), Mid (#:12), or Late (#:24).
  • 4th to 7th Round grades: Early (#:01) or Late (#:16).