The Steelers took massive Notre Dame wide receiver Chase Claypool with their top selection in the NFL draft Friday night. Claypool, at 6’4-238, is simply huge for a guy who plays outside the hashes. He looks more like a tight end than a wide-out. But Claypool ran a 4.42 forty yard dash at the NFL Combine, which is faster than many receivers far smaller than he. And, as Jeff Hartman highlighted here, Claypool is not immune to man-handling defenders as a blocker.
This sets up an intriguing situation in Pittsburgh, where, despite five experienced receivers and tight ends on the roster, Claypool’s size, speed and physicality will make it hard to keep him off the field. How will the Steelers use Claypool in the offense? Where might he play? And how might his selection effect the receiver and tight end rotation? Here are some thoughts.
(Check out Chase Claypool’s college highlights here).
Where might Claypool play, and how might the Steelers use him?
This is a fascinating question. His natural position is at the X, which generally means the on-the-ball receiver to the weak side of a formation (the side away from the tight end or multiple-receiver side). The X is often reserved for a team’s best receiver. It’s the position Antonio Brown played and the spot that often draws safety help over the top from a defense. Because the X is aligned on the ball and cannot shift or motion, he must be physical enough to get off of press coverage and big, fast or quick enough to separate from off-man. Claypool fits the bill in all of these regards.
The Steelers have no shortage of potential X receivers, however. Juju Smith-Schuster and James Washington have each played there, while Diontae Johnson, who often aligns on the other side as the Z, can play the X as well. If the Steelers choose to keep Claypool at the X, Smith-Schuster would likely bump inside to the Y (slot) receiver, where, with protection from Brown outside, he excelled as a rookie. Claypool is by no means Antonio Brown but his sheer size and physicality will make him difficult to cover one-on-one. His presence could draw safety help away from Juju when he goes to the slot, allowing him to operate more against linebackers and nickel corners. The Steelers did not get great production out of the slot last season. Using Juju more in that role could be the solution to that particular problem.
The Steelers could also use Claypool in the slot, where his size would present challenges for safeties and nickel corners. Claypool is not particularly quick (his 4.42 forty is the product of a big stride and long speed) but he would be a huge target up the seam and on crossing routes, where Ben Roethlisberger could “throw him open” even when covered. It wouldn’t hurt having a player like Claypool blocking the alley on sweeps and outside runs, either, where his physicality would dwarf what a typical slot receiver provides as a blocker.
Consider the image below, which shows a variation of the “Drive” concept the Steelers employ. With free agent signee Eric Ebron or incumbent Vance McDonald a vertical threat at tight end and Claypool in the left slot, linebackers would have to sink deep to prevent Roethlisberger from lobbing a throw over them to his huge targets. This would clear space in the middle of the field for Johnson or Juju, both of whom run precise routes and operate well between the hashes:
I can also see the Steelers deploying Claypool with Ebron or McDonald in bunch sets. The size of Claypool and Ebron/McDonald would create advantages in both the pass and run game while adding a quick receiver like Johnson to the bunch would give them ample opportunities to free up Johnson on screens, picks and rubs. Claypool could also be an H-back of sorts, sealing the weak side edge on zone runs and climbing to block linebackers.
Here’s another staple of the Pittsburgh passing game. This is a version of the Mesh concept from a 3x1 Bunch. Ebron was deadly in Indianapolis on corner routes like the one from the inside receiver here as his 6’5-250 frame and leaping ability allowed him to shield safeties on throws to the boundary. A big target like Claypool crossing the field underneath would surely draw the attention of the linebackers, opening up the Dig route behind it. Plus, the Whip route from the widest receiver in the Bunch is perfect for a player with Johnson’s COD.
With big, physical players in the bunch, the Steelers can compress defenses to run their sweep concepts as well. The options Claypool brings to a look like this are almost limitless.
Claypool is also a great option for the Steelers’ expanding RPO game. With the size and physicality to win inside against smaller corners, concepts like the one below, where the quarterback reads the alley player before deciding whether to give the ball to the back or throw the slant, are enticing:
Claypool is a natural red-zone threat as well. He has solid ball skills and caught 13 touchdown passes this past fall at Notre Dame (he had 19 overall for his career). Claypool and Ebron are 6’4 and 6’5, respectively, and each excel at high-pointing throws. If you’re a fan of the fade ball in the red zone, this may be the year for you:
More so, Claypool’s size can be used to free up other receivers against the man-coverage schemes that are prevalent near the goal line. From a compressed set, Claypool is a human pick and will make life difficult on safeties and linebackers trying to cover receivers out of the backfield or working to the flat.
Finally, Claypool’s versatility makes him an ideal candidate for some of the things Matt Canada likes to do on offense. Canada has been hailed for his creative use of formations and pre-snap motions. As we see in the GIF below from Canada’s offense at Pitt, he will move just about anyone from anywhere prior to the snap - trades, double trades, jet motion, fly motion, yo-yo (back and forth) motion, motion to unbalanced, motion out of unbalanced, etc - to force defenses to adjust fronts and coverages in a way that creates a mismatch for the offense. Claypool could be motioned in just about any fashion - from receiver to tight end, tight end to receiver, motioned out of the backfield or used to create a size or leverage advantage on a defense. I’d expect Canada to offer a variety of ideas on how to get Claypool into the right spot to create a mismatch.
(Video clip courtesy of Pro Style Spread Offense)
In short, the Steelers use of Claypool could be as varied as their imagination allows. His ability to play both inside and outside is ripe with possibility, while his size could allow the Steelers to couple him with Ebron/McDonald to provide Roethlisberger two huge, athletic targets on the field together. If used properly, Claypool’s potential, and the possibilities it creates for the offense, are tantalizing.
Who on offense will be most effected by Claypool’s selection?
Let’s start with Juju. His struggles last season were not all the result of poor quarterback play. As the so-called #1 receiver, he often lined up at the X and drew the opponent’s best coverage player. Juju struggled to create separation at times and simply wasn’t as dynamic in this role as he’d been his first two seasons. As discussed above, deploying Juju more in the slot could increase his production. It’s unlikely Juju will move to the slot permanently, but with Claypool and James Washington both capable of playing the X, and with no true slot receiver other than Ryan Switzer on the roster, bumping Juju inside in 11 personnel seems likely.
Claypool’s presence certainly has ramifications for Washington as well. Washington improved in his second season in 2019, catching 44 balls for 735 yards and almost 17 yards per catch. But he and Claypool are similar in the sense they are both solid deep ball receivers but not as effective underneath. Claypool could cut into Washington’s playing time at the X. Or, the presence of the big rookie might help Washington elevate his game. Competition is a great motivator. Drafting Claypool is likely to have that effect upon Washington.
Claypool’s addition is also likely to impact the tight end position. It was anticipated in the wake of the Ebron signing that the Steelers would use more 12 personnel sets with Ebron and McDonald on the field together. Now, however, with four high draft picks at receiver in the fold, how much 12 personnel will we see, especially given the fact that Claypool can serve as a de facto tight end in certain packages? Claypool can do many of the things Ebron does. Paired together, they could be perfect for Roethlisberger. Or, one could out-shine the other and absorb their role in the offense. The Steelers could also go big with Ebron, McDonald and Claypool grouped together. Claypool’s presence creates options (and competition) at the tight end spot as well.
As far as another free agent signee on offense goes, fullback Derek Watt, Claypool’s presence almost guarantees the Steelers will not use heavier doses of 21 personnel in 2020. I’ve been calling for the team to rebuild their rushing attack but the additions of Ebron and Claypool seem to signal they are all-in on Roethlisberger and the passing game next season. Claypool is a good blocker and fourth-round picks Anthony McFarland and Kevin Dotson should help the run game down the road. We’re not likely to see much of Watt, however. He may surface on offense in short yardage and goal line situations but there are too many viable options at tight end and receiver to think the Steelers will feature much of the fullback in the coming year. If the rushing attack is going to improve, it will likely do so on the health of Roethlisberger and James Conner, not because the Steelers made significant changes to their philosophy or personnel.
In the end, Claypool’s addition is exciting because of how versatile the Steelers can be on offense. With four high draft picks at receiver and two established tight ends, they can put just about any combination of players and personnel groups on the field together with playmakers and/or mismatch possibilities in just about every role. However, their depth likely signals a decline in snaps and numbers for certain players, which may, down the road, lead to their departure from Pittsburgh. There are only so many skill players you can put on the field at once. With Claypool in the mix, the competition for playing time at those positions just got interesting.