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Tracking Chase Claypool’s rise to the top of the hype charts

How the Steelers rookie has gained national attention.

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NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers Training Camp handout photo

Chase Claypool is getting all kinds of buzz nationally right now. While he was already becoming a major story locally, he’s become a hot topic in fantasy football circles and national NFL media as well. I want to take a look at how we got here, the process that has led to Chase Claypool becoming a national story before he has played in a single NFL game.

The Numbers

When you are over 6’4”, weigh over 230 lbs., run a sub 4.45 40 yard dash, have an 80 inch wingspan with hands just under 10 inches and post a 40+ vertical jump, you draw attention.

The last player to be that big and post that kind of athletic profile at 6’4” plus was Calvin Johnson. DK Metcalf was 6’3” a year before with similar size and jump, and a bit more speed, and look at the hype he got.

But then there are similar athletes that flame out or make minor impact. Last year Myles Boykin tore up the combine before posting 198 receiving yards as a starting WR for the #1 offense in the NFL. Mike Williams was the 10th overall pick of the Lions in 2005 and gained 1526 yards in the NFL for his career. Two years later and 8 picks higher the Lions would draft Calvin Johnson.

The bottom line, guys that big and that athletic either don’t really work out, or they are a serious weapon.

When you draft a big wide receiver with incredible combine numbers with a team’s first pick in the draft, it draws attention. Fans start dreaming of Calvin Johnson, Terrell Owens, Mike Evans and Julio Jones. The combine and NFL draft set the foundation for Chase Claypool’s hype, even as he was largely overlooked.

The Situation

The next step in that hype machine is the situation they enter when they are drafted. For Chase Claypool, that situation centers around Ben Roethlisberger and his return from injury that cost him almost all of the 2019 season.

Ben Roethlisberger has always liked tall receivers. He had Plaxico Burress as a rookie, and he was a guy Roethlisberger could throw to in tough situations and know that even if Burress couldn’t pull in the catch, he would stop the defender from intercepting the ball.

Roethlisberger also has history with deep threats. The best evidence of that is the change in the offense from 2008 to 2009. The Steelers went from ranking 24th in yards per drive and 19th in points per drive in 2008 to 7th in yards and 13th in points per drive in 2009. They changed running backs, with Rashard Mendenhall taking over the starting job, and improved from 23rd to 19th in rushing yards, but it was the addition of rookie speedster Mike Wallace to a receiving room with Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes that caused the offense to take off.

More than just the overall numbers, Ben Roethlisberger went from an 80.1 passer rating in a season where he carried the offense for the Steelers to a 100.5 rating in 2009, going from 7.0 yards per attempt to 8.5, and improving a 17 to 15 TD/INT ratio in 2008 to a 26 - 12 TD/INT ratio in 2009.

That year stands out because so few other things changed on the offense, yet the results were drastically different. From 2009 to 2011 Roethlisberger would average 8.2 yards per pass attempt. In 2012 Mike Wallace held out, his production fell off and the offense fell off with it. In 2012 and 2013 Ben Roethlisberger would average 7.3 yards per attempt, and then bounce back to 8.1 and 8.4 in 2014 and 2015. The difference? Martavis Bryant. The 2016 season Bryant was suspended and the team started the year with Sammie Coates catching bombs and Roethlisberger averaging 7.8 yards per pass through the first 5 games. When that dried up after week 5 his numbers dropped to 7.33 yards per attempt for the rest of the season.

Deep threats matter, and they matter even more to Roethlisberger. They matter more to his efficiency than Antonio Brown, more than Santonio Holmes, more than Hines Ward. Receivers are weapons, tools in the hand of a quarterback. Martavis Bryant wasn’t on the same level as Antonio Brown as a receiver, but as a tool in the hands of Ben Roethlisberger, he was incredibly valuable. This is because of Roethlisberger’s skill set. When the Steelers future Hall of Fame quarterback can pump fake or look off the safety and throw 50 yards to a speed demon down the sideline the offense opens up. Teams have to back off out of respect for his deep ball and his manipulation of the defense. That opens up everything else. It opens up mid level routes for receivers like Antonio Brown, it opens up space for tight ends like Heath Miller, it takes players out of the box and weakens run defense.

Just look at Donte Moncrief last season, Ben Roethlisberger threw the 6’2” speedster 10 passes in week 1, despite completing only 3 of them for a lousy 7 yards. He wanted to get something going there, Ben Roethlisberger knows what he can do.

Chase Claypool entered a great situation, with a QB in the thoughts of the media as he returned from injury.

The Steelers

We’ve established the potential for hype, Chase Claypool is a big, fast target on a team with a quarterback who loves big fast targets, and uses them extremely well. But that doesn’t draw national attention, you need something more, you need to give people a reason to think that Chase Claypool is that player, that he is going to live up to the potential. The Pittsburgh Steelers themselves would step up to provide that next boost. Let’s go through a timeline of quotes from the team.

July 29th, Randy Fichtner:

What generally takes a young guy out of play early is between the ears, quite honestly. It is never really the talent. . .

I’m rooting that he can help us immediately right out of it all, but I’ll be honest, I’m not counting on it. I don’t think it cool to do that. I do know at some point through this journey, probably early given the fact that in when I’ve seen a couple of things, that look in his eye, he looks intelligent, gives me reason to think it might happen earlier than later.

Randy Fichtner, early in the process, down playing the hype of Chase Claypool, while at the same time saying he saw the intelligence, he saw a player learning and advancing quickly.

August 3rd, Ike Hilliard:

Chase does what we expect him to do and that is make plays early and often. Chase is going to play a lot and he is going to be really good. That is what we expect about from last year. I learned that from Terry McLaurin and the young players last year. The world expected him to a special teams player and he ended up being our number one [wide receiver] last year for the Washington Football Team. We expect the same or more from Chase or any other young man that wants to step up and make plays.

His receiver coach isn’t going to let him sit and learn, Chase Claypool is a young, physically gifted player being pushed to be the guy who takes that leap right off the bat by a coach who saw it a year ago.

August 12th, James Conner:

Chase has been learning, making a lot of progress too, gonna be a big play maker for us.

Conner early on cited Claypool’s progress and learning, and went beyond that, building a little hype for the rookie

At this point Chase Claypool was still just getting the normal high draft pick rookie buzz. A little more than the typical second round pick because there wasn’t a first round pick to talk about. Then Joe Haden stepped in and started the ball rolling.

August 18th, Joe Haden:

He’s impressed me for sure. His size, his speed, his ability to adjust to the ball in the air. . . He’s been doing a really good job. I think he’s a great young talent, and his work ethic shows that he wants to be great. He doesn’t do much talking; he just gets after it. As long as he knows the playbook, as long as him and Ben are on the accord of all the checks and everything, he has all the attributes to be a baller.

Haden emphasizes Claypool’s learning curve, and adds chemistry with Ben Roethlisberger as a caveat, but he would also say this:

He’s been able to be a big body, a big deep threat, with soft hands that can jump up and get it. As long as he keeps going, staying healthy, he’s going to be a problem.

That’s not just saying he can become a problem, that he has potential to get there, Joe Haden is saying he’s on that path, he just needs to keep going. This was big, but you don’t have to take my word for it.

August 20th, Ike Taylor:

Heck with the coaches, listen to how players talk about other players. When I heard Joe Haden say this man is going to be a problem, he sees him every day. This is Joe’s tenth or eleventh year, Joe knows what he’s talking about. As soon as I heard that, I said, if Joe said he is going to be a problem, he’s the real deal.”

A few days later Chase Claypool would gain more endorsements.

August 24th, Eric Ebron’s twitter:

August 24th, Mark Kaboly for the Athletic:

Some reporters are getting criticized for constantly writing good things about Claypool.
Maybe you should take that up with Claypool because, practice after practice, the rookie is making non-rookie-like plays after running non-rookie-like routes and making non-rookie-like catches.

August 24th, Mike Tomlin, when asked about Claypool and fellow rookie Alex Highsmith:

To be succinct they’ve proven that they belong. Both guys have distinguished themselves in some JV competition, if you will. Over the course of this camp process they’ve gotten more opportunity against known veteran guys, and really, they don’t appear to be out of place in that company. So far so good. As they continue to prove themselves that will increase and thus the growth process for those two and others. But those two you mentioned specifically are some of the ones I’m thinking about when I’m talking about guys that have an opportunity to ascend and are taking advantage of it.

And when asked about a big catch Claypool made:

I really don’t know which specific play you are talking about because he made a couple of them, which is a good thing.

August 24th, Keith Butler:

When I first saw him, I thought he had brick hands for a minute, but I’ve been really impressed with him of late. That size and that speed, it’s something that’s hard to defend. You get in the red zone and start playing jump ball with a guy and he’s got that size that he can body you up with or he can out-jump you, it makes it tough for us to defend a guy like that. I’m glad we got him, and I think he’s going to be a good football player for us. He’s shown up. This last week or so he’s really gotten better I think. . .

High praise no doubt, but something he said after that stuck with me far more.

If we had to play him, I’m sure we’d find a way to double him, try to take him out [of the game plan] if we could.

He’s talking about a rookie there. The Steelers don’t double team receivers very often. The only player they double teamed much in 2019 was Odell Beckham Jr., and that was after he beat them on a big deep ball.

For Keith Butler to go beyond stating that Claypool is hard to defend, and comment that if he had to face him, they would find a way to double team him?

That’s kind of crazy. Crazy like the hype Chase Claypool is receiving right now.

Is it justified?

That’s the million dollar question. Is this just hype, or is there substance here, should we start expecting a big breakout season in year one for the Steelers newest wide receiver?

They’ve been telling us he’s going to be good, but they have also been telling us what he needs to do. Learn the playbook, get that timing and chemistry with Ben Roethlisberger down, but there’s a few more things to consider as well.

Steeler fans will remember the name Justin Hunter. Justin Hunter was Randy Moss in practice. you couldn’t cover him, he ran beautiful routes and high pointed balls. He was fast and graceful and incredible. And then he got on the field, where the opponent got physical with him and he couldn’t play. He was a football in shorts star. Chase Claypool has been great in camp, with pads, and he’s gotten more praise than Hunter ever got from his team mates. But Chase Claypool still hasn’t done it in a game.

In an actual game, where you are facing players from another team there is a different level of physicality that you cannot match in practice. In my film room after the draft, I questioned Chase Claypool’s physicality in his routes. Claypool is physical in his blocking, his releases off the line and when he runs after the catch, but in his routes he had a tendency to let defenders get into his body and redirect him a bit. It’s a common problem with young wide receivers transitioning into the NFL, and it could be a problem for Claypool. It’s not about being big and strong, it’s technique he has to learn. Diontae Johnson is much smaller, but does a great job of physically protecting his routes, both JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Washington are strong in their routes as well. It’s quite possible that being in that room he already is learning to protect his routes better.

Even if he does struggle with protecting his routes from physical defenders, how many times is he going to be facing top notch physical corners? If the Browns want to put Denzel Ward on Chase Claypool, that’s fine, the Steelers have other targets and the Browns don’t have other Denzel Ward’s. I think we’ll see Chase Claypool make plays and have some big games, and we’ll see him struggle with the few cornerbacks he faces that can expose his weaknesses. But I would expect he will have a similar impact on this Steelers offense that Mike Wallace, Martavis Bryant and Sammie Coates all had, and that makes him a real problem for opposing teams, and absolutely worth the hype.