I don’t play fantasy football anymore, but I still love stats and I’ve got some great information for you.
For the August 26th episode of Beck in Black, I was looking at stats for previous Steeler rookie wide receivers, and I came across a very interesting correlation.
Rookie receivers in Steelers history
Louis Lipps came into the league in 1984, in record fashion. In week 1 of his rookie season, Lipps caught 6 passes for 183 yards and 2 TDs. A record for a rookie wide receivers that would stand until Anquan Boldin beat it in 2003. It wasn’t just Louis Lipps though, that same game John Stallworth put up over 160 yards. Louis Lipps, in 1984, recorded the best season of any Steeler rookie receiver until JuJu Smith Schuster put up 57 more yards and 2 fewer TDs in 2017, taht same year John Stallworth would have the best statistical season of his career. Stallworth set career highs in receptions, yards and touchdowns at 32 years old with Mark Malone and David Woodley splitting time at quarterback.
Louis Lipps broke out, and John Stallworth recorded 1395 yards and 11 touchdowns.
This trend continued as I looked at other Steeler receivers who had great rookie seasons.
In 2002, Antwaan Randle-El had a strong rookie season. Hines Ward and Plaxico Burress both had the best seasons of their entire career, both recording over 1300 yards with 19 TDs between them.
In 2009, Mike Wallace had a great rookie season, Santonio Holmes and Heath Miller had their best receiving yards of their careers, Holmes’ 1248 yards was the only time he gained 1000 yards in a season. Hines Ward, at 33 years old, had the second best season of his career.
In 2014, Martevis Bryant’s explosive rookie season led to Antonio Brown’s first time leading the league in receiving yards, while also leading the league in receptions. Le’Veon Bell would also have his best season.
In 2017 JuJu Smith-Schuster had the most yards of any Steelers rookie receiver. Antonio Brown led the league in receiving for the second (and currently last) time in his career, and Le’Veon Bell had the second most productive season of his career.
That doesn’t cover all of the top rookie receivers though, so let’s look at the ones that didn’t see another receiver break out.
Ron Shanklin, 1970. Shanklin was the best receiver on the team, the passing game wasn’t good, but John “Frenchy” Fuquo led the team in rushing with the most rushing yards and TDs of his career.
Charles Johnson, 1994. No one else had a career year in his rookie season. Johnson did lead all wide receivers in yards, although Eric Green led the team in receiving yards.
Troy Edwards 1999. Edwards leads the Steelers in receiving yards in Hines Ward’s first season as a starter, no other players set career marks.
Santonio Holmes 2006. Holmes doesn’t lead the team in receiving, and the passing game is a mess in Ben Roethlisberger’s worst season as a starter, following his motorcycle accident. Willie Parker has the best season of his career.
Diontae Johnson 2019. Another season when the passing game was a mess, Johnson ends up second in yards, leads the team in receptions and receiving touchdowns. We’ll see how it looks in the future, but James Washington did have a break out year for an offense that was largely a nightmare.
That’s the top ten rookie receiver seasons in Steeler history. Two clear scenarios emerge from this list. When a rookie receiver had a strong first year, either they are a bright spot in a terrible offense, or another player (or two) have a fantastic season.
What could this mean for the Steelers receivers now?
Chase Claypool increasingly looks like a player poised to have a big rookie season. The Steelers offense is deep at wide receiver, but with room for Chase Claypool to have a big role. Ben Roethlisberger is back and looks good. If Ben stays healthy, I would expect to see a big season from Chase Claypool, but an even better season from one or more of his team mates.
JuJu Smith-Schuster is set up for a bounce-back season, with his quarterback back on the field, and little to no history between Roethlisberger and the other receivers, expect Smith-Schuster to collect a lot of targets, especially early on when he’ll be Ben’s most familiar target.
Diontae Johnson could also have a breakout season. With attention going to Chase Claypool and JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson is likely to be facing a lot of 1v1 coverage, and should gain a lot of yards because of it.
James Washington may be the least likely to have a big season, but it is possible. Washington is in the unenviable position of being at his best in the role JuJu Smith-Schuster plays, and if you look at 2019, James Washington did his best when JuJu Smith-Schuster was out, when Smith-Schuster returned, Washington disappeared. His role on the team when Smith-Schuster is healthy is the spot Chase Claypool is most likely to be best at. Washington fighting for a role he isn’t best at versus a player that fits that role perfectly is not a great situation for a breakout.
I wouldn’t expect incredible numbers from any of these receivers, I don’t expect any of them to put up 1500 yards, as the Steelers defense is likely to have this team in more situations where they want to run out the clock, as opposed to throwing the ball a lot late in the game in a come-back bid. But I do expect that they will have really effective seasons, and any one of them would make a great bargain receiver at the end of a fantasy draft.