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2021 Steelers Roster Outlook: The Wide Receivers

Will the Steelers draft a WR with top 100 pick for the 5th year in a row?

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Steelers have drafted wide receivers a lot over the years. You have to go back before the 1965 pick of Roy Jefferson to find a three year span without a 4th round or higher pick spent on a wide receiver, and the Steelers have drafted 27 wide receivers in the first 4 rounds in the last 32 years. The last 4 drafts have seen a top 70 pick spent on a wide receiver every year.

Heading into 2021, the Steelers have three experienced wide receivers still on rookie deals, including the two receivers that led the team in receiving yards the last two seasons, and Chase Claypool, who had one of the best rookie seasons in franchise history.

The Three Amigos

The 2009 and 2010 drafts brought the Steelers three young and productive wide receivers that called themselves the “Young Money Crew”, and while fans may react negatively to that nickname, Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown are three of the top 4 receivers from those draft classes combined, with only Demaryius Thomas able to hang with their career numbers.

The Steelers current trio aren’t as decorated, but on paper they should be a very good group, due to their complementary skill sets.

Diontae Johnson: Johnson led the 2019 and 2020 Steelers in targets, also leading in receptions and receiving touchdowns in 2019 and in yards in 2020. Diontae Johnson has elite change of direction ability, and has been incredible at releasing against tight coverage and jams since he was in college.

In 2019 NFL defenses learned not to jam Diontae Johnson, and that slowed him down, in 2020 he was running better routes and exploiting off coverage better than in 2019. Johnson has two problems that limit him still, first he’s not a good vertical deep threat, and the second is drops. In college Johnson would drop a good number of head height passes. He had that problem in 2019 and again in 2020. At this point it is looking like something the Steelers will have to work around rather than something they can iron out. If Johnson can solve his drop issues, he could be one of the best receivers in the NFL.

James Washington: How does a receiver go from the leading receiver to the #4 receiver who barely gets targeted? That’s the question with James Washington. One part of the answer is JuJu Smith-Schuster. When JuJu Smith-Schuster is playing and getting targets, James Washington does almost nothing. In the times when JuJu Smith-Schuster is not playing, James Washington has a lot more success. With JuJu Smith-Schuster a free agent, and looking more and more likely to be playing somewhere else in 2021, James Washington will have his best chance to succeed since he was drafted.

A deep threat in college, James Washington doesn’t have the speed or size to be a dynamic deep threat in the NFL, but he shows a lot of promise as a physical possession receiver who can win favorable matchups downfield for occasional big plays. Similar to Smith-Schuster. If Todd Haley or Randy Fichtner were in charge of the offense still I’d say James Washignton is the perfect candidate to be the slot receiver, but we’ll see how Matt Canada runs his offense, he may not want bigger, more physical slot receivers.

Chase Claypool: Claypool brings the size, physicality and speed to be a vertical deep threat, and yet that isn’t his gest usage so far. Claypool is a true X receiver, he can go deep, but he can run any route in the tree, and was the most dangerous running slants and post routes. He needs to work on his in-route hand fighting to help him win his lanes and face fewer contested catches downfield Diontae Johnson is better at physically establishing his route and creating space for the catch than Chase Claypool is on vertical routes. If Claypool grows as a vertical route runner he could really take off. Until then the Steelers need to get Claypool in space by himself, where those slants and deep outs stress coverage much more.

The Steelers top three receivers are a good mix, mixing the size and speed of Claypool with the elusiveness of Diontae Johnson and a reliable possession receiver in James Washington gives quarterback Ben Roethlisberger a good mix of weapons to target. But three receivers is not enough in the current NFL.

The Depth

Ray-Ray McCloud: McCloud was a late signing for the Steelers in 2020, joining the team in August and winning a spot on the roster for his return ability. He avoided the fumbles and muffed kicks that ended his time with Buffalo and Carolina, and got some time in the Steelers 4 and 5 wide receiver sets.

While McCloud is primarily a special teams player, there is a chance his elusiveness and speed could land him an increased role in Matt Canada’s offense.

Cody White: White left Michigan State after his junior year in 2019 when he led the Spartans in receptions, yards and touchdowns. His combine numbers were bad, but his drills were good. At 6’3” 217 he has good size, but his athleticism is not good. He went undrafted, bounced around the league trying to find a team that would give him a chance to develop.

He found that with the Steelers on September 24th of 2020, when he replaced Dan McCullers on the practice squad. He stayed on the practice squad all season, and was signed to a futures contract in January. It was widely thought that he should have stayed in school for his senior year, and he won’t turn 23 until November of 2021, so there is a chance he develops into a depth piece for the Steelers.

Anthony Johnson: An intriguing project receiver heading into his third year in the NFL. Johnson has good size at 6’2” and 220 lbs., but again had disappointing athletic numbers and is more of a possession receiver. Johnson is 26 years old, so his days of surviving on practice squad contracts are running out, but for now he still has a shot with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Steelers are unlikely to use White or Johnson as the fifth receiver, meaning they will need to acquire a receiver before the season starts.

Free Agency Options

The only Steelers receiver over the age of 25 is Anthony Johnson. The Steelers under Mike Tomlin almost always have a veteran player in each position group. They broke with that tradition in 2020, givi8ng JuJu Smith-Schuster the chance to lead the receivers. The Steelers could look for a veteran receiver to lead the group not in snaps or targets, but be the voice of experience and help teach the receivers the tricks of the trade.

JuJu Smith-Schuster: There’s still a chance he returns, but it is slim. Smith-Schuster is a very good receiver and should get high end #2 receiver money on the open market. The Steelers are unlikely to pay that as Smith-Schuster has been one of their top 3 receivers the last two years, but statistically didn’t stand out above the other players. James Washington seems ready to step into Smith-Schuster’s role this season, where he excelled in 2019.

Larry Fitzgerald: About as likely as Smith-Schuster, Larry Fitzgerald would be the perfect receiver to mentor the Steelers potential laden receiver room. Few receivers are as technically sound as Fitzgerald is, or as respected for his play and leadership, both on the team and in the community. It is incredibly unlikely he will break up his career playing with one team to come to Pittsburgh, but we can dream.

Danny Amendola: A much more plausible signing would be the 36 year old Amendola who has posted at least 600 yards in 7 of his 12 seasons, including three of his last 4, but has never reached 700 yards in a season. Amendola would give the Steelers a veteran who not only has showed longevity in the league but has also won two Super Bowls, and put up 152 receiving yards in the Super Bowl he lost.

Emmanuel Sanders: A reunion with Sanders could happen, but is unlikely, he is unlikely to accept a 3rd or 4th receiver role, and will likely find a team willing to give him a chance to play more.

John Brown: Brown has expressed interest in playing for the Steelers, and would fill the role of a veteran in the room while likely being a top three receiver on the team. Brown would be an interesting fit with Ben Roethlisberger, he’s the type of boom or bust receiver that usually does well with Roethlisberger.

I do not think the Steelers would add a younger receiver to the Steelers room in free agency, they do well enough with that in the draft.

Draft Options

There are a lot of intriguing options at wide receiver in this draft, but I’m going to focus on some that would add versatility to the receiver room, something the Steelers may be looking for with Matt Canada in charge of the offense. I see three types of receivers being on the table for the Steelers 2021 draft options, and really, depending on how they see the players they have now, they could go in almost any direction. Here’s three players that fit the arch-types that I think the Steelers could go after.

Kadarius Toney: A player that compares to Percy Harvin, another dynamic play maker without polish at any position. The Steelers receiver room was working to learn to line up at every spot on the field in 2020, a versatile but unpolished play maker can be a weapon in a system like Matt Canada’s, that works to get players in space where their natural ability can really shine.

Tylan Wallace: His sophomore season at Oklahoma State he took over for James Washington and nearly matched Washington’s incredible production. His other seasons weren’t as impressive stats wise, but his film is nice. He’s not as big as James Washington, but he is still physical and is significantly faster than James Washington. Wallace would be more like recent Steelers wide receiver picks, and would instantly be the most natural Z receiver on the team.

Amari Rogers: A legit WR/RB hybrid player, he’s the kind of player that could be a wingback, slot receiver, move outside or even back into the backfield and provide threat at every position. He also won’t turn 22 until September, and the Steelers like younger prospects.

I can’t predict what kind of player the Steelers would draft at wide receiver, and they generally take someone that the rest of the NFL is overlooking or undervaluing. So it isn’t the easiest position to predict even when the offense isn’t being redesigned.

Steeler Nation has to hope that the change in offense won’t disrupt the Steelers success in drafting wide receivers, but they can continue to find great value and continue the pipeline of talent at that position.