Now that Pro Football Focus has finished their top players at each position lists for the 2021 offseason, the shift has come to position unit rankings. Rather than looking at individual players, they are looking at the group of players making up the position and how they compare to the rest of the NFL.
As usual, here comes my standard PFF disclaimer about trusting their rankings:
It seems like I can’t write an article about PFF without giving the typical disclaimer of how their projections can be highly questionable. Even their grading of players after the fact can be picked apart, so expecting them to do well in the prediction business is not something which I’m ready to bet the farm on based on their conclusions.
The next position unit listed by Pro Football Focus is receivers, both wide receivers and tight ends. According to PFF, the Pittsburgh Steelers come in at number 18.
Bucs— PFF (@PFF) June 2, 2021
Chiefs@PFF_Steve ranks all 3⃣2⃣ receiving corps ahead of the 2021 NFL season ⬇️
Despite keeping all their wide receivers from 2020 as well as their top tight end, the Steelers are not ranked very favorably. Why the Steelers ended up in the 18th spot is described below according to PFF:
Last season, the Steelers struggled to create explosive plays, but they have the pieces in play to improve in that department in 2021. Chase Claypool had a strong rookie season with peaks that rival the best downfield threats in the league. He led all rookies with nine receiving touchdowns, and his size and speed should be used more often this season.
Diontae Johnson is one of the better route runners in the league, but his 2020 was marred by 14 drops on just 102 catchable passes. Drops tend to be an unstable stat, so expect that number to fall and Johnson to settle in as one of the most effective short and intermediate receivers in the league. JuJu Smith-Schuster returns after flirting with other teams in free agency. He averaged a paltry 9.0 yards per reception, far below his career average of 12.0. He remains a solid slot option. James Washington is also in the mix as his quest for consistency continues. H graded at 69.3 in 2019 and 63.8 last season. Ray-Ray McCloud III will be used in the jet sweep game after averaging just 3.9 yards per reception on his 20 catches last season.
The Steelers need better production from the tight end position where Eric Ebron graded at just 57.5 overall in large part due to his nine drops on just 72 catchable passes. They drafted Pat Freiermuth in the second round, and he was perhaps the best all-around tight end in the draft. Freiermuth is a good route runner with after-the-catch ability, so look for him to contribute early in his career.
The Steelers have a well-rounded group of playmakers, but they just need to better tap into everyone’s strengths while cutting down on the drops this season.
Based on their explanation, what is holding the Pittsburgh Steelers’ receivers back in the ranking comes down solely to drops. Being the main focal point of the breakdown, PFF fails to identify that the Steelers had five players with five or more receiving touchdowns in 2020 with no other team in the NFL even having four. The fact PFF did not put any of the Steelers wide receivers in their top 32 in the NFL makes the unit ranking of 18th not all that surprising.
When looking at the rest of the AFC North, it’s the Cincinnati Bengals who check in with the highest ranking coming in at 12th on the list. Adding the highest drafted wide receiver in the 2021 NFL draft helped to move them ahead of the rest of the North, although I’m sure it did little for helping their offensive line rankings when they come out. Just behind the Bengals are the Cleveland Browns in the 13th position. Bringing up the bottom of the AFC North is the Baltimore Ravens who came in 22nd.
The Steelers young group of wide receivers have a lot to prove in 2021. Throw in the veteran Eric Ebron at the tight end position along with rookie Pat Freiermuth, the Steelers have all kinds of weapons in the passing game. As long as the unit can keep their drops down as a whole, look for good things from the Steelers receivers in 2021.