If you have been following all the daily reports coming out of Steelers training camp, odds are you have been hearing Rico Bussey's name mentioned quite often. On top of that, it's basically all been positive press.
Bussey has been making the routine plays consistently, which would be impressive enough for a undrafted free agent participating in his first NFL training camp. That would be a great story in itself, but Bussey hasn't been content with just being consistent, because being consistent isn't making the Steelers roster stacked with talented wideouts. Truth be told, wide receiver may be the toughest position on the Steelers to earn a roster spot this season. Bussey knew coming in he had to be explosive to be noticed, and that's exactly what he has done. He has been a big play waiting to happen during camp practices, making himself virtually impossible to ignore.
At this point I must readily admit that Rico Bussey Jr. was nothing more than a camp body in my mind, a afterthought if you will. After the 2021 NFL Draft had concluded and the Steelers had finished signing their allotment of undrafted guys, I mainly focused my attention to the undrafted guys at obvious positions of need for the Steelers. With the Steelers plethora of talent at receiver, I directed my attention elsewhere.
BTSC's very own Dave Schofield wrote a series of articles back in May introducing the community to the undrafted guys signed by the Steelers after the draft. I remember reading the Bussey article, skimming may be more accurate. It was very informative, with numerous predraft evaluations from some of the top evaluators. Nothing remarkable if I am being honest, but the information needed to explain his surprising camp performance was right there in the article if I would have taken the time to notice.
Rico Bussey Jr. was a two star recruit when he began his collegiate career at North Texas. A 6' 190lbs. wide receiver, Bussey started to garner recognition after his breakout junior season for his explosive all around game. Then he suffered a season ending ACL injury three games into his senior season and he redshirted. He transferred to Hawaii for his redshirt senior season, but he struggled to regain his pre-injury form and endured a underwhelming season.
That's where I should have seen his potential if I would have been paying close enough attention. It is common knowledge that it often takes two years to fully recover from a ACL injury. To regain complete confidence in the knee, and get the short area burst of acceleration back. That helps explain why Bussey never looked like the same player at Hawaii, and didn't test well in the pre-draft process, particularly in some of the cone drills. I would be remiss if I didn't mention the difficulties in conditioning caused by COVID protocols. That at least partially explains why he went undrafted, which could turn out to be the Steelers good fortune.
Bussey has made numerous big plays thus far at camp, including at the Steelers annual Friday night practice that is open to the public. He has been running with the third and fourth string offensive units, mainly catching passes from Steelers QBs Dwayne Haskins and Joshua Dobbs. On the flip side, he is being matched up regularly with the Steelers third or fourth string defensive backs, the majority of which are likely to do something other than professional football as their life's work.
That being said, he has been borderline uncoverable in the process. In reality, that's all he can do in the situation; absolutely torch whichever poor soul has the misfortune to be matched up against him. Two years removed from the injury, he has regained his short area quickness and sneaky deep speed. After being known for concentration lapses and frequent drops in college, he has been catching the ball cleanly and consistently in camp. On one particularly impressive play, he tipped the ball to himself to complete the reception.
Two specific attributes of Bussey's that I have mentioned thus far in this article; solid hands and deep speed, are really the only potential shortcomings for the Steelers talented receiving corps. While the Steelers could always use a real deep threat to take the top off opposing defenses, his ability to consistently catch the football stands out the most for the group that lead the NFL in dropped passes last year, and the struggles have continued in the early stages of camp. Sooner or later, the coaches are going to say enough is enough.
It really doesn't matter how frequently you can get open if you are unable to complete the reception consistently. Yes, Diontae Johnson, that statement was made with you specifically in mind. Johnson's hard work and late season improvement in 2020 was encouraging, but he still has plenty to prove this season. Early camp reports have hinted at him being dominant at times, with a daily drop or two mixed in. Truly frustrating for all parties involved I feel certain.
I readily admit that Bussey faces incredibly long odds to make the roster, even if his impressive camp continues and he stands out in the preseason games. His most likely path to the NFL would be to earn a practice squad spot, where he would likely be poached by a receiver needy team. The Steelers ability to recognize receiver talent is legendary at this point.
There may actually be another possible scenario, which could benefit the Steelers even more. If Bussey continues to look like the real deal, that could make one of the Steelers other receivers expendable. The Steelers could dangle another receiver as trade bait, in an attempt to recover some draft capital lost in recent draft day trades, or to bring in experienced depth at a position they see the need. Not likely at this point, but the injury concerns and inexperience along the offensive line could deem a move necessary.
Regardless of how the situation pans out, I am rooting for the young man big time. He is the perfect example that some abilities of an athlete are immeasurable. The Steelers have a well deserved reputation for finding diamonds in the rough from the undrafted free agent pool of talent. Could Bussey be the next Steelers hidden gem? It's too early to tell, but I am excited to find out. Go Steelers!