The wide receiver position has been a hot button topic of discussion for Steelers Nation thus far this offseason. Our pre-occupation with the position is easy to understand.
The Steelers lost three of their top five receivers in free agency, although none of the three losses should have been much of a surprise. The Steelers addressed those losses by claiming 2019 3rd Round selection Miles Boykin off waivers after the former Notre Dame product was released by the Baltimore Ravens. Then the Steelers selected Georgia WR George Pickens in the 2nd Round, and Memphis WR Calvin Austin lll in the 4th Round.
The Steelers lose three, and immediately bring in three replacements. In the process, the Steelers got younger, taller, and faster. What they lack in NFL experience, they make up for with youthful enthusiasm and explosiveness.
On paper, it looks like the Steelers have potentially improved the position, but nothing is certain until that potential becomes proven production on the field. Many of us thought that the Steelers had a versatile group of receivers that went at least five deep heading into 2021. Injuries, ineffectiveness, and a sophomore slump quickly debunked that idea.
One receiver I have yet to mention actually spent the majority of the 2021 season with the Steelers. That forgotten man is Anthony Miller, who was signed to the Steelers practice squad after being released by the dysfunctional Houston Texans two games into the season. He was either promoted to the active roster, or one of the protected practice squad players each week, until he was finally promoted to the roster full-time in late November.
That brings us to the reason why I consider Miller to be no more than an after thought at this point for the Steelers in 2022. Even with the Steelers dealing with injuries and ineffectiveness at the receiver position last year, Miller failed to make any sort of impact, unless you consider a single reception for a grand total of two yards an impact.
It speaks volumes that the Steelers repeatedly trotted out primary kick returner Ray-Ray McCloud as the slot receiver in three receiver sets, instead of the seemingly more accomplished, and proven, Miller. McCloud was a undersized gadget player at best, but he displayed admirable courage and determination in trying his best to adequately man the position.
Like Mike Tomlin stated last week when discussing the aforementioned Calvin Austin lll, if you are small, you better be exceptionally fast. McCloud is more quick than fast, and not an accomplished route runner on top of that. The fact that the Steelers chose the unpolished McCloud over the far more experienced Miller is concerning.
Miller was a second round selection by the Chicago Bears in 2018. He was a consensus All American in 2017 with the Memphis Tigers. He has 140 receptions, 1,589 receiving yards, and 12 receiving touchdowns on his NFL resume. His rookie total of 7 TD catches led the Bears team that season. He has done the vast majority of his damage out of the slot, and in an ironic twist, with Mitch Trubisky throwing him the football.
That's why there were some cautiously optimistic discussions immediately after Mitch Trubisky signed his free agency deal that Miller may finally have an opportunity to get his professional career back on track, after his lost 2021 season. Then the Steelers turn around and draft Kenny Pickett in the first round, who many consider the most pro-ready quarterback in the 2022 draft class, to offer Trubisky even more competition for the starting position.
One would tend to believe the winner of that competition will directly impact Miller more than most. Considering Trubisky and Miller already have a history together, it seems only logical there is already a relationship between the two, and the chemistry only created in the heat of battle at the highest level.
Trubisky is not the only one to pick up some stiff competition for playing time. Miller will be competing with fellow Memphis alum Calvin Austin lll for snaps out of the slot, among others. Miller is not a boundary receiver, but has prototypical size/speed ratio of a slot guy. He has the reputation of a accomplished route runner with reliable hands. Therein lies the crux of my confusion.
How on earth did Miller fail to make an impact with either the Houston Texans or the Pittsburgh Steelers last season, when both teams had a real need at the receiver position? The easiest and most logical conclusion would be that Ben Roethlisberger wanted it that way. That is only my educated guess, as I have no insider information to back up my theory. An immobile veteran quarterback struggling to lead a new-look offense behind a subpar offensive line most likely craved the familiar over the unknown. Roethlisberger was familiar with McCloud, not Miller. It very well may have been as simple as that.
Miller would seem to have the early advantage in the slot receiver competition, due to his NFL experience and proven track record. That would seem to be especially true if Trubisky wins the starting quarterback role. His biggest disadvantage is his lack of versatility and special teams contributions, two areas where Austin and Miles Boykin shine.
In conclusion, Miller has a real path to the active roster, but it may be more dependent on who starts at quarterback than many realize.