My current evaluation of the Steelers wide receiver depth chart shares similarities with the well known proverb: "You can't have your cake and eat it too."
At first glance, the Steelers appear to have a wide variety of talented players at their disposal. Diontae Johnson is one of the best route runners in the NFL and is consistently among the league leaders in gaining separation. George Pickens is a splash play waiting to happen, but needs focused training on the finer points of playing the position to reach his enormous potential. Anthony Miller is a veteran slot receiver with previous production, but hasn't been able to stay healthy since coming to Pittsburgh. Speaking of health, Calvin Austin lll could use some in 2023 after missing his entire rookie season due to a foot injury. Austin has elite level speed and elusiveness, but his diminutive size brings durability concerns. Seldom used Gunner Olszewski rounds out the receiver room.
Upon further review, the Steelers have as many questions as they do answers at the position. Johnson does a great job of getting open, but does little with the ball after the catch. He set the dubious record of most receptions without a single touchdown last season. Pickens needs to show he can be a complete receiver in his sophomore professional season. Miller has to prove he still has some gas in the tank, and stay healthy enough to contribute. Austin must display the toughness and durability that belies his stature. Olszewski faces long odds to even make the roster.
In summary; the Steelers have talent at the position, but need more, both of the proven and reliable kind.
The position definitely hasn't been a focal point of mine this offseason, honestly because I have my doubts that Matt Canada even knows how to best utilize the talent already on hand. My opinion on Canada's ability as a passing game coordinator is well documented, so let’s move on.
This article will focus on 3 maneuvers the Steelers could consider to improve their wide receiver position. Let’s get this party started.
Re-sign Miles Boykin
Boykin is an underappreciated contributor, full of untapped potential. I consider Boykin to be the best special team's gunner in the NFL and he should have made the Pro Bowl last season in my opinion. At 6'4" and 220 lbs., he is blessed with 4.42 speed and incredible explosive measurables, including a 43.5" vertical. This elite-level athleticism makes him virtually unblockable as a special teams gunner. Boykin has value as a specialist alone, but that would be selling the young man short.
Boykin has had no luck at all since being drafted by the Baltimore Ravens in the third round in 2019. During his three-year tenure with the Ravens, Boykin toiled in a run-heavy offense that seemingly had no idea how to adequately utilize his immense talents. He must have experienced plenty of deja vu last year in Pittsburgh.
It would have been almost funny if it wasn't so frustratingly maddening. If Boykin was in the game for an offensive snap, you could rest assured that it was a running play. You could bet your last dollar that the ball wasn't coming his way if it was a pass play, where he was most often utilized as extra pass protection for quarterback rollouts. Boykin is a excellent blocker for the position, but that telegraphed tendency was ridiculous.
Boykin is an affordable and effective specialist who possesses the potential to contribute more under the right circumstances. More on that to come.
Draft a mid-round receiver
There are plenty of community members who desperately want the Steelers to address the wide receiver position with an early round selection, and numerous articles discussing those options. Therefore we will focus on some middle-round options for this article— three potential prospects, to be precise.
Downs is an undersized but highly productive slot receiver prospect. The former North Carolina Tar Heel has everything you could want in a slot specialist, except size. At 5'9" and 170 lbs., Downs will have to prove durable enough to maximize his enormous potential, similar to the aforementioned Calvin Austin lll.
Downs has reliable hands, solid speed, and impeccable footwork. He is easily one of the best route runners in this draft class. Here's some further evidence to support that claim. At the conclusion of his recent pro day, a Steelers representative in attendance told Downs that was one of the "cleanest" performances at the position he had witnessed in years. The performance included a blazing three-cone time, although I can't find anything official.
Downs is too good to last past the third round, with his size being the only possible liability, so it would behoove the Steelers to consider him at 49 if they are interested.
The Steelers recently brought Mingo in for a pre-draft visit, and he just so happens to be the only official visit at receiver for the Steelers thus far. When I read about the visit, my first thought was "Who?" After a little research, his visit is consistent with the Steelers offseason mission statement.
Mingo is a muscular powerhouse of a receiver, which is common for Ole Miss receivers apparently. At 6'1" and 220 lbs. of solid muscle, Mingo is blessed with 4.46 speed, and earned a 9.93 RAS score at the NFL scouting combine. Mingo is capable of playing both inside or outside, due to his size, speed, and strength. One evaluation I read said his professional comparison was JuJu Smith-Schuster, although Mingo is substantially faster. Honestly, if the Steelers are fully committed to their run-heavy, time of possession philosophy we witnessed in 2022, then Mingo in the slot might just be the perfect plan.
Mingo is physically dominant working the interior where he has a knack for finding holes in coverage and the physicality needed to complete the contested catch opportunities. He is also a superior run blocker and was utilized as such in the Rebels offense.
The Steelers have already shown their interest with the pre-draft visit, so don't be surprised if they call his phone somewhere in the fourth round.
Ford-Wheaton is the biggest sleeper in the 2023 NFL Draft. As a life-long WV Mountaineer fan, I am very familiar with Ford-Wheaton's game. He is an absolute athletic specimen, reflected in his 9.96 RAS score. Ford-Wheaton stands 6'4" and weighs 221 lbs. to go along with 4.38 speed. His elite-level athleticism reminds me of former NFL standouts Chris Henry and Martavis Bryant. Similar to the two aforementioned individuals, Ford-Wheaton's professional destination and work ethic will be crucial to his future success.
Ford-Wheaton's collegiate production was mediocre, but his statistics alone are misleading. He has yet to play with anything close to a NFL caliber quarterback, a reality that greatly impacted his production. That being said, he still managed to improve his numbers every season in Morgantown.
I believe that Bryce Ford-Wheaton would flourish under Mike Tomlin's leadership, and with Kenny Pickett throwing him the rock he would be an excellent value in the fourth round.
Hire Hines Ward as a offensive assistant coach
Ward's hiring would address a multitude of needs for the Steelers, and signal a fundamental philosophical shift at the position for the Steelers.
Ward would be an excellent mentor for the Steelers young receivers room. Ward has earned instant respect from any pupil, after a Hall of Fame caliber career achieved through elite level grit, toughness, and determination. When a coach of Ward's caliber speaks, players listen.
Ward would also be a real asset for Steelers OC Matt Canada, particularly as a passing game coordinator, allowing Canada to focus on what he does best.
Finally, Ward's presence would provide an invaluable source of knowledge from a two-time Super Bowl champion, a current connection to the Steelers championship culture from the past, and a constant reminder of cherished memories for all of Steelers Nation.