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Steelers show improvement in latest ESPN RB/WR/TE Rankings

The Pittsburgh Steelers group of wide receivers, tight ends and running backs has improved heading into 2023.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images

Ranking season rolls on throughout the 2023 NFL offseason, and the latest rankings by ESPN’s Bill Barnwell certainly is a “think outside the box” exercise. Barnwell, who has done this the past few years, takes a look at every team’s “play makers” and ranks them accordingly.

Who are the play makers? Try every team’s running backs, wide receivers and tight ends. Here is a quick description from Barnwell to how he got the rankings:

I’m not trying to project which team will have the best offense this season. Instead, I’m trying to separate out a team’s playmakers — its running backs, wide receivers and tight ends exclusively — to estimate how they would perform outside of their current offense. In other words, if we gave every team an average quarterback, offensive line and playcaller and had them play at an average pace, which would have the league’s best offense?

With all that said, who made the Top 10, and where do the Steelers rank? Let’s take a look...

1. San Francisco 49ers
2. Cincinnati Bengals
3. Philadelphia
4. Seattle Seahawks
5. Los Angeles Chargers
6. Minnesota Vikings
7. Dallas Cowboys
8. Miami Dolphins
9. Jacksonville Jaguars
10. Atlanta Falcons

13. Pittsburgh Steelers

2022 rank: 12 | 2021 rank: 15

After talking about touchdown regression back from lofty heights, let’s talk about a player who should see the math work in his favor. Diontae Johnson scored 20 touchdowns on 254 receptions across his first three seasons. In Year 4, though, he caught 86 passes and turned exactly zero of them into touchdowns. In his first three seasons, Johnson converted 47% of his end zone targets into scores. Last season, he went 0-for-10. Even allowing for the move from Ben Roethlisberger to Kenny Pickett, I strongly doubt he goes 0-for-the-end-zone again in 2023.

There’s another metric detailing Pickett and his receivers, though, that made me even more intrigued by what could happen for a Pittsburgh wideout this season. NFL Next Gen Stats uses a model to estimate a receiver’s chances of catching each pass thrown in his direction. As receivers get more opportunities, those expected catch rates tend to head toward a common ground. Thirty-four receivers ran 500 routes or more last season, and 33 of them had an expected catch rate between 55% and 72%.

The significant outlier was George Pickens, whose expected catch rate was 51.4%. He responded by catching 61.9% of his passes. The list of players who have run 500 routes and posted a catch rate 10 percentage points better than expected in the Next Gen Stats era isn’t long: It’s Doug Baldwin, Stefon Diggs, Pierre Garcon, DeAndre Hopkins, Tyler Lockett and Michael Thomas, who did it three times. Baldwin and Lockett played with prime Russell Wilson, who had model-breaking accuracy on deep throws. Thomas was with Drew Brees, who set NFL accuracy records. Pickens was playing with a rookie.

I don’t think Pickens is going to keep running catch rates 10% over expectation, but he’s going to have more catchable passes on the whole in 2023. Decreasing the degree of difficulty could unlock a very special season. We might be talking about Pickens like he’s the best wide receiver in the 2022 class if he had better quarterback play last season. Tight end Pat Freiermuth took another step forward in 2022, although his touchdown rate also dropped precipitously.

The biggest weakness in this group, beyond wide receiver depth, is the guy the Steelers took ahead of Freiermuth in the first round of the 2021 draft. Najee Harris has averaged 3.9 yards per carry and 6.1 yards per reception through his first two seasons. Harris has stayed healthy and assumed a large workload, but among the 25 running backs with 300 or more carries over the past two seasons, Harris ranks last in yards per carry, rushing yards over expected, success rate and EPA per carry. The only back who gained fewer rushing yards over expected per carry is Alvin Kamara.

The Steelers haven’t had a good offensive line the past two seasons, and that’s certainly something to consider in evaluating Harris. (If a running back needs a great line to succeed, it’s probably not worth drafting that running back in the first round, but that’s another story for another day.) At the same time, though, Jaylen Warren posted a positive RYOE figure on 77 carries a year ago. It was only 7 yards over expectation, but his success rate and first down rate were well above Harris’ performance. Harris needs to take a step forward.

This exercise likely shocked many with the Kansas City Chiefs not in the Top 10. In fact, the Chiefs ranked 16th on this list.

But what about the teams who call the AFC North home? Where did the all rank?

AFC North

2. Cincinnati Bengals
12. Cleveland Browns
13. Pittsburgh Steelers
15. Baltimore Ravens

While many will debate the order of these teams, you can see how many are viewing the AFC North this season. In other words, it should be a very competitive it usually is.

What do you think of this ranking system? How about where the Steelers rank? Let us know in the comment section below, and be sure to stay tuned to BTSC for the latest news and notes surrounding the Steelers as they prepare for the rest of the 2023 NFL offseason.