Will Darrius Heyward-Bey be a Steeler when the regular season begins in September?
Look, I love the underdog, and Heyward-Bey may be the biggest ‘dog since Rudy. No one in their right mind thought he had the hands to be a first-round pick, which is exactly why Al Davis drafted him there. He’s spent his entire career behind the eight-ball because he unrightfully had the expectations of a top pick heaped upon him, despite being, truly, a third-rounder at best coming out of college.
Yeah, he could run. Still can, and is probably one of the two or three fastest Steelers on the roster right now. But, while deep speed is a great thing to have in a wide receiver, deep speed and great hands will trump that every time. Heck, decent deep speed and great hands wins, because “go fast” is a nice to have in a receiver; “catch the ball” is, well, kind of a big deal.
It’s looking more and more likely that the Steelers will have Martavis Bryant back after a yearlong suspension, assuming he keeps his nose clean from here on. They also drafted JuJu Smith-Schuster, who may not be the fastest guy in the world, but is a great pass catcher who almost never drops anything he gets his hands on. And, if Sammie Coates’ issues later in the 2016 season were truly due to a hand injury, then there is little reason to suspect he won’t regain the early-season form that had more than a few people wondering (for a while, at least), “Martavis who?”
So, for a guy whose game revolves around being tall and fast and an average-at-best pass catcher, even just two of those three other receivers showing up and doing their jobs pretty much eliminates any real chance “DHB” has of seeing the field as a receiver.
That leaves special teams, and there are an awful lot of incoming youngsters with the skills and tools to marginalize Heyward-Bey even further. Rookie cornerbacks Cameron Sutton and Brian Allen could both end up earning their initial roster spots through special teams as gunners on punt coverage, where Heyward-Bey excels. If either of them are even close to Heyward-Bey’s production there, that simply leaves the receiver as the odd man out, considering the two youngsters are still a long way from their ceiling.
It’s unfortunate in the NFL that sentimentality truly doesn’t have a place. If it did, DHB might end up having his number retired, based on nothing more than his good-guy attitude and his veteran, selfless leadership. He’s the kind of high-character guy fans in Pittsburgh love to root for. But something has to give, and with a receiving corps as loaded as this, it’s likely going to be the sentimental favorite receiving the long adieu.
The one thing Heyward-Bey has on the other wide receivers who are battling for, most likely, two roster spots is versatility. He plays special teams, knows the offense and his primary position is one which doesn’t have a lot of depth.
When I look at the Steelers’ wide receiver depth chart, you have Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, Eli Rogers and JuJu Smith-Schuster as likely locks. That leaves Demarcus Ayers, Cobi Hamilton, Sammie Coates, Justin Hunter and Heyward-Bey as the primary candidates to snag those final two spots.
From all early reports, it seems the Steelers will have Smith-Schuster and Rogers primarily as slot receivers, and that leaves only Brown and Bryant on the outside. Assuming Cobi Hamilton is the first man to go from this group, you have to think the team tries to place Ayers on the practice squad. That leaves Coates, a third round draft choice, and Hunter, a free agent castoff, standing in the way of a team leader and pure character guy, Heyward-Bey.
In this scenario, I see the Steelers keeping both Heyward-Bey and Coates, as both showed versatility on special teams and the ability to play the outside receiver positions. Could Hunter, or Ayers, beat out Heyward-Bey? Absolutely, but the Steelers like Heyward-Bey, and I think he has one more year left in the Steel City before the team decides to part ways with No. 88.