With Martavis Bryant on the sidelines in 2016, the Pittsburgh Steelers were unable to maintain their hegemonic status in the league’s receiving hierarchy. The passing attack was prolific, yes, but the receiving corps was ultimately just Antonio Brown and a bunch of dudes.
The 2016 season, however, was not without its bright spots.
Eli Rogers established himself as a viable no. 3 receiver. Sammie Coates briefly became Martavis Bryant v2 before vaporizing half of the bones in his right hand. Cobi Hamilton and Demarcus Ayers both caught touchdown passes. Darrius Heyward-Bey did little to diminish his employability. Then, this offseason, Pittsburgh signed Justin Hunter, a former second-round draft choice, and used their own second-round pick on Juju Smith-Schuster, an All-American at USC and one of the top receivers in the draft.
With 11 receivers currently on the roster, the Steelers find themselves with a literal surplus. The current core is anything but a haphazardly-assembled group of nobodies. In fact, Ayers, a seventh-round draft choice in 2016, suggests that every receiver on the Steelers will either make Pittsburgh’s 53-man roster or the 53-man roster of another team.
There is some verisimilitude to Ayers’ blithe disregard for the rules of NFL roster construction. While 11 receivers will not make Pittsburgh’s final 53, half of them will. Most of the remaining players have exhibited traits that will prevent them from being summarily dismissed by other teams, and it would hardly be surprising if the majority of Pittsburgh’s receivers latch onto practice squads or active rosters elsewhere.
Let’s try to make some sense of Pittsburgh’s log-jammed grouping of receivers:
Brown is exceptionally talented and knows precisely how exceptionally talented he is. If there is currently a receiver in the NFL who has a legitimate shot at winning league MVP, it’s Brown.
Likelihood Brown makes the team: 100%
Bryant was on a strong trajectory of excellence prior to getting blacklisted for a calendar year for smoking pot. Bryant’s value to the Steelers goes well beyond his tangible contributions, as a sizable portion of Brown’s production in 2014 and 2015 is attributable to Bryant’s presence on the opposite sideline.
With that said, Bryant still has copious hurdles to surmount this summer if he hopes to even take the field in 2017. And the aforementioned point only applies to his bi-weekly drug tests and semi-regular visits to therapy. Bryant hasn’t played football since January of 2016—it is impossible to determine what impact, in any, that absence will have on his abilities.
The bottom line is this: If Bryant successfully navigates his league-imposed “treatment program” and reacquaints himself with Pittsburgh’s offense, he is going to be one of the best no. 2 receivers in the NFL. That remains a pretty big if, but we’ll settle on giving Bryant the benefit of the doubt. For now.
Likelihood Bryant makes the team: 98%.
Rogers caught 48 passes for nearly 600 yards in 2016, which, by virtually all measures, is a pretty decent campaign for a slot receiver in what was essentially his rookie year. Rogers also made arguably the most retrospectively-important—albeit forgettable--play of the 2016 season when he caught a 20-yard dart that Ben Roethlisberger unquestionably overthrew to put the Steelers in scoring range with less than 40 seconds on the clock in their Christmas Day game against Baltimore. The only play we value less was Ladarius Green’s game-clinching reception against Cincinnati, which was ultimately the final catch of his Steelers career.
The third receiver is a vital component of Todd Haley’s weird, West Coast-ish system (Rogers, at various junctures in 2016, became Roethlisberger’s go-to safety valve, for example). Rogers isn’t on Julian Edelman’s footing in terms of ability, but he played well enough in 2016 to entrench himself as the man to beat for the slot position. Rest assured, though, dudes are gunning for that spot.
Likelihood Rogers makes the team: 90%.
Smith-Schuster’s year-one impact remains difficult to appraise. It usually is for rookie receivers. Michael Thomas, New Orleans’ second-round pick from 2016, caught 92 passes for 1,137 yards and nine touchdowns his rookie year and made the Pro Bowl. Laquon Treadwell, a first-round draft choice of the Vikings, caught one pass for 15 yards. This isn’t to say that Thomas is a superstar or that Treadwell is a bust (Thomas played with Drew Brees, after all, while Treadwell was left at Sam Bradford’s mercy), but it does indicate that circumstances play a major role in the impact that a rookie receiver may or may not have.
Point being: Smith-Schuster will probably catch between one and 92 passes and will gain between 15 and 1,137 yards.
Likelihood Smith-Schuster makes the team: 100%
Ayers is training to become a starter. He has stayed late at each of Pittsburgh's OTA sessions to catch passes (250 per session, to be exact), which is exactly the kind of relentless preparation and chip-on-the-shoulder mindset that helped a certain undersized, unheralded teammate of Ayers' become the NFL's most prolific receiver.
Ayers is expected to make a strong run at the punt returner spot, which, obviously, would punch his ticket to the final 53. Brown began his career as a special teamer, too, so Ayers is definitely worth keeping an eye on.
Likelihood Ayers makes the team: 60%
Following the Smith-Schuster selection on draft night, Bryant tweeted that Coates' spot on Pittsburgh's roster was in immediate danger (I'm paraphrasing). It was a relatively terse and borderline curt statement, at best, but it wasn't particularly inaccurate. Coates did emerge as a game-altering vertical threat early in the 2016 season, but he dropped numerous passes even before his hand injury and his route tree did not extend far beyond "run as fast as possible for three seconds and then look up." He has a lot of catching up to do if he wants to make the team.
Likelihood Coates makes the team: 53%
Heyward-Bey is the human equivalent of, say, a 2008 Nissan Altima. This isn’t meant to be an insult. Nissans are nice! Safe! Very, very practical, and highly efficient!
Heyward-Bey’s practicality is going to make him difficult to move on from. He is easily Pittsburgh’s best special teams player (and that is more important than you think) and is still savvy (re: fast) enough to contribute on offense.
Likelihood Heyward-Bey makes the team: 50%
Hunter was signed by Pittsburgh’s as an unofficial insurance policy for Bryant. His size (6-foot-4, 205 pounds), speed (4.4ish-second 40) and deep ball skills (17 yards per catch average for his career) make him comparable to Bryant and Coates. If Bryant falters in his rehab and Coates puts forth an underwhelming showing at camp, Hunter will not only make the team, but also have a sizable role in the offense.
Likelihood Hunter makes the team: 25%
Hamilton had some good moments last season, but it seems like his professional ceiling might be that of a deep role player or rental player. The Steelers have no room for either this season.
Likelihood Hamilton makes the team: 10%
Canaan Severin and Marcus Tucker
Severin and Tucker are very dissimilar in terms of size and skillset (Severin is a modern prototype while Tucker is more Randall Cobb-ish), but both will face the same uphill climb to even be considered for a roster spot. They are both interesting projects, but neither has a particularly strong chance of making the team.
Likelihood Severin or Tucker makes the team: 1%