Leading into the offseason, even before the reinstatement of Martavis Bryant, the Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver training camp battle was going to be something to watch. Throw Bryant into the mix, and now there is a genuine fight over just a couple roster spots.
Antonio Brown, Bryant, Eli Rogers and JuJu Smith-Schuster make up the “locks” on the wide receiver depth chart, and with only two other roster spots likely still available, there is a slew of other receivers hoping to have an NFL home for the 2017 season.
Two of those receivers would be Darrius Heyward-Bey and Justin Hunter. In fact, there is a strong chance this battle will go down to the final week of the preseason, and although other receivers like Sammie Coates and Demarcus Ayers are also vying for a spot, it is likely Hunter and Heyward-Bey will have to go through one another to make the team.
To get a feel for how the fan base was thinking this battle would shake out, I went to our Twitter page and asked fans in a poll (follow us on Twitter @btsteelcurtain). Here is what they came up with:
Who would you rather see make the #Steelers 53-man roster?— BTSC Steelers (@btsteelcurtain) August 22, 2017
At the moment of this article being written, Justin Hunter was edging out Heyward-Bey with a 59-percent to 41-percent margin. And to those fans who voted for Hunter, I stand in your corner.
This isn’t personal. I like Heyward-Bey and think he has had a huge role in the development of the young receivers who have been in that meeting room during his time with the Steelers, but at some point every player reaches the end of the road.
When this debate typically is initiated, most fans point to Heyward-Bey’s willingness to play special teams. He did perform “gunner” duties for the Steelers the past two seasons, registering 5 tackles in 2015, zero in 2016. Heyward-Bey does still have speed, but nothing which Hunter can’t emulate.
Would Hunter play special teams? If he wants to be employed by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2017 he will.
What about offensive production? Let’s put Ben Roethlisberger’s glowing endorsement of Hunter to the side and focus on actual production. In 2015, Heyward-Bey 21 receptions for 314 yards (15.0 yards per reception) and 2 touchdowns. In 2016, he tallied 6 catches for 114 yards (19.0 yards per reception) and still 2 touchdowns.
Now look at Hunter’s production last year with the Buffalo Bills, let me remind you Roethlisberger wasn’t throwing the passes to Hunter in Buffalo. Hunter had 10 receptions for 184 yards (18.4 yards per reception) and 4 touchdowns. Don’t think Hunter could match Heyward-Bey’s production in the Steelers’ offense? Think again.
Something which many don’t think matters, but it really does, are finances. Justin Hunter is due $695,000 in 2017, while Heyward-Bey would count $1,333,333 towards the salary cap.
Plain and simple, Justin Hunter is capable of being a younger, and probably more dynamic, Heyward-Bey type of receiver, and, from all reports from training camp, Hunter has a pretty high ceiling.
While Heyward-Bey should be applauded for what he did in Pittsburgh as a leader and player, Hunter just seems like the better option for the team moving forward. Who else makes the team at the wide receiver position? Check out my depth chart below:
1. Antonio Brown
2. Martavis Bryant
3. Eli Rogers
4. JuJu Smith-Schuster
5. Sammie Coates
6. Justin Hunter