Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports
Looking at the Steelers young wide receivers heading into the 2020 season.
In 2006, the Pittsburgh Steelers had 4 wide receivers gain 500 yards. That’s the only time it has happened in franchise history. Hines Ward, rookie Santonio Holmes, Nate Washington and Cedrick Wilson all gained 500 yards and combined those 4 receivers missed 3 games.
Other notable #4 wide receivers for the Pittsburgh Steelers include Jerricho Cotchery, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Charles Johnson back in 1995. This season the Steelers look to be talented and deep at wide receiver, possibly the deepest wide receiver group this team has seen in a long time. The question is, will they be solid depth like a Cedric Wilson, talented but inconsistent depth like a Charles Johnson, or will this year be the best 4-deep receiver room the Steelers have ever seen?
JuJu Smith-Schuster stands apart in this receiver group. He is the only receiver to record 750 yards receiving, 60 receptions or more than 5 touchdowns, and he also joins Ryan Switzer as the only receivers with at least 20 receptions on passes from Ben Roethlisberger. While many have taken his poor season in 2019 as proof he isn’t a number one receiver, Smith-Schuster was on track for over 1000 yards on the season when he had 443 yards and 3 touchdowns the first 7 games of 2019. After that point, though, he would play in only 5 more games, producing only 109 yards on 24 targets
Injuries and playing with 3 quarterbacks was the recipe for a disappointing season. In six quarters with Ben Roethlisberger Smith-Schuster thrived, even with 4 of those being a match up with DPOY Stephon Gilmore and the New England Patriots. Through Week 10 of the 2019 season only JuJu Smith-Schuster and Golden Tate had more than 75 receiving yards against the Patriots. And while Ben Roethlisberger ended his season after 6 quarters with a career worst 66.0 quarterback rating, his passer rating throwing to JuJu Smith-Schuster was 102.5.
While it isn’t that hard to find people who believe that the 2019 season was the real JuJu Smith-Schuster, when you look below the surface, the evidence doesn’t support that. JuJu Smith-Schuster has his quarterback leading the offense again, he is the most veteran receiver, and he’s the only one who has already had success with Roethlisberger. I expect the Steelers franchise quarterback to lean more on JuJu Smith-Schuster early in the season, and for Smith-Schuster to lead the team in receiving for the second time in his young career.
The NEW young money crew
While that name isn’t exactly synonymous with success in Pittsburgh, Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders take 3 of the top 4 career marks for receiving yards from the 2009 and 2010 drafts combined. Only Demaryius Thomas has as more yards than Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders, while Antonio Brown leads all players from both draft classes. This new group of young receivers looking to step into the spotlight find themselves in similar situations.
Diontae Johnson has drawn a lot of comparisons to Antonio Brown due to the fact that he has taken over Brown’s position on the field, is similarly built, has a similar style of play and has already gone to the Pro-Bowl as a punt returner, something Antonio Brown did in his second NFL season when he ranked second on the team in receiving yards, as Johnson did in 2019. Diontae Johnson plays the same position as Antonio Brown and his strengths are similar, but he isn’t Antonio Brown. The odds that he will reach the same level of success that Brown reached are astronomical. That doesn’t mean he can’t be a very good, or even great receiver. Putting the expectation on Diontae Johnson of being the best receiver of his generation because he reminds us of Antonio Brown is ludicrously unfair.
Diontae brings elite change of direction, releases off the line and top notch route running to the game, he has good but not great hands, the intelligence to be creative in his route running and elusiveness that serves him well in both punt returns and gaining yards after the catch. He needs to be more consistent catching the ball, especially head level throws, where he drops too many balls, and he needs to improve his ball security a lot. Diontae Johnson’s 5 fumbles were 4 more than any other non-quarterback or center on the Steelers in 2019 excluding punter Jordan Berry, and more than JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Washington have in their careers combined.
James Washington is in an Emmanuel Sanders-esque situation right now. He led the Steelers in receiving in 2019 after a quiet and disappointing rookie season, but when you look at his game logs next to JuJu Smith-Schuster’s, a trend appears. As I said above, JuJu Smith Schuster was on pace for over 1000 yards through week 8 of the 2019 season, while James Washington had 161 yards in that same span, on pace for a 429 yard season. Once Smith-Schuster’s snaps and production dropped off due to injury, James Washington looked like a very different receiver. Washington caught 29 passes for 533 yards and 3 touchdowns in the next 7 games, a 1218 yard, 7 touchdown pace if he did that for a full season. In Week 16 JuJu Smith-Schuster returned, and Washington would catch 5 targets for 41 yards the rest of the season.
James Washington is fantastic on contested catches, and he uses his formidable strength well in blocking, releases, and route running. James Washington has improved steadily in his technique, but it still wasn’t a strong point in 2019. He is at his best against physical man coverage, but he also does well enough finding the soft spots in zone defense. In 2020 Washington faces the challenge to find a way to produce while playing outside of what I believe his optimal role in this offense is. Washington thrived when he slid into JuJu Smith-Schuster’s role on the offense, and has struggled when playing a complimentary role to Smith-Schuster.
While James Washington could have another productive season like he did in 2019, it won’t be too bad of a sign if he struggles. He may just need to be on a team without JuJu Smith-Schuster, like Emmanuel Sanders needed to be on a team without Antonio Brown to take off.
Chase Claypool fills out this trio, looking to replicate the impact that a young Mike Wallace had on the Pittsburgh Steelers offense. The 2009 Steelers offense was an entirely different animal than the 2008 offense, and a huge part of that was the constant threat Mike Wallace posed to defenses under quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. The 2009 season was the best seasons in receiving yards for Santonio Holmes and Heath Miller, while Hines Ward at the age of 33 had his second most productive season ever. The space created when defenses had to back up to take away Ben Roethlisberger’s home run shots to Wallace made life better for every other receiver in that offense.
Chase Claypool has the potential to be that guy, and more. He has speed and size, but his college film also shows a more complete receiver than Mike Wallace, who was challenged by Mike Tomlin to be more than a one-trick pony. Claypool hasn’t been the most consistent player in camp, which should be expected for a rookie in this off season, but he’s also made spectacular plays, and a few of those in season will have corners backing up to account for his speed and safeties cheating toward him and away from everyone else.
Chase Claypool at times sounds like the second coming of Andre Johnson, but he doesn’t need to be that great in 2020 to give the Steelers offense a huge boost. All he needs to do is be a good deep threat and he’ll create space for the rest of the offense to thrive, and with Ben Roethlisberger looking healthy, he’ll do pretty well for himself too.
The top four receivers seem pretty well set, and without multiple injuries there won’t be much in the way of opportunity for other receivers to produce more than a a handful of yards per game. But there are 1 or 2 roster spots to be earned regardless, and six receivers left on the roster.
Ryan Switzer came to the Steelers in a trade when the Steelers needed a punt returner, and he found ways to get on the field and contribute. In 2018 the Steelers didn’t really have a third receiver, rookie James Washington was struggling to get anything going, Justin Hunter proved to be as bad in games as he was good in practice, and Darrius Heyward-Bey at 31 years old wasn’t even a decent depth receiver anymore. Ryan Switzer hit it off with Ben Roethlisberger and ended the season with the third most yards from a wide receiver, despite averaging 15.8 yards per game. Switzer also ran the ball 6 times and returned exactly 30 punts and kickoffs for the season.
His punt returns were solid in 2018, but in 2019 they rarely produced anything more than a fair catch and his kick returns rarely got past the 25 yard line. as a receiver he also struggled, averaging 3.4 yards per reception. He was placed on injured reserve after week 10 and while he would return to the team, he would not make the active roster again.
With his career on the line, Ryan Switzer came into the 2020 training camp with added muscle and resolve and his improvement has been impressive. While he is unlikely to suddenly turn into a highly valuable player, if he can build on his rapport with Ben Roethlisberger and offer more as a receiver than a short completion with little to no yards after the catch, Ryan Switzer will have a place on this roster.
Deon Cain played against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 9 of the 2019 season before being demoted to the practice squad. The Steelers would sign him off the Colts practice squad after their Week 10 loss to the Browns, as JuJu Smith-Schuster went on to miss four games. Cain would take James Washington’s old spot on the field while Washington took over for Smith-Schuster. Cain’s speed outside provided a boost to the offense, and while he wasn’t a major part of the offense, he did catch 5 of his 6 targets for 72 yards, an impressive 12 yards per target in a limited role on a team he had joined mid-season.
The Steelers added a big fast rookie to the roster, so Cain’s speed on the outside isn’t as valuable to the Steelers in 2020. With James Washington and Chase Claypool both vying for snaps and targets in that role, it is unlikely the team would keep a third receiver for that same role on the roster. Deon Cain has not played even a single snap on special teams in the NFL, so it is highly unlikely he earns one of the last spots at the position. It is more likely that the team could put him on the practice squad in case of emergency.
Ray-Ray McCloud was a late addition to the Steelers camp, but reports were good, he returned a kick for a TD in a mock game situation and reports are he has made some impressive catches as well. The Steelers could use a kick returner, but more importantly than that, Ray-Ray McCloud is an experienced NFL gunner. The Steelers returned only one of their three gunners from the 2019 season, CB Justin Layne. Ray-Ray McCloud seems to be the best candidate to take Johnny Holton’s spot on the roster as a depth receiver with speed and a gunner on special teams. In my opinion, that makes him the best choice for a sixth receiver.
Saeed Blackwell has good size and speed, but with the emergence of rookie Chase Claypool, Blackwell seems to be in the same spot as the other speedsters on the bubble of this roster. The only way Blackwell makes this team is if he can win a special teams role, and with no NFL experience and no preseason games, that’s a very hard task.
DeAndre Thompkins went undrafted in 2019, a quick receiver and electrifying punt returner in college he hasn’t shown he has the hands to make it in the NFL. If he can turn that around he could become a lesser version of Diontae Johnson. It is highly unlikely to happen in 2020 though.
Amara Darboh is a physical athletic freak of a wide receiver. Big fast and powerful, he’s a SPARQ champion who isn’t a good wide receiver. His shot at making this team was almost entirely based on his NFL special teams experience and his speed and physicality as a depth receiver. While he was a player I thought had a shot early on in camp, the arrival of Ray-Ray McCloud likely eliminated any chance he had.
The wrap up
The Steelers receiver room has depth and youth, and no small amount of talent, and they have a future Hall of Fame quarterback who looks healthy to throw them the ball. The sky appears to be the limit for this young group, but they will have to live up to their talent on the field. If they do, and Ben Roethlisberger is healthy, the Steelers will be a top offense again.
I’ve said it before, but looking at these four receivers reminds me of the 2010 Green Bay Packers, who beat the Steelers in the Super Bowl in large part because their 4th receiver was a young Jordy Nelson, who was just starting to blossom into the player he would become. If JuJu Smith-Schuster proves 2019 was a fluke, Diontae Johnson continues to grow into a dynamic receiver, James Washington finds a way to produce with Smith-Schuster on the field and Chase Claypool starts living up to the hype by the end of the season, defenses won’t have an easy time matching up with the Steelers.
Some film rooms covering the wide receivers from this offseason.