Pittsburgh Steelers first-year wide receiver Justin Brown was a near constant presence on the field for the team during the first six games of the season. While he served primarily as a blocker, he did catch 12 passes for 94 yards.
He and veteran free agent Darrius Heyward-Bey played so well during the preseason that they forced the Steelers’ hands, and were forced to carry both on the roster, among six total wide receivers, to open the season.
Brown has been inactive for the past two weeks, and Heyward-Bey’s major contribution in that timespan was a baffling fumble after getting up uncontacted following a first down reception, all while the Steelers put up a combined 81 points.
Meanwhile, rookie Martavis Bryant has caught seven passes for 123 yards and three touchdowns—two in the red zone and one on a deep ball—over the past two weeks, averaging 17.6 yards per catch thanks to a 52-yard bomb that had Ben Roethlisberger reminiscing about heaving balls up to Plaxico Burress as a rookie in 2004.
Make no mistake: the rookie receiver is still very raw. He is essentially being weaned as we go along, being fed deep routes one week and end zone fades the next. He is currently a package player, but what a package that has been so far.
The point is, however, as he continues to mature, the simple fact of the matter will be that the Steelers don’t need to carry six wide receivers on the roster any more. And Jarvis Jones will be eligible to return in a few weeks.
James Harrison isn’t getting cut to make room for him. Ross Ventrone may have found himself a home on special teams already, even though that means the Steelers have six safeties in addition to six cornerbacks.
But six wide receivers just isn’t as important anymore now that Bryant has been able to contribute, and that leads me to believe that either Brown or Heyward-Bey could be the one to go to make room for Jones when he gets back.
The obvious choice, perhaps would be Brown, because he would still be eligible for the practice squad, though it’s not a sure thing. The Steelers obviously value his run blocking as well as his ability to play any wide receiver position.
But they also valued Heyward-Bey for his veteran presence, even though his costly fumble nearly allowed the Colts back into the game on Sunday. He can also run block, and contribute on special teams, but he may not be needed there much longer.
Assuming Ventrone sticks on the roster, when Shamarko Thomas gets back, there won’t really be room for Heyward-Bey on special teams. It’s conceivable that both he and Brown find themselves inactive on game day.
After all, the Steelers boast three players in the top 50 in the league in receptions, and only one of them is a wide receiver. The others are running back Le’Veon Bell and tight end Heath Miller, and they are a massive part of the passing offense. That makes luxury wide receivers expendable.