One of the biggest questions the Pittsburgh Steelers are looking at on the offensive side of the ball is who their third wide receiver is going to be, working alongside Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant, the latter of whom was immediately put into work with the first-team unit after returning from suspension.
While the Steelers spent the majority of their offensive snaps with three wide receivers on the field, they don’t use as many three-receiver sets as become the norm—at least that proved to be the case last season, which could be an aberration due to injuries and the late-season focus on running the ball.
But with that in mind, I think it would be a worthwhile service to look at the Steelers’ wide receiver group from last season relative to how they performed, specifically, when lining up in the slot in passing situations, because, generally speaking, the third wide receiver is probably going to spend the vast majority of time in that role.
Over the course of the next several days, I am going to review the application for each candidate for the job based on their 2016 performance there where applicable—which will not be the case for rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster for obvious reasons, while at the same time serving the purpose of talking about each player relative to their ability to play in the slot.
Candidate 5: Demarcus Ayers
It’s time to dispel a misperception about Demarcus Ayers, the Steelers’ seventh-round draft pick a year ago—one of their seventh-rounders, anyway. The largely-held belief around him is that he is exclusively a slot receiver at the NFL level, a belief rooted in the fact that he is 5’9” and lacks blazing speed.
But the fact of the matter is that when the Steelers used him on the field last year late in the season, he was almost exclusively used on the outside. In 84 snaps logged during the regular season, he logged four snaps in the slot. Only two of them came on passing plays, one of which was negated by a penalty. He was not targeted from the slot. He did have a touch on an end-around on which he lost 12 yards.
Because there was so little to work from, I wanted to look at the postseason in addition. He logged 22 snaps during the playoffs between the Wildcard and Divisional rounds—he did not dress due to injury in the last game—and just two of those snaps came from the slot. He wasn’t targeted on those, either.
So I wanted to go back even further and revisit his preseason performance. A ha! Here we go. Slot snaps.
Back when he was still wearing 82 instead of 15, Ayers saw 89 snaps during the preseason, and this time 68 of those snaps came out of the slot. That’s more than 76 percent of his snaps.
I have him catching three of five passes for 14 yards, fumbling one of them, by the way.
But the real thing to take away here is that Ayers is neither an outside receiver nor a slot receiver, but rather one who is flexible based on the other personnel. During the regular season and postseason, he spent most of his time with Eli Rogers on the field. In the preseason, he was working with Cobi Hamilton and a mixture of other taller receiver such as Sammie Coates and Issac Blakeney.
Should Ayers make the roster, it’s unlikely that he is going to see much time on the field with Rogers together, given their depth now, so his most likely function on offense may well be to the number-two slot receiver.