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 1: Eli Rogers
It would seem logical to me to begin with the incumbent as the starter in the slot from last season, Eli Rogers, who was a former undrafted free agent spending his rookie season on injured reserve before even making it into a preseason game.
It is true that injuries and other factors helped Rogers earn immediate playing time in 2016, but he also earned his snaps within the group that was available, which is why he came away second in just about every receiving statistic on the team behind Antonio Brown.
He is, in many ways, the prototypical slot receiver, and has plenty of room to continue to grow into that role. Coaches and teammates have been talking up the nuances and subtleties in his route-running ability since OTAs in 2015, and he showed it on the field last year as well.
There certainly would be nothing wrong with going through the 2017 season with Rogers as the slot receiver. As I wrote about yesterday, he was productive in that role, averaging 1.8 yards per route run and catching 71 percent of his 45 targets out of the slot with just one drop.
He also had a somewhat surprising number of explosive plays, 11 in total, with all but a couple of them coming on deep targets. 10 of his 16 third-down receptions also moved the chains, although you might like to see that higher.
Obviously, given that Rogers spent two-thirds of his time in the slot, and played 550 snaps on the season, it should go without saying that there wasn’t a ton of room to examine other players. Brown is the only other receiver last season to log 50 or more snaps out of the slot.
That could change this season if the Steelers look to go in other direction, or simply would like to vary things, which the drafting of JuJu Smith-Schuster. Rogers can do many things, but one thing he can’t do is get taller. He is also elusive before the catch, but has work to do in elusiveness after it.