The Pittsburgh Steelers just agreed to send All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown to the Oakland Raiders. That leaves a major hole in their starting lineup, and in their depth chart, at the position that they are going to have to use the next couple of months to fill.
There is no replacing an Antonio Brown, a player who will end up in the Hall of Fame one day—perhaps five years after he retires—so that is not even a part of the conversation. While they still have JuJu Smith-Schuster, they will now have to find out how JuJu sans AB is, and if that will be enough.
It will be a tall task, but the Steelers still have talent to work with, and can make greater use of the tight end and running back positions as well in order to help compensate for Brown’s absence. Here is where the wide receiver position currently stands without him as part of the picture.
JuJu Smith-Schuster: Still just 22 years old, Smith-Schuster has already become somewhat of a top wide receiver in his own right, though he certainly has a lot of room to grow. He is capable of playing both inside and outside and is a more dynamic player in terms of the variety and distance of his routes than he is given credit for. He can make things happen on his own and is good when the play breaks down. But he can clean up his hands. His number of drops is not bad, but he doesn’t always field the ball cleanly, which is an issue in finishing plays and allowing defenders to get home to break up the pass. His biggest task will be working on his ability to win at the line of scrimmage when lined up on the outside. They definitely need him to find the end zone more.
James Washington: Coming into his second year, Washington’s rookie season was very disappointing, but at the very least finished on an upward trajectory. He actually logged quite a lot of snaps considering his production—525 snaps for 217 yards and one touchdown. One of his biggest issues was working with Ben Roethlisberger. They were not on the same page a lot of the time, and he seemed to struggle with his assignments at times, not being where Roethlisberger thought he would be, or not finishing the route or running it cleanly. He does seem to have the right attitude and a humble approach. He was able to make a couple of plays as the season wore on, but they certainly can’t waltz into 2019 banking on him being their number two.
Ryan Switzer: The only other wide receiver from 2018’s roster that is definitely under contract for 2019. A late trade brought him here shortly before the start of the season but it wasn’t long before Roethlisberger took a liking to him. He was averaging about 25-30 snaps per game toward the end of the year and starting to make plays. They can use him in a variety of ways with his short-area quickness, and I expect he will earn to ‘feel’ Roethlisberger in the post-play scramble drills. Obviously a slot option.
Eli Rogers: There is some discrepancy over whether or not Rogers’ contract will toll, but even if it doesn’t they have to re-sign him, and that shouldn’t be any issue. He only came back from a torn ACL late in the year but showed nuance in his routes and comfort with Roethlisberger that will be needed in 2019.
‘The rest’ of the group is either not going to be under contract or is otherwise a longshot. Darrius Heyward-Bey, even in this group, will not be much of a contributor on offense if he is re-signed. The Steelers have carried Justin Hunter for two years now and seem to like him. He could be brought back, but could still manage to be a gameday inactive more often than not.
There are four futures wide receivers in the group as well, including Tevin Jones and Trey Griffey, the two who were in camp and on the practice squad last year. Both bigger receivers with limited college production, each had one ‘breakout’ game in the preseason.
There is also Ka’Raun White and Diontae Spencer, the latter of whom would be a return specialist at a speedy 5’8”, 163. White, a Pennsylvania native, has decent size as a 2018 college free agent who spent time with Seattle and Cincinnati last year in the offseason. Comes from a football family, his brothers being Kevin White and Kyzir White.
This is not enough to lead a team to the Super Bowl if they don’t have the defense to help get them there. The Steelers have cap space and 10 draft picks, with which they figure to add at least two wide receivers, including an early-round pick, to try to fill the Antonio Brown-sized hole that is left in the room.