I was reading Bill Barnwell’s list ranking the offensive skill position players that every team has in the NFL yesterday, and one thing that the veteran analyst noted happened to jump out at me. He wrote of the Pittsburgh Steelers, behind 2018 Pro Bowlers James Conner and JuJu Smith-Schuster, “no team in the league has a bigger drop-off from the top two to the rest of their weapons”.
I scoffed a bit at first, but as I thought more about it—perhaps he’s not wrong. And that’s a bit stunning given that the two aforementioned players only really came into their own in 2018. Smith-Schuster did have a strong rookie campaign, of course, but he was on another level a season ago.
Even the Steelers’ starting tight end is still somewhat of an ambiguity. Vance McDonald, who’s had injury issues every year of his six-year career, set career-highs with 50 receptions for 610 yards and four touchdowns. Those are solid numbers, but nothing that would wow you from the tight end position at this stage.
The rest of the team’s weapons have accomplished very little, or relatively little, in their NFL career, including sixth-year veteran free agent wide receiver Donte Moncrief, whose five-year totals are not significantly more than what Smith-Schuster has done in two.
From James Washington and Eli Rogers to Jaylen Samuels and Xavier Grimble, the Steelers have a lot of players who have to step up and make sure that the potential of this offense keeps up with its expected production.
Admittedly, for a decent while the Pittsburgh offense has relied on the superstars for their weaponry, primarily channeling their success through first-team All-Pros, wide receiver Antonio Brown and running back Le’Veon Bell. Both of them are out of the picture this year, but Smith-Schuster and Conner are sliding into their place, moving up to the top rung on a more permanent basis.
Will the rest of the depth chart similarly slide up and produce to the level of their positioning on the depth chart? Can they get something out of the likes of Diontae Johnson, Benny Snell, Jr., and Zach Gentry?
Can Grimble be a solid number two tight end? Can McDonald stay healthy? Can Washington or Moncrief function as that true number two receiver, or at the least, can they combine their service to produce the equivalent of that role? Can Samuels provide the necessary tools as the number two running back?
These and others are the questions that the offense needs to answer, especially if the worst-case scenario should emerge and one or both of Conner and Smith-Schuster have to miss time. the Steelers have a lot of intriguing potential at the skill positions (Johnson is a particular favorite) but until they turn that potential into production, it means little. Of course, they first must be afforded the chance to prove themselves, which should arrive in 2019.