The offseason is inevitably a period of projection and speculation, which makes it the ideal time to ponder the hypotheticals that the Pittsburgh Steelers will face over the course of the next year, whether it is addressing free agency, the draft, performance on the field, or some more ephemeral topic.
That is what I will look to address in our Buy or Sell series. In each installment, I will introduce a topic statement and weigh some of the arguments for either buying it (meaning that you agree with it or expect it to be true) or selling it (meaning you disagree with it or expect it to be false).
The range of topics will be intentionally wide, from the general to the specific, from the immediate to that in the far future. And as we all tend to have an opinion on just about everything, I invite you to share your own each morning on the topic statement of the day.
Topic Statement: JuJu Smith-Schuster will continue to see the majority of his snaps in the slot in 2020.
Explanation: For the bulk of his NFL career so far, Smith-Schuster has been the Steelers’ primary slot receiver. The Steelers keep drafting players who are more outside guys, so he actually saw a career-high 58 percent of his snaps in the slot last season.
James Washington is an outside guy. Diontae Johnson is an outside guy. Chase Claypool is an outside guy. Even Deon Cain is an outside guy. In any combination of three of these players with Smith-Schuster, JuJu is going to be the one who lines up in the slot the overwhelming majority of the time. It’s simply the alignment at which the Steelers are at their best, due to the makeup of their wide receiver room.
That doesn’t mean Smith-Schuster can’t or won’t play outside. Any one- or two-receiver set for which he’s on the field, obviously, will result in him being on the outside. And they do move guys around here and there. But it’s already been established for three years that he is their slot receiver. That’s not going to suddenly change. Washington played about 25 percent of his snaps in the slot, but that’s biased from the four games Smith-Schuster missed due to injury.
With each year of experience, the younger wide receivers will gain more comfort in being able to play multiple positions. Washington may have been ‘forced’ into more slot snaps last year, but he got them nonetheless, and it will make him more prepared to play there this year.
Johnson is a primarily outside player, but he has the skillset to play inside. Claypool has a different skillset, but also one that can work inside.
And lest we forget, the Steelers will be using more two-tight end sets this year with Vance McDonald and Eric Ebron, so that’s more two-receiver sets. On top of that, Ebron will see a lot of work out of the slot even in 11 personnel. It’s quite possible that nobody in 2020 sees more than 50 percent of their snaps aligned in the slot because it will be done by a platoon.