With our series breaking down each position on the roster completed, it’s time to turn our focus on what is going on within each position, and on the roster as a whole. Over the course of the next few weeks, we will be taking a closer look at some of the roster battles that we expect to see unfold over the course of training camp as the Pittsburgh Steelers prepare for the start of the 2020 season.
This is not a conventional offseason, of course, for obvious reasons, which is likely to play a role in many of these battles, some in ways that we might not foresee. Generally speaking, it should favor players who have greater experience, but there’s a reason these questions are left unanswered until we get on the field.
Position: Wide Receiver
Up for Grabs: Number 2 Player (Second-Most Snaps)
In the Mix: James Washington, Diontae Johnson
Unless something radically changes, we know that JuJu Smith-Schuster is going to be the Steelers’ number one receiver this year, in the sense that he is the wide receiver who is always going to be on the field, at least when he is healthy.
Who will the next wide receiver be? While the Steelers’ base offense consists of three wide receivers, meaning that both Washington and Johnson will be logging plenty of snaps, there will be times for two-receiver sets.
On the one hand, Washington is more experienced and a better blocker, which makes him more valuable on running plays. He is also more of a deep threat than is Johnson, so you lose that if you take him off the field.
On the other hand, Johnson is clearly the better route runner, and while he might not have better, more reliable hands, he is going to get open and make himself available with greater frequency. Getting open is the best way to get on the field.
One thing to consider is the potential for the expansion of the two-tight end set as a significant part of the offense. If Eric Ebron and Vance McDonald are both on the field together, how does that affect Washington and Johnson? Who benefits more in terms of playing time? Tight ends are usually more possession receivers, so that could reduce Johnson’s value.
But at the end of the day, it comes down to putting your best players on the field, and you can definitely make the case that Johnson was already the better wide receiver between the two last season. And remember, he also played through injury, as a rookie, in a season in which he wasn’t supposed to be a significant contributor.
Ultimately, playing time will be determined on the field. It starts in training camp, but it will evolve over the course of the season as well, or at least reveal itself and become clearer.