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: Deep Threat Role
In the Mix: James Washington, Chase Claypool, Deon Cain, Saeed Blacknail
I think the fact that the Steelers repeatedly talked about the lack of the presence of a steady deep threat in their offense last season after they drafted Chase Claypool in the second round of the 2020 NFL Draft remains significant, though I do question whether it was the wide receiver position that was the problem.
James Washington, in his second season in 2019, was the Steelers’ primary deep threat, but as we have previously written about, nobody in the NFL last year suffered more errant passes on deep targets than he did, working primarily with Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges over the course of the year.
In other words, it is possible that the ‘deep threat’ problem will be solved simply by having a healthy Ben Roethlisberger back and action, and now on the same page with a young Washington who actually has had the opportunity to gain some confidence in his abilities after leading the team in receiving yards last season.
If he does fail to provide a steady presence as a vertical threat, however, the Steelers have given themselves some options, including the aforementioned Claypool, who is 6’4”, in the ballpark of about 235 pounds, and posted a 4.42 40-yard dash time at the NFL Scouting Combine. Washington, by comparison, ran a 4.54 and is under six feet tall.
Even with the limitations of his being a rookie during a pandemic, it’s not unreasonable to think that he could contribute right away as a go-route runner, something that Mike Wallace did in 2009—and ultimately resulted in Mike Tomlin goading him with the label of ‘one-trick pony’.
If Washington isn’t consistent enough, and Claypool isn’t ready, then there is Deon Cain, who like Claypool is tall (6’2”) and posted a strong 40-time (4.43 seconds). He served on the roster in the final six games last year with some success. And we can’t discount the possibility of an emerging dark horse like Saeed Blacknail, who is also 6’2” and ran a 4.40.