Remember when we thought that Chase Claypool’s biggest year-one impact was going to be on special teams as a gunner? As many other recent Pittsburgh Steelers rookie wide receivers have done, he has played his way beyond a narrow scope through just four games, and is now an instrumental part of the offense, leading the team in receiving yards and touchdowns.
But don’t for a second mistake that for an indifference toward special teams. This is a guy whom Notre Dame tried to take off of special teams as he was emerging as an important part of their offense over the past two or three seasons, and he told the coach to leave him out there.
Claypool has already logged 46 snaps on special teams so far this season, and is trending toward finishing the year with about 200 snaps played in that area. He has only had nine in each of the past two games, but that has largely been due to the few punts the defense has forced over that time (plus three takeaways). The one area in which he has been asked to do less as he has increased his offensive playing time is on kick coverage.
Earlier today, the rookie was on the Pat McAfee Show to discuss his rookie season following his breakout game in which he eclipsed 100 yards from scrimmage and scored four touchdowns. McAfee’s co-host asked him if he’s gone to his coaches about playing less on special teams.
“I was actually trying to be in the Pro Bowl for special teams”, he said, as I casually note that he has four special teams tackles. “I haven’t had a conversation or anything like that. But in the game, if I do come off a long drive, Coach Smith will show some love and he’ll take me out for a play”.
Claypool saw 10 snaps of kick coverage in the first two games of the season. He has only covered six kicks in the past two, despite the fact that they have had more kickoffs by virtue of scoring more. It’s no coincidence that he has also played more and had longer drives during that time, due to Diontae Johnson’s injuries. His work in the kick return game, however, has been stable.
Still, as he continues to ascend on offense, it wouldn’t be the least bit surprising if they scale back his special teams snaps. Mike Hilton was supposed to be a core special teamer in 2017 in his first year, but that plan changed when it became obvious that he would be their starting nickel back.
It doesn’t help that Johnson suffered an injury on special teams yesterday, a reminder of the dangers of playing key offensive and defensive players in the third phase of the game. But I believe he’ll still be out there, at least for the remainder of this season. Even JuJu Smith-Schuster was their starting kick returner as a rookie.