I have been dreading the article on 2021 Wide Receiver prospects because I simply do not have my head wrapped around what the team should look for. It seems like every year I go on record saying they have no need at the position; the team ignores me by picking a WR in or about Round 2; and then the team proves to be right. Which means that I was, errr, uhmm, ehhh… that other thing. So this year I’m going another route. This year I am going to dump the “wants and needs” evaluation on all of you. The grades will follow your instructions on how this year’s WR discounts need to work.
About that word: “Discounts.”
The Big Board grades start by pegging a prospect’s highest value for some hypothetical team where he’d be the perfect fit. I do a huge, and frankly disturbing amount of research each year to nail down a consensus view of that starting point. Then comes the part that makes our Board unique: using input from the community, I discount that “highest perfect-team value” for all the ways that prospect is a less-than-perfect fit for Pittsburgh. That yields the final grade: “highest value for the Steelers.”
Many discounts stem from the team being so stacked at the position that no rookie could claim a reasonable number of snaps in the foreseeable future. Others happen because the prospect’s skill set overlaps someone already on the team. And still more happen because the prospect fits a particular scheme that Pittsburgh does not use, such as a pure 4-3 Defensive End who cannot play OLB, or an Offensive Lineman who can only succeed in a Shanahan-style outside zone attack.
It’s pretty simple in concept. It just requires a good understanding of how our Steelers are going to view things. Which leads me to the point of this article:
- What sort of discount should we place on WR’s in general because the team is stacked at that position?
- What kind of discounts should we place for the particular WR styles and/or roles that a prospect would tend to fit?
Give me those answers, and I will tell you who is out there and when the team is likely to have an interest. Deal? Good.
Let’s start with the current roster.
- JuJu Smith-Schuster (6’1”, 215 lbs.) was drafted in Round 2 of 2017, became an instant rookie sensation, and took over the nominal WR1 role after Antonio Brown departed. Yes, some of the social media stuff drives me nuts. But you know what? He’s the same generation as my kids, so I get it, and when you balance that nonsense against all the positives, he adds up to a really fine Steeler. Charity work off the field, check. Locker room presence, check. Basic human character, [by all accounts] double check. And he is a certified tough guy on the field, who blocks ferociously, makes combat catches over the middle, and is a mismatch against almost everyone from his favorite “big slot” position.
Alas, but Juju is also a 2021 free agent who’s likely to get some big money offers to play elsewhere; offers that Pittsburgh won’t be able to match under the current salary cap crunch. Thus most of us have already got our Terrible Hankies ready to waive as he departs, wishing him a tearful goodbye, and hoping he earns enough to provide a top notch compensatory pick for 2022. Shades of Bud Dupree, Sutton-or-Hilton, etc.
- Eric Ebron (6’4”, 253 lbs.) is officially a Tight End, but we all know that he’s really on the team to be a receiving weapon. He’s a lot like JJSS in many ways; an occasionally dominant player who gets open in the middle of the field, and creates a mismatch against almost every defense. He was advertised as too big for CB’s and smaller Safeties, and too fast and physical for the big Safeties and LB’s. That has turned out to be true. Yes, the drops can drive you mad. I know I’m not the only one whose family ran to see what was wrong when I started cursing at the boob tube. But he (mostly) makes up for those with the occasional circus grab, and with significant RAC yardage.
- James Washington (5’11”, 213 lbs.) was drafted in Round 2 of 2018. He hasn’t shined as much as Juju, but he’s quietly become a dead reliable WR2 for most teams, who’s been pushed to the WR4 only because the Steelers may have the best receiver room in team history. He’s one of those true professionals who is very, very good at everything but great at none. His leaping ability and hands turn 50/50 balls into 70/30’s in his favor, and every year his route running steps up another notch. 2021 is the final year of his rookie deal.
- Diontae Johnson (5’10”, 183 lbs.) is the almost-Round-2 pick from 2019. This is the guy who makes opponents pay if they decide to blitz. He can also beat you deep if the opponent forgets that “quick” doesn’t mean “less than fast.” He isn’t the next AB, but he does play that same style of game. Johnson also showed some admirable football character when he manfully fought through a nasty case of the dropsies in the middle of 2020. It became a mental thing, and he met it face on with more and harder work, emerging at the other end as a better and wiser professional. Great things seem to be looming. He is under contract for two more years.
- Chase Claypool (listed at 6’4”, 238 lbs. but supposedly playing in the high 220’s). The Steelers’ Round 2 pick in last year’s draft has been nothing short of sensational. He is a height/weight/speed phenom who would have been an easy 1st-rounder in any other year, but fell because 2020 offered the best group of WR’s that anyone’s ever seen. It was a classic case of irresistible temptation, and no one in the Burgh is complaining about the result. Claypool has become Pittsburgh’s game breaker; the one who forces teams to respect the deep ball in every situation. Even an average sophomore leap will turn this young man into a bona fide superstar for the next several years.
- Ray Ray McCloud (5’9”, 190 lbs.) is the return specialist who dodges raindrops, and has earned his way onto the offense as a (so far ineffective) gadget guy and occasional slot receiver. He was drafted in 2018 by Buffalo (Round 6), bounced around a bit due to a fumbling problem, and then arrived in Pittsburgh for 2020 with the fumbling issues fixed. How far can he grow? That’s the big question. Please note that he’s bigger than most people think; an inch shorter than Diontae Johnson, but almost pounds heftier. He is a restricted free agent in 2021, and will hit the market fully in 2022.
Thus the 2020 team fielded five (5!) significant weapons at the WR position, plus the gadget guy return man and the RB group. The rules don’t allow you to field six. So the basic point is clear. The Pittsburgh Steelers have an insane amount of young WR talent on the roster, all of whom but Ebron and Juju Smith-Schuster are on their rookie deal. Ebron has a year left, and is relatively affordable at $5.2 Million. Juju will almost certainly move on due to the team’s cap concerns, but that still leaves precious little room for another WR to claim any significant number of snaps.
The only real pattern I can see in the ‘modern Steeler prototype’ is size. The team has been avoiding the true, mini-sized super ball types in that 165-180 lb. range. Beyond that? They seem to focus on whoever is especially good.
The WR Prototypes
All good receivers have multiple talents. Indeed, versatility is a major part of what makes them “good.” The closer a young man gets to one-trick-pony status, the lower his overall grade unless it’s an awwwwfully special trick. That said, most people tend to populate their team with certain archetypes in mind. Pittsburgh’s group has every one covered, and will even if Juju departs. So what will the team tend to look for if they do see a WR bargain worth grabbing? That finger on the scale is what we need to figure out.
Here is my informal summary of the basic categories:
- The Field Stretchers. Look for straight line speed with factors that will help to win combat catches. Length, body control, leaping ability, and good hands are the main ones.
Chase Claypool is Pittsburgh’s ace for this role, but pretty much all of the other receivers can do it in a pinch. James Washington comes closest to a true deep threat, though he wins more deep balls on his combat catch ability rather than getting behind the defense. Diontae Johnson has also proven his chops, by destroying Corners who bit too hard on a double move. And both Juju and Ebron can of course outrun and/or outsize almost every LB and SS.
- The Midfield Dominators. Look for size, physicality, route running, box out ability, great hands, and the ability to earn extra yards after the catch. Blocking is a big bonus.
Juju Smith-Schuster and Eric Ebron excel at this role. James Washington is good but not great at this role. Chase Claypool has also flashed so much midfield talent that projecting an average sophomore leap makes you think he could be as special in this job as he is for stretching the field.
- The Raindrop Dodgers. Look for instant COD ability, RAC ability, and hopefully the ability to beat press coverage. These guys often end up in the slot because that position starts a yard behind the line of scrimmage, which deprives Corners of the chance to jam them when the ball gets snapped. Good release skills let these players move outside as well. AB was an all time master at that.
Diontae Johnson is Pittsburgh’s version of the instantly-open player who makes opponents pay for dialing up a blitz. We hope that Ray Ray will grow into another but he hasn’t got there yet.
- The Possession Receivers. Look for professionalism, route running, and hands.
It’s tough to call this a category because every WR strives to become this guy as the next step up from using his native physical gifts. I list “professionalism” as the first asset because that’s what it really comes down to; doing all the little things well. That said, there are some players who just have a knack for being more than the sum of their physical parts. Juju Smith-Schuster and James Washington are currently the best on the team, with Diontae Johnson closing in fast (other than his drops) and Chase Claypool showing genuine promise. This is where Ray Ray McCloud has failed so far.
- The Hybrid/Gadget Playmakers. Look for an odd combination of running back, wide receiver, and return man who is deadly in open space but also has enough size and contact balance to break tackles as well as avoid them.
A creature of the modern game that may not last, but is the new “hot thing” in NFL offenses. Think Christian McCaffrey, Deebo Samuel, Alvin Kamara, and what we all dreamed about when Anthony McFarland got picked.
It’s almost trite to say that modern offenses are based on finding the mismatch. The Move TE creates a midfield mismatch by being too big for small defenders, and too fast for big ones. The RB/WR Hybrid creates a different type of mismatch by being to shifty for big defenders, and too hard for DB’s to tackle. It will be the next evolution toward positionless football… if it lasts.
Did you notice the role I did not include?
- The WR1.
This term refers to any receiver who can reliably get open in single coverage against all but a superstar Corner, and thus tilts the field by requiring a double team. WR1’s can come from any of the categories described above. Speed, quickness, size, physicality, hands, route running genius, etc. are only the starting point. Pretty much all of them display a unique combination of several. But since the term “WR1” refers to how good you are, rather than your physical prototype, it does not help a lot for people looking at second- and third-tier prospects.
Could the Steelers use another WR1? Of course they could. Everyone can. But no one is a guaranteed WR1, and we need to ask this: how much we want to spend on any bet in that department? Put it this way. Pick #24 rolls around and Kevin Colbert is faced with a choice between a receiver who has Top 10 talent on an all-teams board, versus an Offensive Tackle or a Center that “only” has Top 20 talent? It isn’t quite a tie, but it’s really close and all these grades have a significant margin of error. How heavy a finger do we want him to put on the scale in favor of the OL, for the Steelers, in this particular year?
That’s the Round 1 question in a nutshell. Then we get to the Day 2 and Day 3 versions, and… Help!
Last year’s draft set an impossible standard for WR talent. This year’s group doesn’t reach that level, but it’s awfully good compared to an average year. There are bargains to be had. But they won’t be “bargains” if they are not type of talent that would improve our particular roster. So:
- How big a discount to we put on potential WR1’s who would simply be better than the current roster?
- What types of roles should we focus on more or less when it comes to the next tier of prospects, who will have to start out by supplementing the current roster instead of replacing one of the players?
Many thanks in advance. I eagerly await your thoughts in the comments. We will get to a list of the 2021 prospects in the follow up article, once you’ve given me guidance on what types to discount more than the others, and by how much to ding them all for simply playing a well-stacked position.