It’s that time of year again. Free agency is creeping up in just a couple of weeks, so before we get there, we’ll get going over the Pittsburgh Steelers’ roster, position by position, making an assessment of what kind of shape they’re in, trying to figure out how they might, or should, attack the roster on that basis.
The Steelers are likely to be subject to more change than they are used to this year, with 19 players scheduled to be unrestricted free agents, including numerous starters. Two other important players have retired, so there is more shuffling of the deck than normal in Pittsburgh.
Position: Wide Receiver
Total Positional Figure: 7
JuJu Smith-Schuster: After something of a bounceback season in which he caught nearly 100 passes with a career-high nine touchdowns, JuJu Smith-Schuster is set to make bank, and will likely do that with another organization, even though he has expressed a desire to stay put. The odds of the Steelers coughing up the bankroll it would take to keep him are unfavorable, to say the least.
Diontae Johnson: Diontae Johnson is at something of a tipping point, wherein it must be determined how well he can mask his deficiencies and heighten his strengths, because we saw a lot of both last season, particularly with dropped passes as far as deficiencies goes. He claims to feel he has it under control, but time will tell. If he can limit his errors, he can be a top receiver in the NFL.
Chase Claypool: Claypool also has the talent to be a number one guy. He’s got all the physical tools you would want in a wide receiver, and certainly has room to grow. Setting some Steelers rookie records in 2020 wasn’t a bad way to start, but he’s not ‘there’ yet, by any means.
James Washington: Washington remains the guy who picks up the scraps, having previously lost playing time to both Johnson and Claypool in the past two years. With Smith-Schuster likely departing, he could slide back into that number three role and be effective as he enters a contract year.
Ray-Ray McCloud: Signed in training camp, McCloud is primarily a return specialist, but he was also used as a gadget player and short-area worker as well. The majority of his 22 targets were thrown at or behind the line of scrimmage.
Anthony Johnson: Originally signed to a futures deal last January, Johnson was waived injured in training camp. Presumably after he got healthy, however, he was signed to the practice squad in a move that corresponded with the release of Amara Darboh, another wide receiver, who was on the practice squad in 2019. He signed a futures deal in January.
Cody White: Originally signed to the practice squad after defensive tackle Daniel McCullers was signed by the Chicago Bears. His name never came up, but he spent all year on the practice squad and was signed to a futures deal in January.
Deon Cain: After spending the last six games of the 2019 season on the Steelers’ 53-man roster and making a few plays, it was thought he would have a good shot at making the team this past season. He didn’t, but he did spend the year on the practice squad, called up but not seeing much action once or twice. Either the Steelers did not offer him a futures deal after the season was over or he figured he could find a better opportunity, signing a futures deal with the Baltimore Ravens.
With Smith-Schuster leaving, wide receiver is back on the draft needs list—is it ever off?—but perhaps, for the first time in a while, at a lower priority. For four years in a row, they have drafted a wide receiver no later than pick 66, and they still have three of them.
They do seriously need depth, however. It’s possible that they pursue a very cheap veteran for depth and then go back in the draft and find somebody in the middle or even late rounds. The draft has become consistently deep at wide receiver over the past decade, and the Steelers obviously have a track record for drafting the position well.
There is the possibility that the Steelers figure out a way to re-sign Smith-Schuster, which would likely take a standard Steelers deal that features a low initial cash flow but a consistent one over the life of the contract, designed to have a low year-one base salary and a modest signing bonus to create a low year-one cap hit that gives them flexibility to adjust in the future with restructures as needed.