Heading into the 2021 season, there is a lot of speculation as to what new OC Matt Canada’s offense may look like when compared to what the Steelers implemented last season under Randy Fichtner. Last season, Pittsburgh’s offense fell off of the rail to close out a promising 11-0 start, completely abandoning the run game and resorting to a short passing game to get the ball out of Ben Roethlisberger’s hand quick to avoid taking unnecessary punishment. It remains to be seen as if this was done because of Ben’s knee and elbow issues, the lack of ability/commitment to run the football, or a combination of both. Still, it can be safe to assume that Canada’s offense will look different than what was being put out on the field to close out last season.
Now WR Chase Claypool enjoyed a breakout rookie campaign after being the 49th selection in the second round of the 2020 NFL Draft. He gave the Steelers offense something they had been sorely missing since Martavis Bryant was shipped off to the Raiders, a height/weight/speed specimen that can win contested catches and be a physical presence in the red zone. While he is still a work in progress in terms of his ability to consistently stack corners and win vertically, we should be excited as to what Claypool showed in his first season and the room he has to grow going into year two.
I wanted to do a deep dive into what Claypool’s role may look like heading into his second season with Matt Canada at the helm. Immediately upon considering this, I tried to consider good possible comparisons from the college game that Canada had the opportunity to coach. One player stood out quickly: former LSU Tiger and current Jacksonville Jaguars WR D.J. Chark. Canada served as the OC at LSU for Chark’s final season in Baton Rouge. For comparison’s sake, here are D.J. Chark’s measurables and athletic testing numbers compared to Chase Claypool’s at the NFL Combine:
D.J. Chark Combine Measurements: 6’2 7/8”, 199lb, 32 3/8” arm, 9 1/4” hand, 4.34 40, 40” vert, 10’9” broad, 16 reps
Chase Claypool Combine Measurements: 6’4 1/4” 238lb, 32 1/2” arm, 9 7/8” hand, 4.42 40, 40.5” vert, 10’6” broad, 19 reps
Overall, very similar across the board when throwing out overall size and weight. Both receivers are freakishly athletic specimens for the position and have the length, speed, and explosiveness to challenge defenses as deep threats as well as make something happen in open space with the ball in their hands. Here are a couple clips of both Chark in college and Claypool last year being used as prototypical field stretchers to bring in the deep ball by stacking defensive backs down the field.
While being able to stretch defenses vertically, both receivers have displayed the ability to win contested catch situations. Both have great frames to tower over their competition as well as the leaping ability to high point the football and reel in the reception while being draped on by defensive backs as seen below.
While both Claypool and Chark were utilized often as the field stretchers for their respective offenses, both players also made an impact in the short and intermediate passing game as well. Here we see similar examples of Claypool and Chark running short, curl concepts near the LOS to get them ball quickly in an attempt to use their bigger bodies to shield off defenders and get enough yardage for the first down.
We also saw both players be utilized on quick out routes to the sideline, with Chark’s rep coming after being brought in-motion to the far left of the formation. Utilizing Claypool more on pre-snap motion before the snap would be a great tool for the Steelers to get him in advantageous positions against smaller defensive backs or less athletic safeties and linebackers to really capitalize on the skillset he possesses.
While both players may not be considered savvy route runners like your typical slot receiver, both players generate a decent amount of separation with their sheer athleticism to pull away from coverage and use their bodies to get into defensive backs and break away to get a step on the coverage. However, both receivers have demonstrated a good awareness to make key catches along the sideline. Both of the clips below show Chark and Claypool make impressive grabs whilst keeping both feet in bounds along the white with defenders in their face.
Now let’s look at D.J. Chark’s year of production under Matt Canada at LSU in 2017 in comparison to what Claypool was able to accomplish in his rookie season in 2020.
D.J. Chark 2017 Stats: 40 receptions for 874 yards (21.9 YPC) and three touchdowns, 12 rushes for 63 yards and a score in 12 games played
Chase Claypool 2020 Stats: 68 receptions for 873 yards (14.1 YPC) and nine touchdowns, 10 carries for 16 yards and two touchdowns in 16 games played
Claypool averaged nearly a reception more per game and Chark had a greater yards-per-catch average, but the higher YPC for both players along with the usage on the ground suggest both players fill a similar role for an offense as a downfield, combative catch receiver that has the ability to contribute on jet sweeps and reverses. Through three seasons at LSU, Chark was utilized in the ground game a fair amount, racking up 26 total attempts for 271 yards and four touchdowns.
While Claypool didn’t have the yardage in his first season with the Black and Gold, he did prove to be a viable option to hand the ball to, scoring twice and being another key variable that defenses have to account for in the run game. With more pre-snap motion likely coming in Matt Canada’s offense and moving the likes of Najee Harris in and out of the backfield, this should give Claypool the ability to capitalize on something the team experimented with a little last year. Sure, Ray-Ray McCloud figures to factor in as the jet sweep guy but getting the ball in Claypool’s hands with his size and explosiveness in open field would allow Pittsburgh to keep its base personnel on the field and disguise what they are doing before the ball is snapped.
Overall, after watching both players and their utilization, I have to say that I expect Claypool to be used in a similar fashion as he was in 2020, while likely being moved more around the formation on pre-snap motions to get good matchups in coverage and considering the fact that he will be more comfortable in year two with the team. This pre-snap motion should also involve more opportunities to touch the ball on jet sweeps or be used as a decoy in the RPO game should he be the fake and then the ball is handed off to Najee Harris, or he can be the pass option over the middle on a quick slant where he can use his frame to wall off defenders for the easy pitch-and-catch. Regardless, there is no denying that Claypool has immense upside as an athlete who is only improving as a wide receiver. Now it’s up to Canada to utilize this weapon to open up the offense and present matchup problems for opposing defenses attempting to defend all the options now at the Steelers disposal.
I find it funny how Chark and Claypool are also going at a similar spot in fantasy football drafts given the upside, yet hesitancy of a full breakout. Given the addition of Trevor Lawrence in Jacksonville to potentially unlock Chark and the opportunities Claypool should see in this new-look offense, both players have the opportunity to make the leap and can be good mid-round options in your fantasy drafts in a few months.