The Pittsburgh Steelers have experienced more turnover this offseason than is normal for them, much of it outside of their control between the salary cap and retirements forcing their hands. The offensive line experienced the most change on the roster. But for Pro Football Focus, the biggest training camp battle will be at one of the positions that changed the least, or rather, didn’t change at all.
In a training camp preview for every AFC North team, the site highlights the battle for the number on receiver role as the most significant competition the Steelers will see over the course of the next several weeks. Between JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson, and Chase Claypool, it’s not clear who will demand the ‘number one’ role—or if there even will be one. Ben Linsey writes:
Fewer than 100 receiving yards separated Johnson (923), Claypool (873) and Smith-Schuster (831) during the 2020 regular season. There’s a chance that the production could be similarly evenly distributed in 2021, but an emphasis on the run game this offseason and the additions of Najee Harris and Pat Freiermuth could mean fewer looks to go around.
From a yards-per-route-run perspective, Claypool led the way (2.00) during his rookie season, followed by Johnson (1.76) and Smith-Schuster (1.29). The Steelers moving away from the short, quick passing game that defined their 2020 offense could push more targets toward Claypool next season.
From a pure physical talent perspective, Claypool is the cream of the crop. Not only is he blessed with both height and size, he also has speed. He can make certain plays simply through his natural traits that will not be achievable by others.
Few players in the NFL, however, are as nuanced in their route-running craft as Johnson, and it’s no surprise that he held a clear lead on the roster last year with 144 targets, despite missing a full game and large parts of a couple of others.
Smith-Schuster was second in targets with 128, and he is the only one of the group that has been to a Pro Bowl before. He had not been entirely healthy over the course of the past two seasons, however, and it’s expected that Matt Canada will be better equipped to put him, and others, in positions to succeed.
I do think it’s fair to question whether or not this is the most significant competition for the Steelers, though, given that all will play a lot. After all, there is an honest to goodness competition for the starting center position, and they have to figure out who the fifth defensive back is going to be. All of these guys had 800-plus yards with seven-plus touchdowns in 2020, so they’re not starving for work.