Which Steelers WR Will Be Odd Man Out In 2021?

Chase Claypool camp

Over the course of the offseason, I have done film studies and statistical breakdowns on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ top three receiving options: Diontae Johnson, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and Chase Claypool. In each study, I highlighted each players strengths, weaknesses, and potential outlook for 2021. Now, considering the bevy of offensive talent the Steelers have at their disposal, it is highly unlikely all three players have great seasons from a statistical perspective. The additions of RB Najee Harris and TE Pat Freiermuth along with the utilization of WR James Washington, TE Eric Ebron, and sprinkle in the likes of Anthony McFarland Jr., Ray-Ray McCloud, and even potentially FB Derek Watt, and you get an offense with a lot of weaponry but only one football. Thus, I think it’s safe to say that one of “The Big Three” receivers will underwhelm this season in some form or fashion.

Last season, all three WRs had good statistical seasons, yet all were fairly unspectacular. The reception totals were respectable for the three receivers with JuJu leading the way with 97 catches, Johnson following with 88, and Claypool finishing with 62. However, the yardage totals weren’t anything to gush over with Johnson pacing the group with 923 yards, Claypool following with 873 yards, and JuJu finishing with 831 yards. The poor yards-per-reception numbers likely were tied to Pittsburgh’s “dink and dunk” style passing game that took over for a porous run game halfway through the season, limiting the amount of intermediate and deep completions down the field and settling for short passes near the LOS.

Now, we could put the blame on a variety of factors, whether it be Ben Roethlisberger’s health status with his knee injury or fatigue with his recovering elbow, the offensive system former OC Randy Fichtner implemented, or the lack of success running the football. Either way, the hope is new OC Matt Canada can dial up more deep shots and improve the intermediate passing game to give Roethlisberger easy looks over the middle of the field to improve the overall ADOT in the passing game than it was last year.

Now to the WRs and their respective cases as to why each could see improvement in their performance as well as potential issues for each player to make that leap forward. Starting with Diontae Johnson, who is known for leading the NFL last season with 14 drops on the year. However, the understanding is that drops are not a sticky stat and that Johnson’s career high in drops is an outlier for the average of six drops per season like his rookie year and back in college. So, should Johnson haul in another eight passes to Johnson’s reception total, he would be pushing 96 receptions. You can expect the receptions and targets to likely remain high for Johnson as he plays the coveted Antonio Brown/Santonio Holmes role as the primary X-receiver in most formations, having the route running ability to create separation when facing both man and zone coverages.

In fact, as I mentioned in my Diontae Johnson fantasy football breakdown, Matt Harmon at Reception Perception charted Johnson with a 77.7% success rate against man coverage (95th percentile), 87.8% against zone (96th percentile), and 76.9% against press coverage (86th percentile) in 2020. Therefore, we can figuratively expect Johnson to be targeted heavily in the passing game, have a better catch rate than he did in 2020, and also get open on a consistent basis to make easy completions.

However, there are some cases against Johnson and his potential breakout in 2021. The offense figures to change to some extend under Matt Canada, thus meaning Johnson may not be as hyper-targeted as he was last season. Also, while we can say that Johnson was on-pace for a big 2020 season if we factor out the games he missed due to injury, the fact of the matter is that Johnson did suffer multiple injuries last season as well as in his rookie campaign, bringing the concern of overall durability into play for him to hold up a full 17-game slate.

Chase Claypool is often the favorite breakout candidate for many national media outlets and fantasy football sites, as for good reason. Despite only playing 63% of the offensive snaps in 2020, he still managed to score 11 total TDs during the regular season and served as the team’s go-to deep threat. Claypool also was utilized on WR screen and even on end-around rushing attempts, something that Canada’s offense has utilized in the past and we can see happening again this season.

Canada has come out to say that Claypool should see a big leap in production in 2021, whether that be by playing a higher snap percentage, recording a catch percentage higher that the 58% he had as a rookie, and expanding his route tree and usage past what he was limited to in 2020 by moving around more in the formation. Claypool is a physical freak who has the talent to score on any play, thus a second-year leap wouldn’t shock anyone electing to go with him as a potential breakout.

While this may be the case, there are several key factors working against Claypool and his potential breakout. First, a lot of Claypool’s production came on boom weeks against the Eagles where he scored a ridiculous four touchdowns, the Broncos where he only had three targets but hauled all three including an 84yd TD, and solid performances against the Bengals in Week 10 and Browns in Week 17.

This could improve with higher overall target totals, but Claypool is the best deep threat on the team, and likely will be utilized there more frequently than the other WRs. This can be a problem as Ben Roethlisberger hasn’t been the best deep ball passer for several seasons now, having marginal success completing his pass attempts past 20 yards, let along exploiting the intermediate area of the field. Should Claypool play more snaps, but see his targets remain relatively the same, we could see a relatively similar season from a production standpoint while considering likely regression coming in the touchdown department.

Finally, we get to JuJu Smith-Schuster. As I mentioned on my article highlighting the possibly we may be underestimating Smith-Schuster in 2021, there were a lot of things working against him over the past two seasons since his breakout sophomore campaign. First, knee sprain back in November of 2019 on Week 11 vs the Cleveland Browns caused him to miss four games in 2019 and continued into the 2020 season as he would often be listed on the injury report during the week with a knee with reports surfacing that he had regular drainings of fluid from his knee throughout the season, but still managed to gut it out and play in every game.

Along with this JuJu was relegated to the slot role in the offense and would be the prime check down target for Roethlisberger in the short passing game the offense ran, averaging a measly 5.5 ADOT and 8.6 YPR. In the three years prior, Smith-Schuster averaged 15.8, 12.8, and 13.1 YPR, respectively.

Thus, it could be assumed that with the knee injury coupled with the poor offensive scheme last season, Smith-Schuster was relegated to the role he played, and should his YPR go back to just an average rate of what it had been in the three seasons prior along with finally being over the knee injury, we could see a much more effective and explosive version of JuJu out on the football field in 2021.

While these statements may be true, there are still reasons to doubt a JuJu bounce back season. As is common knowledge at this point, JuJu has made it well-known that he wants to be featured more on the outside of the offense this season, spending less time in the slot so he can have a higher depth of target and make bigger plays down the field.

However, as Alex Kozora has highlighted in his training camp breakdowns, JuJu has played most of his snaps out of the slot thus far in 2021, occasionally motioning outside to the boundary or having Chase Claypool line up inside, but primarily still manning the slot role in the offense which only makes sense given the roles Claypool and Johnson respectively fill on the perimeter. We also have to factor in the possibility of JuJu’s role in the offense potentially decreasing with the likes of Diontae Johnson taking a step forward heading into Year Three and Chase Claypool doing the same heading into Year Two, resulting in less overall targets for JuJu.

Intermediate targets like Najee Harris out of the backfield and the TEs over the middle could also potentially eat into the looks JuJu can expect to see from the slot position as well, putting a cap on his overall target volume.

What are your thoughts on the top three receiving options in Pittsburgh? Who do you think makes the leap forward, and who would you say is the odd man out? What superlatives do you agree with that were presented above, and what points against some of the guys listed above do you think won’t actually occur? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below and thanks again for reading!

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