With the Pittsburgh Steelers losing a sizable portion of their depth chart at the wide receiver position this offseason, it stands to reason that this summer will see some time dedicated toward figuring out how best to formulate their new-look group.
While they retain their top two players from last year in Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool, they have had to seek replacements for JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Washington, and Ray-Ray McCloud, the former being the most complicated for multiple reasons.
Their first step was replacing McCloud, primarily in his return function, with the signing of Gunner Olszewski. They may have found a replacement for Washington in the pick-up of Miles Boykin via waivers. Now they added George Pickens via the second round. But who will actually take over Smith-Schuster’s role in the slot?
Offensive coordinator Matt Canada is open to looking at Claypool for that role, at least as an expansion of his repertoire, whether or not he is actually asked to play 70-plus percent of his snaps on the inside. He was asked after the Pickens selection about the third-year receiver’s ability to line up inside, and he seemed to get a bit excited.
“I believe he does”, the second-year offensive coordinator told reporters. “I think we can do a lot of different things with Chase, and I’m excited about exploring that, when we get into that here through the summer and the next Fall”.
That is a broader answer than just talking about the slot, of course, but somebody has to take those snaps, so it’s quite possible that we do indeed see Claypool take a sizeable portion of his snaps on the inside. At least, we can expect the Steelers to look into that as an option.
Neither Johnson nor Pickens more ideally profile as slot players, and frankly, it’s not Boykin’s game, either. Johnson took well under 10 percent of his snaps in the slot in 2021, even with Smith-Schuster being sidelined for most of the season. Claypool’s slot work was a tad more robust, accounting for between 15-20 percent of his usage. That workload rose after Smith-Schuster’s injury but dipped as McCloud began to take it over.
The 2020 second-round draft pick is coming off of a disappointing follow-up campaign to an exciting rookie season. While not entirely his fault—Ben Roethlisberger really struggled to deliver him catchable balls down the field, which made up a good portion of his targets—he certainly needs a rebound, and he has had some success working in the slot.