Losing two key contributors in the slot in receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster and Ray-Ray McCloud looks like a tall task to replace that production for the Pittsburgh Steelers, at least right away in 2022.
With Smith-Schuster off to Kansas City and McCloud in San Francisco, the Steelers have to search for new, reliable weapons in the slot, much like Smith-Schuster and McCloud were. That was a key focal point in the offseason as the Steelers signed special teams standout Gunner Olszewski and added receivers George Pickens and Calvin Austin III via the 2022 NFL Draft.
Along with the trio of names above, the Steelers are also experimenting with third-year receiver Chase Claypool in the slot, as well as veteran practice squad member Anthony Miller. That wide range of options has Steelers’ head coach Mike Tomlin pleased as the Steelers continue to “cast a big net” in the slot in hopes of finding a solution.
“We’re casting a big net. We feel comfortable with the candidates that we have,” Tomlin said to reporters Thursday following the final day of mandatory minicamp, according to video via Steelers.com. “The reality is that you need all types, particularly in today’s game, for matchup purposes. So, we’re casting a big net. A lot of guys are acclimating themselves to that space and showing that they’re capable.”
The Steelers will definitely need all types of players to replace the toughness and consistency of Smith-Schuster, and the speed and wiggle of McCloud. Claypool has received work in the slot during OTAs and minicamp and had quite a bit of success there when used as a rookie, before rarely seeing the slot in 2021. He’s the type of big-bodied receiver with speed that could give linebackers and safeties fits out of the slot.
Miller brings a ton of experience in the slot as well, having spent time at the position with the Chicago Bears and Houston Texans in his career, before playing in one game with the Steelers last season, recording one catch out of the slot.
Then there’s Pickens and Austin III, both of whom bring slot experience and boundary versatility to the table overall. Though Pickens profiles as more of an outside receiver for the time being, he has the skillset to thrive in the slot, should the Steelers want to see him there overall. Same with Austin, who is going to be a matchup nightmare as a route runner and after the catch guy as well, which fits in nicely in the slot in Matt Canada’s system.
No matter who ends up receiving the majority of the snaps in the slot, the Steelers certainly have options at the position, much more than they had last season at the very least. That’s promising overall for the black and gold.