When it comes to enigmas, no one on the current Steelers’ roster seems to fit that term more closely than wide receiver Chase Claypool. A bona fide size/speed specimen at 6-foot-4 and 238 pounds, Claypool is well known for being the only receiver other than Hall Of Famer Calvin “Megatron” Johnson bigger than 6-foot-4 and 235 pounds to run the 40 in 4.45 or less, as he did in 4.42.
After being the team’s second-round pick in the 2020 draft, Claypool’s rookie season was full of splash plays, highlighted by a 110-yard, four-touchdown outburst versus the Eagles. He finished his rookie season with 62 grabs for 873 yards and 11 touchdowns, including two on the ground. The sky seemed to be the limit heading into 2021, so what went wrong?
Well, according to the numbers, his yardage totals last season were almost identical to the ones he posted in his first season, as he rung up 860 yards receiving. However, his touchdown numbers fell off a cliff, as he only posted two scores. He only missed one game, and his snaps increased by over 130 from his first year. His rushing totals went up, as he was incorporated more into the ground game on jet sweeps, as he carried the ball 14 times for 96 yards and a gaudy 6.9 YPC average, a number OC Matt Canada likely has circled in his mind for the upcoming season.
His best game last year was against Denver when he went for 130 yards and a TD, the lone game all season where he crossed the century mark. So with comparable numbers to his rookie season, what exactly went wrong the rest of the 2021?
A lot of the issues can be summed up with the regression of QB Ben Roethlisberger’s arm, who didn’t put anywhere near as much zip on his passes that he did in his earlier years. There was a big fall-off for Claypool last year on the type of throws from #7 that led him up the field, and it’s fair to wonder if it was a mental hurdle for Roethlisberger and he knew his physical limitations, because these passes existed in 2020.
When he has to adjust to balls that are poorly thrown, which was a lot in 2021, it takes a lot away from makes Claypool so great. Another thing to examine when looking at him is how he often struggles to stay on his feet when making the acrobatic, contested-type catches, which he often snags out of the air with his skyscraping frame, but then can’t complete the catch when going to the ground. With his near 240-pound frame, he should be routinely bullying corners who are often three or four inches shorter than him, and 30-40 pounds lighter.
Moving forward into the ’22-23 season, one thing I personally think should be at the top of his improvement list is winning more of those 50/50 balls. Also he needs to add more consistency to his game, as he tends to disappear from the offense for long stretches. His run after the catch ability is undeniable, as he has the top flight speed to pull away from most defenders. However, he needs to start making the rubber meet the road when it comes to his vast potential. He doesn’t appear to be exactly that blaze down the sideline type of Z receiver we’ve come to see the past several seasons in Pittsburgh, be it Mike Wallace or a Martavis Bryant.
The team added what they think will be that player in this year’s draft with George Pickens, and fellow fourth-rounder Calvin Austin III should get some looks to stretch the field as well with his 4.32 speed. This might open up some space underneath for a guy like Claypool to operate more freely, as he seems to be better-suited to perhaps a move-type role. I’ve even seen some rumblings of people asking whether he should be played in that capacity at tight end, much like Darren Waller, considering his size and speed.
In OTA’s, Claypool reportedly spent a good chunk of snaps in the slot, a spot he was familiar with from last season, as he was put there to help offset the loss of JuJu Smith-Schuster missing time due to injury. It meshes well with his repertoire, as he can work the middle of the field and not constantly be asked to run go-routes. Unless he has cleaned up his ball-tracking skills, which thus far, has been a mixed bag.
There exists a belief that NFL wide receivers sometimes don’t come into their own until year three. This held true for Hall Of Famer Terrell Owens, who in year three exploded for 1,097 yards and 14 touchdowns. The Steelers’ very own Diontae Johnson just eclipsed the 1,000-yard barrier for the first time this past season, his third year in the league. With a talent like Claypool, the sky truly is the limit for him, as there’s not a long list of players in the league who are his size and move at the rate of speed which he’s capable. After all, they didn’t give him the nickname “Mapletron” for no reason, again connecting him with his size/speed counterpart, Calvin Johnson. If Claypool has finally turned the light on this offseason entering year three, I see no reason why he can’t cross the 1,000-yard barrier and rack up eight to ten touchdowns, regardless if it’s Mitch Trubisky or Kenny Pickett at QB. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.