In years past, the Pittsburgh Steelers have often had a prototype for a slot receiver, at least from the team’s perspective. Those slot receivers have been guys like Hines Ward and JuJu Smith-Schuster, guys that can make plays after the catch by breaking tackles and moving the chains.
They might not have been the flashiest route runners, the fastest players on the field, or even the smallest and shiftiest like other teams employ, but the players in the mold of Ward and Smith-Schuster performed at a relatively high level out of the slot throughout their careers.
Now, as the Steelers transition into a new era with Ben Roethlisberger under center and Smith-Schuster off to Kansas City to play with Patrick Mahomes, Pittsburgh is searching for a new presence in the slot. Based on how the first day of training camp shook out in Latrobe at Saint Vincent College Wednesday, third-year receiver Chase Claypool received a majority of the snaps in the slot, which is a positive development as he fits the mold.
However, with so many new faces in the receiving room, not to mention a new position coach, versatility is the name of the game for the group of Steelers expected to catch passes in the 2022 season from the likes of Mitch Trubisky, Mason Rudolph and Kenny Pickett.
That was largely apparent Wednesday as rookies George Pickens and Calvin Austin III saw time in the slot and on the boundary, as did veteran Anthony Miller, Claypool, Cody White, and Tyler Vaughns.
“Everybody has versatility in the receiver room. I wouldn’t say we have locked positions,” Austin said to reporters following his first training camp practice Wednesday, according to original reporting from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s Tim Benz. “Coach (Frisman Jackson) just calls us in there and kinda lets us figure out what position we go in. Because all of us know each position and are able to do a million different things even though we have all those different body types.”
Though a million different things is a stretch from Austin, the receiver room in the black and gold appears very versatile, at least on paper. Austin brings a ton of speed and yards-after-catch ability, but he was primarily a boundary receiver in college at Memphis. Now, he’s transitioning into snaps in the slot, which will only lead to him getting onto the field faster in 2022.
Same for George Pickens, who played almost exclusively on the boundary at Georgia, though he received some reps in the slot early in his career, and also worked in the slot throughout practices during the week. Claypool hasn’t played more than a handful of snaps in the slot in the NFL, but with Smith-Schuster and Ray-Ray McCloud gone via free agency, there’s a need for something different in the slot in 2022, and he could provide that.
Having a deep, versatile receiving room for the Steelers will only make things easier for the offensive coaching staff under second-year offensive coordinator Matt Canada and first-year receivers coach Frisman Jackson to mix and match in certain packages and try to scheme up ways to beat defenses based on personnel.
Different body types and skillsets in the slot will make the Steelers’ offense that much harder to defend in 2022 as well, depending who is on the field. That could be one of the biggest developments of the season for the black and gold, which is certainly something to get excited about.