Training Camp

2022 Training Camp Grades: Wide Receivers

For the rest of the preseason, we’ll give a recap, position-by-position, player-by-player of what I saw during the 2022 Pittsburgh Steelers training camp and preseason games. This list is based off the 16 public camp practices and the preseason games I’ve watched up until this point and is based solely off their performance then and does not necessarily represent my feelings for the players overall or during the regular season.

With that in mind, let’s finish out the skill positions with the wide receivers and their training camp grades.

George Pickens: One of the true summer sensations, Pittsburgh or elsewhere, Pickens dazzled with highlight-reel plays that became routine. Just in the way it became a surprise if Pat Freiermuth ever dropped a pass last summer, it was a shock if Pickens didn’t come down with a jump-ball in spectacular fashion. An unusual body type, Pickens is long and lean but fluid and seemingly glides as he runs with little effort. He burned Ahkello Witherspoon deep down the right sideline during a 1v1 rep and it didn’t feel like Pickens was even trying. He’s a long-strider that eats up grass in a hurry and makes everything look effortless.

He turned 50/50 throws into 80/20 wins in his favor. At no point was he more dominant than back-to-back catches in a two-minute drill on August 10th – a 37 yard catch deep down the left sideline followed by a one-handed touchdown on a fade working over Levi Wallace to finish things off. Pickens picked on everyone this summer though Ahkello Witherspoon and Cam Sutton had their moments too, especially Sutton early on in camp.

New WRs Coach Frisman Jackson is rededicating this room to becoming better blockers, consistently repping it throughout camp, even putting Pickens and the rest of the group on the blocking sled one day. Pickens is an asset there with an attacking mindset, especially against unsuspecting corners. It feels like there’s been a “George Pickens effect” with guys like Diontae Johnson scrapping in last week’s game. Statistically, Pickens led training camp in targets (40), yards (277) and touchdowns (seven), the latter showing the seven shots weapon he was. He was a bit quieter in game action but made an excellent toe-drag swag touchdown grab from 26 yards out in the opener against Seattle.

Perhaps he faded a bit at the end of camp and was pretty quiet in the second preseason game against Jacksonville. There’s flaws in his game that get masked by all the highlight-reel stuff. He needs to create more separation on his intermediate routes, needs to be a more technical route runner and getting the correct depth (something Coach Jackson was on him about throughout the summer) and his release package could use work, too. He’s still a bit raw around the edges, expected for a 21 year old underclassman who barely played last season. But Pickens has certainly played well enough to be the #3 WR and work in 11 personnel, possibly even rotating in two-receiver sets with Chase Claypool. Pickens has all the talent in the world and with some refinement, he has the makings of a star.

Camp Grade: A

Gunner Olszewski: George Pickens gained the headline for his jump-ball fades, Calvin Austin gained it for his speed, Diontae Johnson for his contract. All along, Olszewski kept on chugging along. He’s like a duck. Quiet on top, feet flapping like crazy under the water. Olszewski suited up for every practice and was more consistent than any receiver in camp. By the end of the summer, he caught fire, a Texas boy thriving in the hot Latrobe sun. No Steelers’ receiver had more catches (14), targets (19), or yards (162) than Olszewski did over the final four practices and he generated a great connection with Kenny Pickett.

Olszewski’s route tree feels a bit limited, sitting down against zone and overs/crossers to beat man but he’s a fairly refined route runner for a guy who played DB in college with good hands. The dude is tough and can take a hit, getting blown up on a RPO slant and hanging out during camp. He’s a more-than-willing blocker who runs his feet and is willing to mix it up, even if his effectiveness is hit-and-miss.

He finished camp catching 73.7% of his passes on 38 total targets, the second-highest catch rate of any wide receiver with 15+ targets. While he has only gotten limited work in the preseason, he’s set to be the team’s starting kick and punt returner, though he curiously hasn’t been used in the punt game yet. Maybe he’ll get work there in the finale. In all, a solid camp for Olszewski who may see rotational slot snaps if Austin isn’t dressed in Week One.

Camp Grade: A-

Tyler Vaughns: Vaughns is just a football player. He isn’t especially quick or shifty. He definitely doesn’t have great long speed. There is no standout trait. But this dude knows how to run routes and break tackles. He’s quick and sells his routes well to create separation at the break point. He’s quick to the tuck, getting upfield and gaining YAC. Vaughns’ camp got off to a nice start, catching three touchdowns over his first four practices. Things got quiet in the middle until the preseason game, catching the game-winning TD pass in the opening win against Seattle. He followed that up by being a key cog in the game-winning drive to beat Jacksonville, catching multiple passes on Mason Rudolph’s final drive.

Vaughns ended camp on a high note too, grabbing ten passes for 112 yards and two scores over the final two practices. So he started well and ended well, the marks of a good camp overall. He did have one especially ugly practice, dropping three passes in one day, two of them flat-out drops, but he bounced back from that. Vaughns is a savvy route runner who is technically sound and maximizes his skillset. He’s earned a practice squad spot and if he had more special teams value or better athleticism, would make a play for the 53.

Camp Grade: B+

Miles Boykin: Boykin had a quiet start to training camp and initially, there was a thought Anthony Miller could beat him out for a roster spot. Boykin had one particularly tough practice early on, struggling to finish plays on go-routes. Truthfully, he didn’t make as many plays downfield as his profile suggests. But his overall play improved. His size helps box cornerbacks out and he found a rhythm later in camp, expected for a guy who is in his first year with the team. Boykin was a touchdown machine, second on the team with six only behind Pickens, and his 19 total receptions ranked fifth on the team.

As expected, Boykin gave quality reps on special teams and is a strong gunner. He stays clean about vices/double-jammers and uses his hands well. Being a receiver and working off jams translates to the gunner/jammer relationship and Boykin has a good array of swipes and rips to get off the line. I expect him to be a starting gunner Week One opposite CB James Pierre.

Camp Grade: B+

Diontae Johnson: The big news from Johnson this summer was his new contract, a team-friendly extension but deal that gets Johnson back on the market sooner than other receivers who secured the bag this summer. The deal got done sooner than expected and allowed Johnson to return in the middle of camp, though he missed a couple of days with a hip flexor injury. His camp was about the same as last season, looking shifty and explosive. He wasn’t used vertically as much as I might’ve guessed, he averaged under 11 yards and benefitted from one long catch, but again, his reps were limited. On 18 targets, he didn’t drop a pass and even going through drills, his hands looked great. He’ll have to avoid fading a bit down the stretch like last season, getting paid has probably cleared his head (I’m convinced his struggles last year had something to do with his initial Pro Bowl snub that cost him about $1 million) but his camp was headlined for all the right seasons.

Camp Grade: B

Calvin Austin III: The other rookie wideout, Austin flashed that 4.32 through the first half of camp. He had one of the summer’s top plays, a 76-yard touchdown burning reserve CB Linden Stephens for the long touchdown. Austin did most of his damage deep downfield or at/behind the line of scrimmage, getting involved in the jet/pop pass game and showing quickness. He carried the ball four times for 21 yards and had a couple other pop passes, jet runs but with a forward pass that would create an incompletion, not a fumble, if the ball wasn’t cleanly secured, that generally went for good yardage.

He averaged a team-high 13.7 yards per reception and was rolling right along during the first two weeks. Unfortunately, he suffered a foot injury right before the preseason opener and hasn’t practiced since. It’s unclear when he’ll return and he missed the back-half of camp and both preseason games while being in danger of missing the finale. That puts him behind the fast moving train and when he gets healthy, he may begin the season inactive.

After playing primarily as an outside receiver at Memphis, he worked largely in the slot this summer, a different body type and style than Chase Claypool or JuJu Smith-Schuster. He needs to make more an impact in the middle of the field and his catch radius is small, leading to drops and passes that clang off his hands, dropping two passes and missing a couple other opportunities due to his frame. The early returns showed promise but the injury is derailing him. You don’t want a fast guy to hurt his foot. It could set back his rookie season but we saw enough to have some hope whenever he hits the field.

Camp Grade: B

Steven Sims: A small and shifty receiver, most think he’s a slot receiver. Generally, he’s not. Sims saw most of his time on the outside as the “X” receiver with a good release package and ability to get off press. He’s dangerous in open grass with impressive one-cut ability and made an impact on jet runs in the preseason, a good fit for what Matt Canada is looking for. Small, quick guys who can get the edge and make someone miss. In the preseason, he dazzled with a 38-yard punt return against Seattle. Sims finished camp on a high note and has a good chance to make the practice squad as a backup return man to Olszewski. If Olszewski wasn’t around, Sims might have a better chance to make the 53. His biggest flaw are suspect hands. He drops too many that hit him in the hands.

Camp Grade: B

Chase Claypool: Unfortunately, Claypool missed the middle of training camp with a right shoulder injury. He returned but quickly went out of the lineup again, either re-injuring himself or dealing with something else. His overall camp stats were light and he went quiet during stretches of practice, finishing the summer with nine catches for 104 yards.

Where he lined up was the most interesting part of it all, seeing a large number of snaps in the slot. In 11 personnel, Claypool ran in the slot with Diontae Johnson the X and George Pickens the Z.  Pittsburgh’s trying to join the “big slot” wave of Cooper Kupp and Chris Godwin and Claypool’s height/weight/speed is a serious matchup problem against smaller slot corners. Claypool’s been effective on slot fades/chop routes, making plays in camp and during preseason action, winning a jump ball for an explosive play Saturday against Jacksonville. Pittsburgh’s run more crack/toss plays this summer and Claypool’s size could help knock off linebackers or the occasional defensive end so long as Claypool shows more effort than a year ago.

It’s early but Claypool seems more mature and measured after taking sophomore lumps.

I didn’t get to learn about his game as much as I would’ve liked. But he could be a downfield weapon aligned inside. So long as he’s healthy, Claypool should have a much steadier third season in the league.

Camp Grade: B-

Tyler Snead: I gotta admit I thought there’d be a “Tyler Snead Day” on Twitter after a camp practice. An undrafted rookie who made the team as a tryout player, his camp was fine but nothing all that exciting. He did gain a bit of buzz after Saturday’s preseason win, catching the game-winning TD from one-yard out. He played almost exclusively in the slot and averaged a very slot-like 7.4 yards per reception. He flashed with one nice diving catching over the middle, reaching above his head to make a nifty snag, and there’s some quickness in his game. His catch rate is a bit lower than I’d like, 62%, and there’s nothing all-that memorable about his game. While he was a successful kick returner in college, he’s yet to get a chance inside a stadium through two games. Too many guys ahead of him, too few kick returns. I doubt he makes the practice squad but he could hang around on the tryout circuit this year. Maybe comes back if injuries strike.

Camp Grade: C+

Christian Blake: Blake was signed to replace the injured McKinley. Expectations were low but Blake’s NFL experience, he has 26 career receptions, helped him look more comfortable as a mid-camp add. He had size and decent burst, catching a respectable 12 passes at a 70.6% clip. But his path to staying on the team in any capacity was small and he was part of the roster cutdowns from 85 to 80.

Camp Grade: C+

Cody White: With Diontae Johnson out, White began the summer running with the 1’s. By the end of camp, he quietly fell to the back of the pack, first losing out to Anthony Miller and then George Pickens. But he was healthy, available, and worked all camp, leading him to put up volume camp numbers: 18 receptions on 32 targets for 205 yards and four touchdowns. A lot of it came along the sidelines, ten-yard out routes and comebacks. White has good hands and made one of the best plays of camp, an amazing one-handed snag reaching back behind his body for an 18-yard TD from Mason Rudolph.

But beyond good hands and versatility, he can play any spot in the lineup, he lacks many defining traits. He’s stiff, doesn’t create much separation, and doesn’t have any sort of long speed. At best, he’ll be a receiver on the back-end of the roster, offering a bit on special teams but he’s not a core guy or a particularly good gunner. His size helps him as a blocker on the kick return team but he’s a jack-of-all-trades that’s difficult to get all that excited about. White works hard and showed effort as a blocker but he’s the Kevin Rader or the receiver room, a AAAA player who will forever battle for a practice squad spot. He’s a new-age Walter Young, able to hang around until he gets passed up by younger and better talent.

Camp Grade: C

Anthony Miller: Miller’s camp got off to a well-enough start. He’s rocked up and looks the part and played in the slot and the outside. He looked good the first week before the pads came on with some good run-after ability. But he faded a bit when the pads came on and wasn’t an efficient receiver, catching just 48% of his targets. Drops happen but he had an ugly one on a hot route that cost him a big gainer. Things went from middling to worse when he suffered a serious right shoulder injury that ended his season. He came back at practice in street clothes and his right arm in a black shoulder immobilizer. He’ll spend the year on IR and try to get healthy for 2023.

Camp Grade: C-

Javon McKinley: McKinley was added as training camp depth when injuries hit the group pretty hard. His time with the team was very quiet and his lone notable play, a nice spinning 21-yard catch from Kenny Pickett, ended in pain. McKinley injured his shoulder on the play, was waived, landed on injured reserve, and recently released with an injury settlement. He finished camp with two catches on three targets for 32 yards. You’ve probably already forgotten he was on the team.

Camp Grade: D+

Previous Camp Grades

Quarterback Grades
Running Back Grades
Tight End Grades

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