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Wide Receiver ‘Hierarchy’ Named Steelers Position Battle To Watch

There’s plenty to watch for in Sunday’s preseason game against the Detroit Lions, one last lap around the track before the Pittsburgh Steelers march towards the regular season. Earlier today, CBS’ Chris Towers previewed the top battles to watch in each preseason finale. For the Steelers, it’s their wide receiver battle. He approached things from a fantasy football lens but it can still apply to a more general football discussion. Towers writes:

George Pickens has been the talk of preseason and training camp in Pittsburgh, and it seems like he’s already locked up a starting job for the Steelers. In fact, he might have already pushed Chase Claypool off the field in two-WR sets, as Claypool played 13 of his 14 snaps in the second preseason game from the slot. I actually think Claypool could be really interesting as a big slot receiver, but if he’s going to be on the field less than Pickens and Diontae Johnson, I think he might deserve to be drafted third of them.”

The Steelers’ top three receivers are well-established: Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool, and George Pickens. How those three are deployed is the more interesting and relevant conversation. It wasn’t often all three were on the field during training camp, but in 11 personnel at the end of camp, Johnson was the X, Pickens the X, and Claypool the F/slot receiver. That’s likely to be the configuration for the majority of snaps during the season, though some rotation is predictable.

The more interesting question gets to the heart of what Towers is writing. What happens in two-receiver sets like 12 and 21 personnel? Which receiver comes off the field? That’s a little less clear. Based on how things looked in camp, Claypool had the slight edge, but there was a rotation between Claypool and Pickens. Pickens is a capable and willing blocker, and his impact has already been felt inside stadiums.

In last Saturday’s preseason win against Jacksonville, the Steelers opened in a three-receiver set. Their first two-receiver set had only Johnson and Pickens on the field, with Gunner Olszewski replacing Claypool in the next 11 personnel grouping. But that flipped later in the first quarter with Claypool seeing two-receiver set action and seeing a snap on the outside with Olszewski in the slot and Pickens off the field. So short answer, Claypool and Pickens figure to rotate those two-receiver snaps, with Olszewski picking up a handful of slot snaps in 11 personnel. Only Johnson is in line to be a true every-down player.

Without wading too much into fantasy waters, Claypool may see a bit more volume this season but Pickens has potential to put up big weeks. Both men have the size to be threats in the red zone, but Pickens has been dominant inside the 20, leading all Steelers with seven touchdowns during training camp. Overall, Johnson and RB Najee Harris are the two fantasy prizes in the Steelers’ offense, with TE Pat Freiermuth being a borderline TE1 with boosted value in PPR leagues. Pickens will be a popular flier whose ADP has spiked, 170 to 150 since camp began, while Claypool presents intriguing mid/late-round value.

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