Every offseason allows team personnel the opportunity to look back and review the season, eventually leading them to signal out positions that they want to upgrade either through the draft or free agency. Unfortunately for those teams, we, the media, also get the chance to assess team needs and often have the loudest voice when doing so.
Most recently, Kevin Patra of NFL.com evaluated each NFL squad’s wide receiver room and separated them in categories based on their current situation. Here’s what he had to say about the Steelers who he put in the category of needing to “add a piece, two or three.”:
“The Steelers swiped the uber-talented Pickens in the second round of last year’s draft, then paid Johnson in August, giving Kenny Pickett a good top two in his rookie season. Despite not scoring a touchdown on 86 catches, Johnson remains a go-to target. Pickens owns vise-grip hands and excellent back-shoulder acumen. Both should benefit from having another year to develop rapport with Pickett. Pittsburgh should add depth, particularly from the slot, to make life easier on the young quarterback.”
Following a year of transition where Pittsburgh christened a new starting quarterback, the evaluation of the team’s wide receiver room is a bit murky. Matt Canada’s love for short comeback and out routes and refusal to attack the middle of the field or deep limited the ability to fairly grade the position.
No receiver on the Steelers had over 1,000 yards on the season. That includes Dionate Johnson who had 86 catches, which is the 22nd most of any receiver in the NFL. Rookie George Pickens led the team with four touchdowns, but once again there was plenty of meat left on the bone.
Still, we did get some answers on what we’re working with in the receiver room.
1. George Pickens is a dawg, and not just because he played at Georgia. Pickens flashed throughout the season with several jaw-dropping catches. He proved to be the team’s top deep threat with an average yards per catch of 15.4. Pickens even gained praise from AFC North rival Marlon Humphrey after their matchup in December: “He was burning me out there today.”
2. Diontae Johnson is still good no matter how many times your grandfather tells you, “He stinks! Lynn Swann never would’ve dropped as many balls as he does.” Johnson is an elite separator at the NFL level. Per ESPN’s new metrics to track elite wide receiver production, Johnson ranked first in the league at “getting open.” Overall, the formula found that Johnson graded out as the fifth-best receiver in the NFL only behind Stefon Diggs, Tyler Lockett, Justin Jefferson and AJ Brown. So, please, tell your grandfather to eat a Snickers.
3. Everyone else is meh. Yeah, that’s about it. Outside of the two receivers listed above, the team really didn’t get much substance from the position. Steven Sims was fine but pedestrian at best. Chase Claypool was shipped to Chicago for his efforts and Gunner Olszewski… tried? To be fair, once again, none of these players were helped by the offense, especially in the slot role, which is rarely used outside of the occasional jet sweep or as I like to call it, The Matt Canada Special™.
So, where does that leave us now? Sims and Miles Boykin are the team’s only free agents at the position with Sims being restricted. Johnson and Pickens are locked in starters, but from there it’s a mishmash of players like Olszewski, and Anthony Miller, both of whom may not be on the team’s 53-man roster. Calvin Austin III, the team’s fourth-round pick from Memphis last draft, is set to join the team this season after spending the year on injured reserve. He profiled as a small but speedy slot receiver who has the ability to stress defenses deep coming out of the draft, but only time will tell if that translates to the league.
The Steelers will be addressing the position this offseason. I doubt a weak wide receiver free agent class headlined by Jakobi Myers and the ghost of Michael Thomas will excite Pittsburgh, who admittedly has not had luck when signing talent at the position, but the same can’t be said about the draft.
Newton’s first law states that an object in motion stays in motion. His second law states that if the Steelers are in the draft, they will select a wide receiver. Over the past 10 drafts, the Steelers have selected 13 receivers going only one season without addressing the position. Some of their notable hits: Johnson, Pickens, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and Martavis Bryant.
Now personally, I would never advise gambling. It’s a horrible way to lose money and to give advice would stain my credibility as a writer. But if I wasn’t a writer and had no moral compass I would bet my life savings on Pittsburgh once again looking for help at the position.