Heitritter/Kozora Debate: Who Has More 2023 Receptions – Calvin Austin III Or Darnell Washington?

Bringing back a series we’ve done throughout the rest of the offseason. I promise we’re not going all Embrace Debate on you but Jonathan Heitritter and I have teamed up to debate Steelers-related topics we have genuine, good-faith disagreement over. Let us know who made the better argument and what side of the debate you come in on in the comments below.

Today’s topic is…

Who Has More Receptions This Year – WR Calvin Austin III Or TE Darnell Washington?

Jonathan – Darnell Washington

You know how at recess when picking teams for a game, the biggest, tallest, strongest guy always gets chosen first? Well, I’m taking that approach and going with the walking skyscraper Darnell Washington over the diminutive Calvin Austin III.

Washington has several factors going his way when it comes to having more receptions than Austin in 2023. First, the Steelers have showed us that they want to play bully ball this coming season and have their offensive identity in a smashmouth running game. This should mean more two TE sets, meaning Washington will be on the field a fair amount with fellow TE Pat Freiermuth. This should lead to more opportunities in the passing game with Washington getting out on more routes, whether it be from Pittsburgh’s heavy packages, from its “big empty” package, or even in the shotgun as an in-line or slot receiver.

Washington showed us in college that he can play all over the formation as a pass catcher, and his strengths as a run blocker should net him more offensive snaps than Austin this season, meaning more pass catching opportunities.

Also, when you consider the competition relative to their positions, Washington has the edge on Austin. Washington should be firmly entrenched at Pittsburgh’s TE2 behind Freiermuth, easily overtaking incumbent Zach Gentry for the backup job. Austin, on the other hand, is at-best WR4 on the depth chart, having Diontae Johnson, George Pickens, and Allen Robinson II ahead of him.

If it came down to overall touches, I would likely side with Austin when factoring in carries on jet sweeps and well as touches in the return game. However, since we are talking receptions, I think Washington runs away with this one. Washington likely sees more opportunity to be on the field to draw targets while Austin likely fits a very specific role in the offense. That may limit his target potential in 2023 given the other weapons in the room.

Alex – Calvin Austin III

This is a tough one and we’ll be posing the question to you in today’s Friday Five. Austin should receive more total touches if you consider rushes and return work but even in pure receptions, he could still eclipse Washington. Primarily because it won’t take much to get him the ball. Screen game, RPO game, short throws in the flat or over the middle to get him the ball in space and utilize his 4.3 speed.

They may not be big receptions but they’re cheap and easy catches. It’s high-percentage stuff, which will be tougher for Washington to replicate, running more between the hashes, down the seam, in spaces where there’s simply more traffic. In Steelers’ history, there’s only been three tight ends to catch more than 30 passes their rookie season: Pat Freiermuth, Heath Miller, and Eric Green. Washington isn’t in a role to replicate those numbers. More realistically, he produces a Mark Bruener-looking stat line – 26 receptions, 238 yards, and three touchdowns.

Washington can catch the football but his primary job, unlike Austin’s, is to block. He’s here to make the running game better first and foremost. When the Steelers do throw to tight ends, it’ll be Pat Freiermuth. He’s in a similar situation as last season. The #2 tight end in a run-heavy offense where he’ll see the starter — at Georgia it was Brock Bowers, in Pittsburgh it will be Pat Freiermuth — get more targets and that’ll tamp down Washington’s numbers. He can still have an impact downfield and, given his 6’7 frame, in the red zone, but the volume probably isn’t going to be there for him.

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