Surprise! Steelers Resign JuJu Smith-Schuster… But Steven Nelson Exploring Trade

JuJu’s back! On Friday afternoon news broke that precisely no one in Steelers Nation saw coming: The Steelers had resigned JuJu Smith-Schuster to a 1 year contract valued at approximately 8 million dollars.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Ju-Ju Smith-Schuster stiff arm, Steelers vs Ravens

JuJu Smith-Schuster lays down the law. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

And while his deal isn’t the type of long-term deal the latter two players got, his return is significant. First, JuJu Smith-Schuster put his money where his mouth was. Literally. JuJu has been insisting for months that he wanted to stay in Pittsburgh.

  • Many expected him to get a contract that would pay him in the neighborhood of 15 or 16 million per year.

Those offers failed to materialize, but the Baltimore Ravens, Kansas City Chiefs and Philadelphia Eagles all offered JuJu Smith-Schuster more money than the Steelers, yet JuJu, like Ben Roethlisberger before him, opted to give Pittsburgh a “Home Town Discount.”

A picture is truly worth a 1000 words here. The man clearly wants to be in Pittsburgh.

The Steelers Offense Will Be Better in 2021 with JuJu

The conventional wisdom, this site included, was that JuJu Smith-Schuster is was a luxury that the salary cap strapped Steelers could not afford. With Chase Claypool on the rise, Diontae Johnson flashing greatness (when he’s not dropping the ball) and James Washington flying under the radar, the Steelers seemingly could get by without JuJu.

  • But JuJu Smith-Schuster brings intangibles to the field that the others thus far lack.

There’s no disputing the reality that things got pretty ugly for the Steelers towards the end of 2020. Injuries and COVID ailments gutted the defense. The running game evaporated. The offensive line mailed it in. Receivers struggled to hold on to the ball.

The slide began with that God-awful “win” over an injury depleted Ravens team. As we observed after the game:

By the look of it, JuJu-Smith Schuster took it personally. When the Steelers reached the end zone to begin the 4th quarter, Ben Roethlisberger tagged JuJu Smith-Schuster. The stat sheet says he only went 8 yards getting stopped four yards short of the end zone.

But in truth JuJu would not be denied.

https://twitter.com/DevinBushFan/status/1334272521235992578

Anyone surprised that Ben Roethlisberger looked to JuJu Smith-Schuster 2 plays later? Anyone surprised that JuJu caught it? Neither am I.

And that was no isolated example. JuJu Smith-Schuster gave his all down the stretch. Go back and watch the end of the 4th quarter of that Hindenburg Rescures the Titanic playoff loss to the Browns. Look at JuJu’s play. If you didn’t know the score and just judged things based on JuJu’s intensity, you’d think it was overtime in the Super Bowl.

  • JuJu’s return to Pittsburgh likely comes at a cost, and it remains to be seen if the Steelers can fit the bill.

But there’s no denying that the Steelers offense will be better in 2021 with JuJu Smith-Schuster on board than it would be without him.

Steven Nelson to Seek Trade

While news that JuJu Smith-Schuster will stay in Pittsburgh gave Steelers Nation reason to celebrate, the buzz kill came pretty fast in the form of the news that the Steelers had granted cornerback Steven Nelson permission to seek a trade.

  • Joe Haden had long been rumored to be a cap casualty.
Steven Nelson, Steelers vs Jaguars

Steven Nelson deflects a pass. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review.

Alternatively, both Steven Nelson and/or Haden had been rumored as targets for extensions. But few saw the Steelers parting ways with Steven Nelson. Steven Nelson arrived in Pittsburgh two years ago signing the largest contract for a free agent ever.

You didn’t hear Steven Nelson’s name much over the last two years, and that’s a good thing. I advocated for Ben Roethlisberger’s return based, in large part, on memories of misplaced youthful excitement at learning that Terry Bradshaw was calling it a career.

I also have much more recent memories of the Steelers failing miserably while trying to get by at cornerback with Brice McCain, Antwon Blake, Ross Cockrell and Artie Burns. On Steel City Insider Jim Wexell offered a bit of a contrary view:

For most of the season, I wrote with incredulity at the defense’s performance as they ranked last or next to last in that statistic. They did stop the bleeding well enough to finish 28th….
…And I for not one second believe Joe Haden was the more vulnerable cornerback on that defense. So if the Steelers are done with Nelson, they must believe highly in either the young James Pierre….

Perhaps Wexell has a point. Perhaps Nelson’s situation has nothing to do with JuJu’s signing. Perhaps the Nelson trade talk will come to nothing.

But as of now, there’s no way I see the Steelers defense as anything but weaker without Steven Nelson.

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Like Past Steelers Wide Receivers, JuJu Smith-Schuster to Find Fortune Outside Pittsburgh

Since the arrival of free agency to the NFL in 1993, the Pittsburgh Steelers have given second contracts to just two wide receivers: Hines Ward and Antonio Brown.

  • Everyone else has had to find their fortune elsewhere.

That includes Super Bowl XLIII MVP Santonio Holmes. That includes Super Bowl XL hero Antwaan Randle El. That includes John Stallworth record breaker Yancey Thigpen. That includes first round picks like Charles Johnson and Plaxico Burress.

When the Steelers brought JuJu Smith-Schuster to Pittsburgh, they already had Antonio Brown locked down to a long-term contract, and with questions about some of their other wide outs, they hoped they were drafting the next Hines Ward. JuJu Smith-Schuster has filled that role, in many respects. But has he done enough to earn a second contract? Today we find out.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Ju-Ju Smith-Schuster stiff arm, Steelers vs Ravens

JuJu Smith-Schuster lays down the law. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Capsule Profile of JuJu Smith-Schuster’s Career with the Steelers

When the Steelers drafted JuJu Smith-Schuster in the 2nd round of the 2017 NFL Draft a Twitter spat started between Martavis Bryant and Sammie Coates over who JuJu was coming to replace. As it turns out, he replaced both of them.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, A.J. Bouye, Steelers vs Jaguars

JuJu Smith-Schuster. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

  • JuJu Smith Schuster installed himself almost as an instant weapon in the Steelers offense as a rookie.

During his first season he caught 58 of 79 passes thrown his way for 917 yards, including a 97 yarder against the Lions and a critical 69 yarder that set up the infamous Jesse James play in the loss to the Patriots at Heinz Field. Ju-Ju Smith Schuster followed that up with a 111 catch, 1426 yard, 7 touchdown sophomore season that included another 97 yard touchdown pass.

However, with Ben Roethlisberger injured, an absent running game, inconsistency efforts by Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges and his own injuries, JuJu Smith-Schuster struggled in 2019 catching just 42 passes for 552 yards.

JuJu bounced back in 2020, recording 97 catches. Critics might charge that his “Yards per catch” dropped. It did. That’s because JuJu Smith-Schuster became the go-to man when touch catches were called for.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning JuJu Smith-Schuster in 2021

With all of those accolades, you’d think that the Steelers would have inked JuJu Smith-Schuster to a new deal a long time ago. JuJu wants to stay in Pittsburgh. Ben Roethlisberger would like him back. There’s a reason why JuJu Smith-Schuster’s catch percentage was 15 points higher than that of Chase Claypool, Diontae Johnson, Eric Ebron or James Washington:

  • He was the best receiver on the field for the Steelers.

JuJu Smith-Schuster was a men among boys. He put his heart and soul into the game. When others dropped passes, JuJu pulled them down. JuJu was physical. He yielded no quarter to any other player on the field.

You win championships with players like JuJu Smith-Schuster. If the Steelers are serious about making a final run at Lombardi number 7 with Roethlisberger, then they must keep JuJu in Pittsburgh.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Vontaze Burfict, Steelers vs Bengals, JuJu Smith-Schuster suspension

JuJu Smith-Schuster stands over Vontaze Burfict. Photo Credit: ESPN.com

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning JuJu Smith-Schuster in 2021

Ah. If only it were about the X’s and O’s. Alas, It is not. A quick look at Over the Cap reveals that a wide receiver of JuJu’s pedigree could easily make 15 to 16 million per year. The Steelers have, at best 3 million under the cap.

Sure, they could free 16 million for JuJu. And JuJu wants to stay in Pittsburgh. Perhaps he’ll give “home town discount.” The stars seem aligned.

  • But it isn’t that simple. Those contracts have 40 or 50 million dollars guaranteed.

You really think JuJu Smith-Schuster is going to leave 30 or 35 million dollars guaranteed on the table to sign a one year “prove it” contract ? In a perfect world, JuJu Smith-Schuster would be a Steeler for life. But the world is far from perfect, and if JuJu has shown he’s a good, a very good wide receiver, he’s not yet shown he’s a great receiver and hence not deserving of a second contract from the Steelers.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and JuJu Smith-Schuster in 2021

This one hurts. A lot. Because absent some injuries and other personnel issues, JuJu Smith-Schuster should have, could have likely would have played a key role in bring home Lombardi Number 7 during his time in Pittsburgh.

  • And in an normal year, its possible the Steelers might have found the money to keep JuJu in Black and Gold.

Although in a normal year, that money likely goes to Bud Dupree first. And there’s a simple reason why, as former Steelers scribe and Current USA Today Wire Editor Neal Coolong explains:

This, in a nutshell is why the Steelers so seldom give 2nd contracts to wide receivers. Does JuJu Smith-Schuster , like Hines Ward and Antonio Brown, bring intangibles to the table that statistics fail to capture? Absolutely. But, Ward had a Hall of Fame worth career and Antonio Brown had GOAT like talent.

JuJu Smith-Schuster hasn’t shown he’s in that level yet, and that’s why the Curtain’s Call is that he’ll find his fortune outside the Steel City.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2021 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2021 free agency focus articles.

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Can We Count on Chase Claypool? Here’s What Steelers Rookie Wide Receiver Playoff Statistics Suggests

The Pittsburgh Steelers are banking big time on rookie wide receiver Chase Claypool in the playoffs. Mike Tomlin makes no bones about it. After the Steelers narrow loss to Cleveland, Tomlin declared:

It was our intention to feature him a little bit today. We wanted him to have that type of rhythm and that type of confidence in his playmaking ability going into January ball. We were able to check that box.

The Steelers plan appears to be working. After breaking records in September, and October, Chase Claypool’s numbers began to drop in November. During the Steelers 3 game December losing streak, the rookie who’d scored 4 touchdowns in 1 game against the Eagles had all but disappeared from the Steelers offense.

Before the Browns game, Randy Fictchner talked openly about hitting the “Rookie Wall” explaining:

It always seems to happen about that time when your normal college season would be over. About 11, 12 games, that’s what you’re used to. That is what their bodies are used to. I won’t say that he hit that wall, but I will say there’s something there that you have to work yourself through. I saw it, you can see it.

Mike Tomlin declined to admit that Claypool had hit the rookie wall, but conceded that coaches had been trying to help him avoid hitting that wall by limiting his snaps. Claypool’s explosive performances against the Colts and Browns show that the Steelers plans paid big dividends in the at the tail end of the 2020 regular season.?

Chase Claypool, Steelers vs Eagles

Chase Claypool scores a 2nd quarter touchdown vs the Eagles. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Reivew

  • Now the challenge for Claypool and the Steelers make sure his late season surge carries over into the playoffs.

Playoff history of past Steelers rookie wide receivers suggests this will be difficult….

History of Steelers Rookie Wide Receivers in the Playoffs

The playoffs are different breed of NFL game. If memory serves, Hines Ward once likened the difference in intensity between the playoffs and regular season to the difference between the regular season and preseason.

  • That makes production in the playoffs particularly difficult for rookies.

To wit, at least 4 Steelers wide receivers have won Super Bowl rings as rookies – but you wouldn’t know it from their playoff statistics.

Numbers don’t lie. The prospects for Pittsburgh’s plans for Claypool don’t look bright.

Here you’ve got playoff statistics from 20 Steelers rookie wide receivers drawn from 41 games over a 43 years period. Passes were thrown from Hall of Famers like Terry Bradshaw and Ben Roethlisberger to “How was he a first rounder?” Mark Malone, to middle of the roaders like Neil O’Donnell, Kordell Stewart and yes, Bubby Brister.

Steelers rookie wide receivers playoff statistics

Based on those averages, if the Steelers were to play in two playoff games, Chase Claypool can be expected to catch between 3-4 passes for just under 50 total yards with his longest reception clocking in at 13 yards and his chances scoring a touchdown are minimal.

Ah. While numbers may not lie – Derek Hill and Charles Johnson’s rookie playoff campaigns foreshadowed future disappointment – statistics often fall short of telling the complete truth.

Times When Statistics Fail to Tell the Full Story

While Lynn Swann’s playoff rookie playoff contributions were pretty good, you’d never guess that John Stallworth was ALSO a future Hall of Famer if his rookie playoff stats were all you had to go by. On the flip side, Mark Stock logged 4 catches for 74 yards for the 1989 Steelers. Even if you can forgive his critical drop in the playoff loss to the Broncos, the rookie’s future looked bright.

  • Not only did Stock never play another down for the Steelers, he didn’t catch another NFL pass until 1993 when he was with the then Washington Redskins.
Antonio Brown, Steelers vs Ravens

Antonio Brown catches with his helmet. Photo Credit: Behind the Steel Curtain

Sammie Coates is another player who enjoyed a false flash in the playoffs. He looked good in the Steelers playoff loss to the Broncos in 2015 but a year later he was dropping would-be game changers in the AFC Championship loss to the Patriots.

  • And sometimes quantity of catches tells us nothing about the quality of the catches.

Nate Washington converted a critical 3rd down on the Steelers first scoring drive against the Broncos in the 2005 AFC Championship – and then kept Domonique Foxworth from intercepting a few plays latter. Likewise, Antonio Brown’s 5 catches for 90 yards look pretty good for a rookie in 2010.

However, “pretty good” fails to communicate the reality that Brown made the most critical catches in the Steelers divisional win over the Ravens and then again in the AFC Championship win over the Jets.

Lipps and Randel El Pen Positive Precedent for Claypool

There are of course two Steelers rookies who followed strong regular seasons who continued their success in the playoffs. Louis Lipps had 45 catches for 860 yards and 9 touchdowns as a rookie for the 1984 Steelers and then went on to make 8 catches for 131 yards in the ’84 Steelers two playoff games.

As a rookie Antwaan Randle El had 47 catches for 489 yards and 2 touchdowns, and in the playoffs he had 9 catches for 138 yards – in addition to his 99 yard kickoff return for a touchdown the 2002 Steelers Wild Card win over the Browns.

The best part? Both Randle El and Louis Lipps, like Chase Claypool were Joe Greene Great Performance Award  aka Steelers Rookie of the Year winners. Here’s hoping Claypool follows the post season footsteps of Lipps and Randle El.

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James Washington and Jaylen Samuels Added to Steelers COVID-19 List. 8 Other Cut

Pittsburgh Steelers 2020 “training camp” isn’t a week old yet, but two more players have been placed on the leagues COVID-19 reserve list – James Washington and Jaylen Samuels. The offensive duo joins cornerback Justin Layne, a third round pick from the 2019 NFL Draft. Aaron Springs, a fellow defensive back, was already on the list.

James Washington, Jaylen Samuels, Steelers COVID-19 List

Happier times. James Washington and Jaylen Samuels celebrate during the 2019 preseason. Photo Credit: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The NFL instituted the COVID-19 reserve list in response to the pandemic. Being put on the list does not necessarily mean a player has tested positive for COVID-19, it can also mean that they’ve been in contact with someone else who has tested positive for the virus.

  • The NFL’s COVID-19 list contains asymptomatic and symptomatic designations.

Asymptomatic players are able to come off the list 10 days after their first positive test OR 5 days have passed since their first positive test AND two consecutive negative tests are completed separated by 24 hours within a five-day period.

  • All returns must be approved by a team’s physician whom must consult with ICS and NFL’s chief medical officer.

Symptomatic players must see 10 days pass after their first COVID-19 symptom and must have a full 72 hours pass since their last symptoms last occurred. Their return must be approved by their team’s doctor in concert with both the ICS and the NFL’s chief medical officer.

  • On top of that, local regulations and requirements are satisfied.

The health and safety of the players impacted must be of paramount concern, and it is Steel Curtain Rising’s sincere concern that James Washington and Jaylen Samules, (and Justin Layne and Aaron Springs for that matter) remain COVID free and return to the practice field in full health at Heinz Field.

  • But even in the pre-COVID era, attrition formed a fundamental part of football.

Put in simple English, injuries are part of the game. In that light, James Washington’s absence shouldn’t impact the Steelers wide receiver corps much. JuJu Smith-Schuster remains the leader, with Diontae Johnson returning to build on his strong rookie year. Chase Claypool, the Steelers 2nd round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft will perhaps get a few more reps, but he was always going to make the team.

Potentially, Dion Cain could benefit (as could Ryan Switzer), but a best-case scenario would see James Washington returning to the Steelers roster before padded practices start on August 17th.

  • Jaylen Samuels situation is a bit more complicated.

James Conners and Benny Snell Jr. are roster locks, and Anthony McFarland Jr.’s status as this year’s 4th round picks doesn’t give him a lock on a roster spot, but a slot is basically his to lose. The Steelers also like Kerrith Whyte.

  • For the past several seasons the Steelers have kept 3 running backs plus a fullback.

Even prior to landing on the COVID-19 reserve list Jaylen Samuels was going to need to fight for a roster spot. Now that fight just got more difficult.

Henderson Leads Steelers Cuts

To meet the NFL’s 80 man roster limit the Steelers cut 8 players, including:

Quarterback, J.T. Barrett
Running Back, Ralph Webb
Wide Receiver, Quadree Henderson
Offensive Line, Christian Montani
Linebacker and Long Snapper Christian Kuntz
Linebacker, Dewayne Hendrix
Safety, Tyree Kinnell
Defensive End, Josiah Coatney

While it is no surprise, J.T. Barrett’s departure ends any speculation that he had a shot at competing with Paxton Lynch and Devlin Hodges for the third slot behind Mason Rudolph and Ben Roethlisberger.

Of the rest of the cuts Quadree Henderson is the most prominent. The Pitt graduate spent the summer of 2018 with the Steelers and turned in an strong preseason effort, but that wasn’t enough to land him a roster spot.

From there he spent time with the Giants, Jets, Jaguars and Panthers before returning to Pittsburgh last winter via the practice squad.

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Steelers 2020 Wide Receiver Draft Needs: In Search of Depth

Just 3 years ago the rest of the NFL was in envy of the Steelers wide receiver depth chart. They had a future Hall of Famer, a budding rookie 2nd round draft pick, and a physical phenomenon coming off of suspension.

  • Change comes quickly in the NFL.

By the middle of 2019 the Steelers were signing guys off of practice squads and playing them later that week. Injuries played a part in making that happen, but how much of it was tied to talent? The answer to that question will tell us a lot about how important wide receiver will be for the Steelers in the 2020 NFL Draft.

JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Washington celebrate Diontae Johnson’s touchdown. Photo Credit: Sarah Stier, Getty Images via Still Curtain.com

Steelers Wide Receiver Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Starters

“I’m ready” proclaimed JuJu Smith-Schuster shortly after the Steelers sent Antonio Brown to the Oakland Raiders. And by all accounts JuJu Smith-Schuster looked to be ready to be a legit number 1 NFL wide receiver.

But how would JuJu Smith-Schuster fair now that NFL defenses didn’t need to build their pass defense around shutting down Antonio Brown. No one knew, and a year later we still don’t know. Ben Roethlisberger’s season lasted 6 quarters, and Mason Rudolph didn’t exactly have enough time to find his rhythm before he got knocked out with a concussion.

  • That brought Devlin Hodges into the game, further limiting the Steelers passing options.

Fortuantely for the Steelers and JuJu, there’s evidence that the other two starting wide outs, James Washington and Diontae Johnson and offer enough splash play potential to take some heat off of Smith-Schuster.

James Washington dazzled during the 2018 and 2019 preseasons and, if reports are correct, his play during practice was just as dazzling. Yet Washington struggled to translate that on to the field during 2018 and the first half of 2019.

  • However, during the 2nd half of 2019, James Washington came up with several big catches.

While he needs to sustain that, the arrow is pointing up on James Washington as it is on Diontae Johnson. Diontae Johnson flashed big play potential early in the 2019 season, with impressive touchdowns against San Francisco and Miami. But consistency was an issue. Still, he improved from a disastrous performance against the Browns at home, for big games on the road against the Cardinals and Jets.

Steelers Wide Receiver Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The BackUps

If the Steelers have, at a minimum, three starter-capable wide receivers, their depth leaves a much to be desired. The next most targeted wide receiver in 2019 was Johnny Holton, followed by Donte Moncrief, then Ryan Switzer and then by Tevin Jones.

  • Ryan Switzer is the only one of the foursome who remains on the roster.

And Ryan Switzer was only targeted once after week 2, and missed the last 7 games of the season. Deon Cain offers legitimate potential and looked good while he was on the field, but his NFL resume consists of 6 targets.

The Steelers 2020 Wide Receiver Draft Needs

While JuJu Smith-Schuster clearly is a step down from Antonio Brown as a number 1 wide receiver, the same can be said for 97.5% of other NFL wide outs. James Washington and Diontae Johnson also have a lot to prove, but it says here they will prove it.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

Moreover, Ryan Switzer, when healthy, is not a bad number 4 wide receiver, particularly if a tight end such as Vance McDonald or Eric Ebron is drawing attention from linebackers and safeties.

The issue for the Steelers at wide receiver is depth. They have next to none. And that means that heading into the 2020 NFL Draft, the Steelers need at wide receiver must be considered Moderate-Low.

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James Washington’s Weight Loss Shows He’s Committed to Improving

If you’re anything like me, you probably never looked at James Washington at any point during his rookie season and said, “That guy really needs to lose some weight.”

It’s rare to think that about any wide receiver, let alone one who came into the league as a second-round draft pick out of Oklahoma State with a reputation of being an accomplished deep threat. Yet, the Steelers apparently thought so, as they reportedly wanted him to be at 210 pounds by the start of the 2019 regular season.

Why would Pittsburgh want an already lean looking rookie to lose even more weight? Who knows, but it’s likely not an indictment of the youngster, considering the team has asked that of a lot of its newcomers in recent years–Le’Veon Bell, Bud Dupree and even veteran running back DeAngelo Williams were just a few players who were challenged to slim down shortly after arriving in Pittsburgh.

James Washington, Steelers vs Bengals 2018 Heinz Field,

James Washington vs the Bengals. Photo Credit: Tribune Review.

The good news is, James Washington came to the NFL with a reputation for having an incredible work-ethic, one that was developed while working on his father’s farm growing up. And that’s why, according to Washington, per an article published on Steelers.com, he managed to drop 15 pounds and get down to his team mandated weight this spring.

“I went home for the first two weeks, was putting in some hard work with my dad on the farm,” said Washington, courtesy of Steelers.com. “I was trying to cut down on weight. Eat less. I went to Miami and worked in the sun. Worked on strength, strong hands, all the things receivers work on.”

When you read that paragraph, it makes you realize just how hard the second-year receiver worked this spring, and how well-rounded his commitment was to honing his craft (if you simply believed what some reporters were saying on Twitter last week, you would have assumed Washington told them he lost the 15 pounds on Daddy’s Texas farm).

At any rate, if there’s ever a second-year receiver who has nowhere to go but up, it’s James Washington. Coming off a 2018 campaign in-which he caught just 16 passes for 217 yards and one lone touchdown, James Washington certainly has a ton to prove in his sophomore season.

Will he? That’s impossible to know right now. But he certainly seems willing to give it his best shot possible. And with the current look of Pittsburgh’s receiving corps, he has a great opportunity to establish himself–and do so rather quickly.

Yeah, sure, the Steelers signed veteran Donte Moncrief to a multi-year deal, and they drafted Diontae Johnson in the third round, but that doesn’t mean they no longer have high hopes for a man they recently invested a second-round draft choice in.

During the now infamous edition to his weekly radio show on 93.7 The Fan that followed a fairly ridiculous and laughable loss to the Broncos on November 25, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger called out two of his receivers. One of those receivers was obviously Antonio Brown, who reacted to his quarterback’s criticisms in the worst possible way, as he burned every visible bridge (and maybe even his legacy as the greatest receiver in team history) on his way to Oakland.

  • The other receiver was James Washington, who dove to catch a pass during the game that, had he simply stayed on his feet and caught it in stride, would have gone for a touchdown.

Who do you think would have handled the criticism of his quarterback better, a veteran who was in the midst of the greatest six-year run for any receiver in NFL history; or a rookie that had accomplished nothing up to that point in his career?

Obviously, the betting money would be on the veteran. But as I already alluded to, the veteran is now wearing the silver and black as a member of the Raiders. As for the rookie, he took the constructive criticism as just that, and he’s now using it to try and make himself a better football player.

It remains to be seen if James Washington will make that all-important first to second year leap in 2019. But if his commitment to getting better is any indication, he’s certainly willing to do whatever it takes to find out.

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Will New Young Steelers Receivers Morph into the Next “Young Money”?

Let’s take a stroll down memory lane to the days of 2010 and 2011.

  • Ah, those were innocent times, weren’t they?

Mike Wallace, a third-round pick in the 2009 NFL Draft, was catching 40-plus yard bombs on such a regular basis, people actually found it endearing that this was his best talent.

As for Emmanuel Sanders, the third-round pick from the 2010 NFL Draft, he was developing into a fine number three receiver and showing signs of morphing into much more. Speaking of morphing, Antonio Brown, who was picked three rounds later than Sanders in the same draft, was just starting to blossom into one of the best, young receivers in all of football.

In-fact, Antonio Brown had blossomed so much after his rookie season–a freshman campaign that included a spectacular and game-saving helmet catch vs. the Ravens in a thrilling divisional round playoff victory at Heinz Field–not only did he supplant the legendary Hines Ward in the starting lineup in 2011, he made his very first Pro Bowl.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, A.J. Bouye, Steelers vs Jaguars

Will JuJu Smith-Schuster lead another “Young Money” movement for the Steelers?. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Things were looking up for the Steelers pup-like receivers, a trio that quickly dubbed itself Young Money –for both financial and clutch purposes. The future was bright for Pittsburgh’s wide-out position, so bright, in-fact, it was not uncommon for fans and even experts to proclaim the unit the best in the entire NFL.

  • Then 2012 came along, and Mike Wallace, who was in-search of a long-term deal worth lots of money, decided to negotiate by holding out of all off season activities and the start of training camp.

This, of course, alienated Mike Wallace from the fans, who quickly dubbed him a one-trick pony and didn’t find his deep-threat speed quite so endearing any longer. Mike Wallace would be gone a year later.

As for Emmanuel Sanders, he would also alienate the fans by, one, not leaving in-exchange for the Patriots 2013 third-round pick (New England had signed Emmanuel Sanders, who was a restricted free agent, to an offer sheet which the Steelers matched, rather than allowing him to walk for a fairly high draft choice).

Emmanuel Sanders would go on to further anger the fans late in the 2013 season by dropping an admittedly tough catch on a two-point try in a Thanksgiving Night loss to the Ravens (Pittsburgh missed the playoffs by a Ryan Succop field goal weeks later).

Emmanuel Sanders then went on to sign a lucrative deal with the Broncos prior to the 2014 season — but not before unethically trying to leverage teams into giving him even more money. As a member of the Broncos, Sanders further “endeared” himself to Steelers fans by saying that his new quarterback, Peyton Manning, was so much more disciplined than his old quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger.

  • When it came to Antonio Brown, the man everyone would soon affectionately call “AB,” he appeared to be the working man’s wide-receiver.

He played hard and worked (as in, worked out) even harder. His work-ethic and attention to detail were second-to-none. Not only did Brown quickly become the fan favorite among the Young Money trio, he was rewarded with a five-year, $42 million contract extension in the summer of 2012 — or right when Mike Wallace was holding out of training camp.

Not only did Antonio Brown blossom into one of the best, young receivers in the NFL, he soon morphed into not only the very best in the business, but one of the best of all-time–his six-year run that includes 686 catches for 9,145 yards from 2013-2018 is unmatched in NFL history.

  • Antonio Brown was not only a huge fan favorite, he was an all-time Steelers great.

Then the 2018 season ended, and, well, you know what happened. Since I don’t want to focus on Antonio Brown much more than I have to in this piece, let’s just say he did just about everything he could to ensure that he would have the ugliest divorce of any Steelers legend in franchise history.

The question now is, how will the Steelers press on in the aftermath of Young Money? In Brown’s absence is JuJu Smith-Schuster, a third-year man out of USC, who not only became one of the most popular Steelers right out of the gate, he has become one of the new faces of the NFL.

Oh yeah, he’s also a really good wide-out, complete with over 100 receptions and a Pro Bowl bid in 2018. Smith-Schuster has all the potential to be the next in a long-line of great Steelers receivers. But will be also morph into a problem child? Will he be the next in a long-line of diva receivers who the fans can’t wait to see leave town?

  • It’s way too early to know for sure, but Smith-Schuster appears to be more Hines Ward than he does Antonio Brown.

Not only is he a fierce competitor that loves to block almost as much as he loves to catch, he has great character–and it seems genuine. He has all the makings of a team leader, someone who would rather set a good example by being on-time to meetings, than demand preferential treatment while showing up late to them.

  • Not only that, his personality and charm are contagious–like Alejandro Villanueva once said, “Everyone needs a little JuJu in their life.”

Speaking of character, there’s no question the Steelers have been targeting not only talented athletes in recent drafts, but youngsters with few red flags that may morph into the total package one day–including team leaders and captains.

The jury is still deliberating about the future of James Washington, the team’s second-round pick from a season ago. But, so far, his only off-the-field activities seem to involve farming and fishing.

It’s way too early to know the exact future of the Steelers receiving corps as a whole, but given the character of JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Washington, it’s hard to see the unit giving birth to more problem children.

In other words, there will be no reboot of Young Money in Steeler Nation.

 

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Steelers Sign Donte Moncrief, Resign Eli Rogers, Lose L.J. Fort

The Steelers most aggressive forays into free agency since 1993 continued as Pittsburgh signed wide receiver Donte Moncrief to a two year deal. The Steelers were expected to bolster their wide receiving corps following the trade of Antonio Brown to the Oakland Raiders, however many expected them to target the position early in the 2019 NFL Draft.

The Steelers had sown interest in Donte Moncrief during the 2014 NFL Draft but did not have a 3rd round pick having traded it away a year earlier to get Shamarko Thomas. Clearly that is one transaction which Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert would like have back.

  • Donte Moncrief in fact caught his first touchdown against the Steelers in the 2014 shoot out with the Colts.

As Jim Wexell details, Moncief’s other efforts against the Steelers have been far more pedestrian, but that was also the only time he had the benefit of being on the receiving end of Andrew Luck’s passes. While the Steelers clearly would like for James Washington to start opposite JuJu Smith-Schuster, Donte Moncrief will provide the “sophomore” wide out.

Donte Moncrief, Steelers sign Donte Moncrief, Artie Burns, Steelers vs Colts

Steelers sign Donte Moncief, pictured burning Artie Burns in 2017. Photo Credit: Matt Kryger, Indy Star

Rogers Signs for 2 Years, McCullers Back Too?

The Steelers took another step to bolstering depth at wide receiver when they signed Eli Rogers to a two year deal. Like Ryan Shazier, Eli Roger’s contract had tolled, meaning he did not acquire enough seniority to reach free agency this year, but the Steelers move will keep Rogers with the team through 2020.

  • Free agency news in Pittsburgh was not all good, however.

Reserve linebacker L.J. Fort, who had an under the radar performance during 2018, signed a 3 year deal with the Philadelphia Eagles. L.J. Fort had been on the Steelers roster since 2015, working almost excursively on special teams.

Injuries to Vince Williams gave L.J. Fort’s first prolonged playing experience, and L.J. Fort played well and by the end of the season he appeared to have surpassed Jon Bostic on the depth chart. The Steelers are expected to target inside linebacker early and perhaps often in the 2019 NFL Draft, so L.J. Fort was not expected to start.

However, L.J. Fort could have been a quality player at a position that is sorely lacking both depth and talent.

While the Eagles are not exactly giving L.J. Fort starter money, it would appear to be above what the Steelers were willing to pay.

Although there does not seem to be official confirmation yet, ESPN is reporting that the Steelers have resigned Daniel McCullers two a two year deal.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2019 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2019 free agency focus articles.

 

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Steelers Would be Right to Resign Eli Rogers

We begin this latest installment of our Steelers 2019 free agent focus by paying homage to the legendary Washington, DC Sports Radio personality, the late Ken Beatrice who often lamented to his listeners:

  • I offer my apologies for not having gone to law school to bring you the sports news.

And this was in the ‘80’s and ‘90’s. We bring that up because it is not 100% clear that Eli Rogers as a free agent, as his contract was “tolled.” Whatever that means. But so was Ryan Shazier’s, and at one point word was that Shazier needed a new contract, but now that’s not so clear.

So we’re presuming that Eli Rogers is in fact a free agent that the Steelers must make a decision on.

Eli Rogers, Eli Rogers free agent

Eli Rogers in 2017. Photo Credit: USA Today, via The Cardinal Connect

Capsule Profile of Eli Roger’s Steelers Career

Eli Rogers joined the Steelers as a member of their 2015 undrafted rookie free agent class. Fighting his way up a depth chart headed by Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton, Martavis Bryant, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Sammie Coates, Rogers chances of securing a roster spot appeared slim.

  • Yet by late August, USA Today Steelers Wire writer Neal Coolong went as far as to compare Rogers to a young Antonio Brown.

Shortly thereafter, injuries ruined Roger’s rookie season sending him to injured reserve.

In 2016 Eli Rogers vindicated Coolong’s praise by earning the slot receiver job. By the end of the season, Rogers served as Steelers defacto number 2 wide out, and had caught 48 passes, putting him behind only Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell.

In 2017 JuJu Smith-Schuster’s emergence and Martavis Bryant’s return diminished Eli Rogers offensive role. Although Eli Rogers’ catch percentage dipped in 2017, his performance perked up at the end of the season, and during the playoff loss to the Jaguars he was a perfect 5-5.

  • Unfortunately, Eli Rogers tore his ACL in that game, and began 2018 on the PAP list.

Eli Rogers was activated for the Steelers final 3 games and clearly gave the offense a boost.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Eli Rogers

How does 12 of 14 suit you? Those are Eli Roger’s catch-target numbers for the three games he played in 2019. Pittsburgh’s 2018 offense while potent, was missing something for much of the year.

That missing link was a third wide receiver. James Washington wasn’t quite ready to fill that role, and Justin Hunter was unable. While Ryan Switzer was a quality 4th wide out. It is going to be all hands on deck for the Steelers wide receiving corps as Pittsburgh looks to “replace” Antonio Brown.

Eli Rogers is never got to grow into an Antonio Brown type receiver, but he provides quality depth and has shown he came come up in big games, going 4-4 catching everything Ben Roethlisberger threw his way in his first action in the win over the Patriots.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Eli Rogers

The Steelers are going to bring in another starting-caliber wide receiver, perhaps through the draft or perhaps via free agency – or perhaps using both channels. Assuming those players deliver as promised, does that really leave room for Eli Rogers on the Steelers 2019 roster?

Perhaps more importantly, does that justify investing precious salary cap dollars and signing bonus money in someone you might end up cutting in late August anyway?

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Eli Rogers

The Steelers clearly like Eli Rogers, having resigned him last summer when they knew he wasn’t going to contribute for most of the year. Rogers delivered as soon as his number was called, picking up right where he left off in the Jaguars debacle.

The Steelers should bring him back, and almost certainly they will.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2019 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2019 free agency focus articles.

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Stop the James Washington Limas Sweed Comparisons. Steelers Rookie Wide Outs Often Start Slow

Steelers wide receiver James Washington has had a disappointing year thus far but comparisons to Limas Sweed must stop.

Full disclosure: If you frequent this site, you know that I called out James Washington after the loss to the Broncos and said that his play was making activating Eli Rogers an attractive option. And when Eli Rogers returned to practice, I augured that the Steelers offense currently lacks a legit number 3 wide receiver.

  • I stand by those criticisms.

James Washington, James Washington Drop, Steelers vs Jaguars

James Washington drops a pass. Photo Credit: AP, via ProFootballTalk.com

But if it is true that James Washington’s rookie campaign pales in contrast to JuJu Smith-Schuster‘s efforts just one year ago, then it’s even more true that JuJu’s rookie performance was an exception.

  • Even a cursory look at history reveals Steelers wide receivers tend to struggle as rookies.

Pittsburgh 247’s Jim Wexell took aim at the Limas Sweed comparison, and after conceding that both were from Texas, both 2nd round picks, and both having grown up on farms, he offered this insight:

Through the same points in their 2010 rookie seasons, Antonio Brown had two catches in 21 targets; Emmanuel Sanders had 13 catches in 23 targets.

Compared to Antonio Brown, James Washington is killing it with his 8 catches on 25 targets! But in that light he’s no different than other rookie Steelers wide receivers who started slowly.

Steelers Rookie Wide Receivers Tend to Start Slowly

As a rookie, Hines Ward had 15 catches on 33 targets. While targeting numbers aren’t available, Lynn Swann had 11 catches and John Stallworth had 16. Combine those numbers and they hardly project to one Hall of Fame career, let alone two.

But Yancey Thigpen, while not a rookie, had all of one catch during his first season in Pittsburgh and only 9 more his next (although 3 of those were for touchdowns.) Ernie Mills had two catches as a rookie. Both went on to author fine careers as Steelers.

Sure, at this point James Washington is best known for plays he hasn’t made as a rookie, but so was Plaxico Burress. And there’s an important difference there. In diving unnecessarily to catch Ben Roethlisberger‘s throw, James Washington was simply trying too hard. By spiking the ball in the open field when he wasn’t down, Plaxico Burress was simply being dumb.

  • There’s one other thing to keep in mind: Strong rookie seasons, while promising, guarantee nothing.

Troy Edwards caught 61 passes as a rookie and scored 5 touchdowns. He started 1 game and caught 37 passes in two more seasons in Pittsburgh, and never matched his rookie campaign in 4 more seasons in the NFL.

Saying that James Washington’s rookie season has disappointed this far is simply observing the truth, but writing him off as a bust is foolishness in its purest form.

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