Are the Steelers Hiding the Next Yancey Thigpen on their 2024 Roster?

What is the Steelers plan at wide receiver for 2024?

Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell asked that question late last week. A day later, Tim Benz of the Tribune-Review cautioned readers that the Steelers lack of depth at wide out can’t be “rationalized away.”

  • Both writers make valid points.

The Steelers opened the off season by trading Diontae Johnson to Carolina Donte Jackson. Everyone expected Omar Khan to follow with another splash personnel move. But since then, to paraphrase Bruce Springsteen’s “Badlands” Steelers Nation has spent the off season “waiting for a moment that just don’t come.”

Outside of George Pickens the Steelers cupboard at wide receiver is pretty bare. And with the draft over and free agent options dwindling the answers to Wexell’s question appear to be:

1. Omar Khan still has another “Khan Artist” like move up his sleeve.
2. Arthur Smith and Mike Tomlin are all in on a “Damn the receivers! Pound the rock!” offense.

Those two possibility have been widely bandied about on blogs and social media. But there’s a third one that no one is entertaining:

3. The Steelers are hiding the next Yancey Thigpen on their roster.

The likely response of those who either remember or at least know about Thigpen’s playing days is, “…Yeah, Right. Someone’s been drinking too much Argentine wine.” Well, I do send too much of my money to the Salentein family, but the idea is not alcohol induced. Read on….

None of the Steelers New Veteran WRs Look Like Thigpen

Instead of bringing in a blue chip wide out, Omar Khan has scoured the NFL’s free agent bargain bin. Since saying goodbye to Diontae, the Steelers have Van Jefferson, Quez Watkins and most recently Scott Miller. (They also signed Denzel Mims in late January. Drafted Roman Wilson and still have Calvin Austin.)

Van Jefferson had 20 catches last year with the Falcons and Rams, Watkins logged 15 for the Eagles and Miller grabbed 11 at Atlanta. (Mims was out of football, but had 11 catches for the Jets in 22.)

Even if you agree (and I’m not sure that I do) that you can substitute quantity for quality at wide receiver in the NFL, the trio collectively still falls short of Diontae Johnson’s 51 catches.

So no, none of them projects to be the next Thigpen. Not even close. At first glance the easy response is, “…Pal, keep drinking Salentein, but stick to Portillo. Stay away from the expensive stuff.”

But Thigpen Didn’t Look Like Thigpen. Until He Did.

The Steelers new wide outs have good speed, but outside of that nothing inspires. Yancey Thigpen didn’t inspire anyone either. Until he did.

Yancey Thigpen, Yancey Thigpen Terrible Towel, Steelers vs Browns

Yancey Thigpen twirls the Terrible Towel.

Yancey Thingpen played four games in 1991 for the San Diego Chargers and recorded zero stats as a wideout. During the middle of the Steeler 1992 season Tom Donahoe and Bill Cowher picked him up off of the waiver wire.

Thigpen played special teams in 1992, recording one catch on four targets. In 1993 he had nine grabs on 12 targets. By the end of ‘93 it was clear that the Steelers lacked a Super Bowl caliber wide receiving corps. So they parted ways with their number 1 wide receiver Jeff Graham, and tried to convert other starter, Dwight Stone into a utility back.

Yet going into the 1994 season, the arrow was pointed out at wide receiver in Pittsburgh.

Andre Hastings looked primed to make the proverbial “Second year leap” and the franchise had just picked Charles Johnson with their first pick in the 1994 NFL Draft.

Yet neither man was the Steelers best receiver when the 1994 campaign ended, because Thigpen had earned that distinction. Yes, Johnson had one more catch, but Thigpen was the one who delivered down the stretch and in the playoffs.

A year later Thigpen was breaking John Stallworth’s single-season reception record en route to the 1995 Steelers AFC Championship and Super Bowl XXX. Injures sabotaged his 1996 season, yet a year later, Thigpen became Kordell Stewart’s go-to man in the 1997 season that ended in the AFC Championship.

By the time Thigpen left as a free agent in 1998, he’d earned the right to be considered alongside Louis Lipps as one of the franchise’s best receivers behind Swann and Stallworth. In contrast, Hastings and Johnson were disappointments.

Does that mean that Van Jefferson, Quez Watkins Scott Miller or Denzel Mims will prove himself to be the next Yancey Thigpen in 2024?

I wouldn’t be on it. But then again, no one was betting on Yancey Thipgen in May of 1994….

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Steelers Cut Anthony Miller, Bolster Special Teams with Nick Kwiatkoski, Rex Sunahara

Two seasons, one catch for two yards on third and 6 in 41-10 loss. Alas, that stat will define Anthony Miller’s Steelers resume as the team announced his waiver to create roster space for Nick Kwiatkoski.

The Chicago Bears drafted Anthony Miller in the 2nd round of the 2018 NFL Draft. Yet in three years at the Windy City, Miller never started more than 7 games. The Bears traded him to the Texans in July 2021, but he only lasted in Houston until October 6th. The Steelers signed shortly thereafter opening the door to his one catch 2 yard career in Pittsburgh.

Anthony Miller,

Anthony Miller’s Steelers Career consisted of 1 catch for 2 yards. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Still, Anthony Miller impressed a lot of people in training camp during the summer of 2022 and appeared as a roster lock prior to going on injured reserve in August. The Steelers quickly offered him a futures contract in January and his name was mentioned along side Calvin Austin III as it became apparent that Omar Khan would neither use a premium pick nor a major free agent signing on a wide receiver.

They’ve also signed Hakeem Butler whom they took a long look at going into the 2019 NFL Draft. And of course they’re bringing back Diontae Johnson, George Pickens and Gunner Olszewski.

Steelers Bolster Special Teams with Nick Kwiatkoski and Rex Sunahara Signings

In letting Anthony Miller go the Steelers gave Special Teams coach Danny Smith a boost by signing linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski. The Bethel Park native and West Virginia alumni was a fourth round pick of the Chicago Bears in the 2016 NFL Draft. He brings the Steelers 89 games of experience with 34 starts for the Bears and then the Raiders.

However, injuries limited his 2021 campaign to just 66 defensive snaps for the Raiders and he saw zero defensive snaps on his most recent stop with the Atlanta Falcons. He did log close to 400 combined special teams stops in those cities and special teams will be his ticket to a roster spot in Pittsburgh.

  • The Steelers also signed long snapper Rex Sunahara to compete with incumbent Christian Kuntz.

The Kwiatkoski signing sends a strong signal that the Steelers have turned a page from both Derek Watt and Benny Snell, two running backs who saw few carries over the last two years, but were both special teams standouts.

 

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Steelers 2023 Draft Needs @ Wide Receiver – Will Pittsburgh Use Another Premium Pick?

Mike Tomlin likes using premium picks on wide receivers. Or, if he doesn’t actually enjoy it, he’s certainly developed the habit of doing after having used first or second rounders on JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Washington, Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool and George Pickens in recent drafts.

Should the trend continue in 2023? Let’s take a look.

George Pickens, Steelers 2022 training camp, Cam Sutton

George Pickens making a catch on the first day @ St. Vincents. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

Steelers Depth Cart at Wide Receiver: The Starters

Fairly or unfairly, Diontae Johnson will always be the player the Steelers drafted to replace Antonio Brown. His career arch has been interesting since then. He had a strong rookie year in 2019, followed by 2020 when he led the NFL in drops. He bounced back and had a very strong 2021 logging 107 receptions for over 1160 yards and 8 touchdowns.

Looking around the league at the “mega contracts” other teams were giving wide receivers, Omar Khan opted to resign Diontae Johnson to a 2 year extension worth $36,710,000 dollars with 19 of that fully guaranteed.

Johnson’s performance in 2022 didn’t live up to the terms of the his contract, as his catch percentage dropped, he developed a nasty habit of running backwards after the catch, and didn’t pull in a touchdown.

Playing opposite Johnson is second year man George Pickens, who was a 2nd round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft. Pickens turned heads immediately at St. Vincents with some of his catches. He continued doing it when he got on the field during the season.

George Pickens only had 52 catches (remember when Louis Lipps would lead the Steelers in receiving with 50 catches?), but 4 of those were for touchdowns, and he displayed incredible ball skills in making them.

Steelers Wide Receiver Depth Chart: The Backups

The Steelers number three wide receiver is none other than Gunner Olszewski who has 14 receptions to his NFL name. To put that into perspective, he had 8 runs from scrimmage last season.

 

The Steelers also have Calvin Austin, 2022’s 4th round pick who spent his rookie year on injured reserve. Omar Khan has made it clear the Steelers are counting on him, and there’s every reason to take him at his word.

Steelers Draft, Steelers Draft Needs scale

  • The Steelers also have Anthony Miller who has 140 catches and 18 starts on his resume.

They also have Ja’Marcus Bradley, Dan Chisena, Dez Fitzpatrick and Cody White all under contract.

The Steelers 2023 Draft Needs @ Wide Receiver

Omar Khan has endorsed the Steelers wide receiving corps and Pittsburgh let Steven Sims walk in free agency when they easily could have kept him in the Steel City.

The Steelers do have two solid starters at wide receivers, and some decent potential behind, them, but its only potential so their need at wide receiver going into the 2023 NFL Draft should be considered as High.

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Steelers 2022 NFL Draft Needs: Examining Pittsburgh @ Wide Receiver

The receiver position has long been considered one the Steelers have excelled at in terms of drafting players, developing them and getting decent-to-great production out of those players.

  • When was the last time the Steelers didn’t have a receiving corps that was considered to be deep and talented?

It might be right now, thanks to so many free-agent defections this spring. But are those defections enough to make the position a high priority heading into the 2022 NFL Draft?

Chase Claypool, Steelers vs Bears, Steelers vs Bears MNF

Chase Claypool converts a 3rd down. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Steelers Depth Chart @ Wide Receiver Before the 2022 NFL Draft: The Starters

With JuJu Smith-Schuster, Ray-Ray McCloud and James Washington all defecting as free agents this spring, the Steelers currently have two legitimate starters on the roster. Diontae Johnson, the fourth-year man out of Toledo who caught a career-high 107 passes for 1,161 yards and earned his first trip to the Pro Bowl in 2021, is one. Chase Claypool, who regressed a bit last season after a rather-spectacular and explosive rookie campaign, is the other. Beyond that, it’s anyone’s guess as to who’s going to fill the role of slot receiver in 2022.

Steelers Depth Chart @ Wide Receiver Before the 2022 NFL Draft: The Backups

Anthony Miller, a second-round pick by the Bears in 2018, is currently listed as the starting slot receiver on the Steelers’ depth chart. Miller had some promising years in Chicago before being traded to the Texans prior to the 2021 season. After being released by Houston last October, Miller was signed to the Steelers practice squad before being promoted to the active roster in late November. Miller caught just one pass for two yards for Pittsburgh last season and has 140 receptions for nearly 1,600 yards and 12 touchdowns during his first four seasons in the NFL.

Cody White, a 2020 undrafted free agent out of Michigan State, showed a flash of promise a season ago. Tyler Vaughns, Steven Sims and Rico Bussey, three totally unproven players, round out the receiver depth chart, while Gunner Olszewski, a free-agent pickup from the Patriots, has just been a return specialist, albeit a relatively successful one, up to this point in his career.

Steelers 2022 Draft Needs @ Wide Receiver

With little in proven depth behind both Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool, the Steelers could certainly use an infusion of talent at the receiver position.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2022 NFL Draft

And let’s not forget that neither Johnson or Claypool has truly established himself as a sure-fire number one receiver in the NFL.

Factor in the conventional wisdom that the 2022 NFL Draft appears to be flush with quality prospects at the receiver position. All things considered, I’d say the Steelers’ draft need at wide receiver is High-Moderate.

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Its Probably Best for Steelers, James Washington to Part Ways in Free Agency

A second-round pick out of Oklahoma State in 2018, James Washington arrived in Pittsburgh as someone Steelers fans hoped would continue the team’s tradition of excellence at the receiver position that started with Hines Ward many years earlier.

But while James Washington had to initially bide his time behind the likes of Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster, he could never quite break through as a breakout star, even after Brown was traded in the 2019 offseason and JuJu Smith-Schuster spent the majority of 2021 — the final year of Washington’s rookie deal — on the Injured Reserve list. As James Washington enters free agency for the first time, the question is, should he and the team continue their relationship?

James Washington, Steelers vs Bengals

James Washington en route to a 79 yard touchdown. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Capsule Profile of James Washington’s Steelers Career

During his rookie preseason, James Washington showed glimpses of the deep-threat and combat-catch receiver the Steelers hoped he would be when they drafted him the previous spring, but, as I alluded to earlier, targets were hard to come by during the regular season, and Washington only caught 16 passes for 217 yards for one touchdown in 2018.

James Washington certainly didn’t endear himself to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and head coach Mike Tomlin in a late-season loss to the Broncos when he dived and failed to catch a deep pass that, had he stayed on his feet, would have gone for a touchdown. Despite what I said earlier, Washington did seem to initially thrive following Brown’s departure and, believe it or not, he did it while mostly catching passes from Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges in 2019, while Roethlisberger was out with major elbow surgery injury. Washington pulled in 44 passes for a team-high 735 yards and three touchdowns — including a 79-yard catch-and-run against the Bengals in which he displayed both his deep speed as well as his physicality by stiff-arming a Cincinnati defensive back on the way to the end zone.

Unfortunately for James Washington, he couldn’t parlay his 2019 success into greater heights over the next two seasons, as he caught a combined 54 passes for 577 yards and seven touchdowns.

The Case for the Steelers Re-signing James Washington in 2022

There’s no question that Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool are the Steelers’ top two receivers (at least that are currently under contract). With JuJu Smith-Schuster likely set to explore free agency in search of the lucrative multi-year deal he couldn’t find on the open market last offseason, James Washington could finally get his chance to shine as the number-three receiver. He’s not likely to command much once free agency kicks off, and he could probably be retained on the cheap — even on a one-year “prove it” deal.

The Case Against the Steelers Re-signing James Washington in 2022

There were rumblings that James Washington went to his bosses last summer and asked to be traded because he didn’t feel there was room on the roster for him to shine, especially after JuJu Smith-Schuster surprisingly re-signed with the team last March.

James Washington declined to refute those rumors, which probably meant there was likely some truth to them. Also, Washington garnered little playing time over the last 12 regular-season games following the injury to Smith-Schuster. Instead, Ray-Ray McCloud became a bit of a favorite target for Roethlisberger down the stretch.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and James Washington in 2022

I’d personally keep James Washington around because, again, I believe he could be had on the cheap.

But it’s probably a moot point, considering he likely wants to go somewhere where he can be more of a focal point for an offense. As Mike Tomlin says, “Its free for us, free for them,” and with that in mind it’s probably best for the two parties to go their separate ways.

Stay on top of Steelers free agency. Visit our Steelers 2022 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2022 free agency focus articles.

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Fallback Guy – Steelers Free Agent Returner Ray-Ray McCloud Only as Last Resort

“You can’t hope to stop him, you can ONLY hope to contain him,” went ESPN’s Tom Jackson innumerable times on ESPN’s NFL PrimeTime before introducing highlights of players like Mel Gray, Mike Nelms, Clarence Verdin or Vai Sikahema.

These guys may have had WR, RB or even CB listed besides their names, but make no mistake about it:

  • They forged their NFL careers as return men.

Ray-Ray McCloud arrived too late for that era, but maybe he’s lucky. His return skills are good but not great, but they were enough to earn him both a roster spot and reps at wide receiver with the Steelers. Has he done enough to extend his stay in Pittsburgh?

Ray-Ray McCloud

Ray-Ray McCloud (almost) takes it to the house. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune-Review

Capsule Profile of Ray-Ray McCloud’s Career with the Steelers

The Steelers signed Ray-Ray McCloud in 2020 after fumbling issues led both the Bills and the Panthers to part ways with him. McCloud got off to a strong start for the Steelers as both a punt and kick returner, while adding a spark on offense fueled in part by a 58 yard Jet sweep that helped cement the Steelers lead over the Eagles.

Yet after fumbling against the Ravens and then against Washington, his punt return average sunk, as he appeared tentative. In 2021, Ray-Ray McCloud returned to the team as the primary returner and 4th down wide receiver.

Although he did fumble twice, losing one of those, his return average remained steady, and his role in the offense grew, as he logged 39 catches over 20 from the year before.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Ray-Ray McCloud

Ray-Ray McCloud will never be a star. But he’s shown himself to be an above average punt returner, a competent kick returner and a serviceable 4th wide receiver. The Steelers are going to want some experience behind Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool, and Ray-Ray McCloud will provide that – at a very reasonable cap number.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Ray-Ray McCloud

With quarterback a big question mark going into 2022, the Steelers need dynamic players elsewhere in their offense. Ray-Ray McCloud isn’t dynamic and never will be.

So why bring him back?

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Ray-Ray McCloud

The Steelers are going to need to upgrade at wide receiver.

Ray-Ray McCloud might provide decent depth against a rash of injuries at the position, but he’s not someone you want to have penciled in as your number 4 wide out for 3rd and long situations going into the season. And while the Steelers have struggled to find a solid returner for the past several seasons, that’s a role that younger players with legitimate upside can play.

If the Steelers can’t manage to find that in free agency or the draft, then Ray-Ray McCloud could be a fallback option, but only that.

Follow Steelers free agency. Click here for our Steelers 2022 Free Agent tracker or here for all Steelers 2022 free agent focus articles.

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Will JuJu Smith-Schuster Stay with Steelers? Should He? Its a Tricky Situation

Second contracts separate dollars from cents in today’s NFL. Sure, even undrafted free agent rookies get six figure salaries. But they’re only an injury away from losing it all. Draft picks have more security, but only a little.

  • But manage a second NFL contract wisely, and you’ll have financial security for life.

If you’re smart with your money and lucky enough to stay healthy, you’ve got a shot at integrational wealth. The Steelers are better than any other NFL team at honoring their second contract commitments, particularly for home-grown players.

Yet, when it comes to wide receivers, only Hines Ward and Antonio Brown have gotten second contracts.

A year ago, JuJu Smith-Schuster was pleading to join them. He got his wish, sort of, and now both sides need to decide whether to reup for a third dance. Will it happen?

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 fight erupted between Martavis Bryant and Sammie Coates as to who JuJu was arriving to replace. As it turned out, JuJu pushed both men off of the team (OK, Bryant did himself no favors).

JuJu Smith-Schuster had an electrifying rookie campaign, catching 58 passes for just under 1000 yards and included game changing long catches against the Lions and what should have been a game changer against the Patriots. He followed up with 111 catches for 1426 yards in his second season, wining team MVP honors.

Those honors didn’t sit well with Brown, who threw a tantrum and well, you know the rest.

  • JuJu boldly declared, “I’m Ready.”

Alas, he might have been ready but the rest of the Steelers offense wasn’t. Ben Roethlisberger’s 2019 campaign lasted 6 quarters as Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges slogged out an 8-8 campaign with an offensive line in decline and a running game led by a wounded James Conner and rookie Benny Snell.

Smith-Schuster’s production dipped to 42 catches as he missed four games. He bounced back in 2020 to catch 97 passes, but didn’t get much interested in free agency. He returned to Pittsburgh on a one year deal, but got injured 5 games into the season. JuJu returned for the playoffs, but wasn’t a factor.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning JuJu Smith-Schuster

JuJu Smith-Schuster’s 2021 season only lasted 5 games but the Steelers missed him. As Mark Kaboly reminded before the playoffs, with JuJu the Steelers converted 46% of their third downs.

  • Without JuJu that number dropped by 10 percent.

Go back to 2020 when drops became a chronic issue for the Steelers receiving corps. But not for JuJu, as he easily led wideouts with a 75% catch rate.

JuJu Smith-Schuster is a gamer. He brings a physical presence as a run blocker. He is a leader. The fact that he suited up for the playoffs and risked injury tells you all you need to know about his heart.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning JuJu Smith-Schuster

JuJu Smith-Schuster’s story is a compelling one, but the Steelers can’t let sentimentally cloud their judgement. Alongside Antonio Brown, JuJu was lethal. Without him, he’s been good but not great. Second contracts for wide receivers clock in at about 12 million per year or more, often with 8 figures of guarantees.

JuJu Smith-Schuster quite simply hasn’t proven he’s worth that kind of investment.

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

A year ago, JuJu pleaded to stay in Pittsburgh. That seemed impossible. But when Smith-Schuster only got one year deals, he opted to stay with the Steelers via a home town discount and voidable years.

This year the Steelers have the cap space to consider resigning him, yet JuJu Smith-Schuster doesn’t appear interested, based on his comments about Heinz Field’s locker rooms and some social media posts. But does that mean JuJu’s as good as gone?

  • Much of this will depend on the market.

A year ago, JuJu thought he’d have more interest in his services yet got few takers. Perhaps that will happen again given how injury ravaged his 2021 season.

Realistically, that seems to be the only way he returns as a Steeler in 2022.

Follow Steelers free agency. Visit our Steelers 2022 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2022 free agent focus articles.

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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.

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:

https://twitter.com/NealCoolong/status/1368621254719270918

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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