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 Patrick Peterson, Keanu Neal. To Meet Russell Wilson

With the clock ticking towards free agency Omar Khan continues to make moves to free salary cap space for the Steelers by cutting Keanu Neal and reportedly Patrick Peterson.

  • And Khan is neither being sentimental nor playing it on the safe side.

Khan began the off season by cutting the Steelers punter, their backup quarterback and their number 3 tackle. For an encore he cut the starting center. Now he’s taking a cleaver to the secondary.

Patrick Peterson, Keanu Neal, Chistan Watson, Steelers vs Packers

Patrick Peterson tips an end zone pass to Keanu Neal. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review.

Keanu Neal’s release was somewhat expected. Neal came to the Steelers with a high pedigree but with a questionable injury history. But the Steelers 3 safety package has become more and more important to the defense and with Terrell Edmunds’ departure that opened a role for Neal.

Neal filled the role well, playing in 66% of the Steelers defensive snaps, making his biggest move with the game-saving interception in the Steelers win over the Green Bay Packers. Unfortunately it was his last play with the team as he went on injured reserve the following week

The Steelers gave him a physical this week and when he failed granted him his release.

  • The decision to cut Patrick Peterson is more of a surprise.

Peterson is a potential future Hall of Famer who admittedly was closing in on his “Life’s Work” before the Steelers signed him last spring. Peterson became an immediate starter, logging more snaps than any other starter on the defense.

His performance was checkered. At times he appeared to be slowing a step. But he clearly proved to be an asset in other ways, mentoring Joey Porter Jr. and moving over to safety after injuries decimated the position late in the season.

There was speculation that Peterson would move to safety full time in 2024.

Apparently that won’t happen now, at least not in Pittsburgh.

Oh, Yeah About Wilson

The other BIG news ahead of free agency is the report that the Steelers will meet with Russell Wilson. Yes, none other than Russell Wilson who led the Seattle Seahawks to a Super Bowl championship and how the Broncos gave up the store to bring to Denver.

Mason Rudolph, Kenny Pickett, Steelers 2022 Training Camp, Steelers St. Vincents 2022

Mason Rudolph and Kenny Pickett in 2022 at St. Vincents. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

The same Russell Wilson that the Broncos will have to pay nearly 40 million dollars to next year no matter what he does.

All of the reports from credible reporters indicated that the Steelers were not interested in bringing one of the veteran free agent quarterbacks to Pittsburgh. Nonetheless, at the combine Omar Khan did clearly state that all options were on the table for improving the Steelers at quarterback.

Khan, Mike Tomlin and Art Rooney II have all expressed confidence in Kenny Pickett and they’ve all said they want Mason Rudolph back.

  • But Mike Tomlin also insisted that Kenny Pickett would get “competition.”

Questions abound:

  • Would Wilson agree to come to Pittsburgh on the condition that he compete for the starting job?
  • Would Mike Tomlin stage an open competition?
  • Would Wilson even be a good fit for Arthur Smith’s offense?
  • How doe Mason Rudolph factor in? Is part of the reason behind this to pressure him to sign?
  • Does Wilson have something in the tank?

On the latter note, Mike Tomlin does have a history of bringing high-profile athletes to Pittsburgh late in their careers. Plaxico Burress, Michael Vick, and even Joey Galloway serve as examples. While he didn’t do much in his second act in Pittsburgh, Burress did close his career with a touchdown at Heinz Field. Vick had one quarter of football left in him that put the Steelers over the on top vs San Diego on Monday Night Football. And Galloway never saw the field.

Landing on Their Feet

Two recently released Steelers have landed on their feet. Mitch Trubisky signed a two-year deal to return to Buffalo to backup Josh Allen. And the New England Patriots have signed Chukwuma Okorafor.

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Mr. Smith Goes to Pittsburgh: Steelers Hire Arthur Smith as Offensive Coordinator

Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin is set to hire Arthur Smith as his 5th offensive coordinator. In making the move, Tomlin may not have quite turned over all possible loose stones, but he did make good on his promise to look outside the organization.

Smith is most recently served as the Atlanta Falcons head coach, and prior to that he worked for two years as the Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator. He will be the first Steelers offensive coordinator in the 21st that neither has ties to the team nor the city of Pittsburgh.

Ironically however, a quick look at Smith’s track record suggests he could help the franchise remain true to its roots.

Mike Tomlin, Arthur Smith, Steelers vs Falcons

Mike Tomlin shakes hands with new offensive coordinator Arthur Smith. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

Of Running, Ryan and Combos

In his season-ending press conference, Mike Tomlin clarified that he wanted his next offensive coordinator to have experience and that he wanted someone who can foster Kenny Pickett’s development.

  • Arthur Smith checks both boxes.

The Miami Dolphins drafted Ryan Tannehill with the 8th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft he started 88 games for them over 6 seasons. Tannehill’s numbers were OK, but never delivered what you’d need and expect an 8th overall pick to deliver. He never started a playoff game although the 2016 Dolphins did make it to the playoffs, Tannehill did not play as they got crushed by the Steelers.

The Dolphins moved on after 2018 and Tannehill headed to Tennessee where he joined Smith, who’d just been promoted to offensive coordinator. The difference was eye popping. Tannehill’s average passer rating at Tennessee was 91.2. In his two seasons with Smith that soared to 117.5 and 106.5

That pickup caught the attention of NFL owners, undoubtedly helping Smith land the head coaching job in Atlanta. And what’s telling here is that without Smith Tannehill’s passer rating dropped to Miami-like levels.

  • And there’s no real secret to Smith’s success with Tannehill – he leaned into the running game.

Under Smith’s guidance, the Titan’s rushing offense ranked 2nd and 3rd in rushing in the NFL. That’s welcome news for Steelers Smash Mouth Football purists who’ve longed for the team to get back to its roots.

  • It also may signal that Mike Tomlin’s willing to challenge the conventional wisdom.

The NFL is a quarterback-driven league. If anyone ever doubted that, look no further than Josh Allen’s role in defeating the Steelers during the playoffs. But you can build a Super Bowl team around a solid running game and a strong defense as the 2015 Denver Broncos demonstrated (please spare me the “but they had Peyton Manning” replies, Manning was a glorified game-manager at that point in his career.)

With the Smith hire, it seems that Tomlin is acknowledging that the Steelers don’t have a super star quarterback and is acting accordingly.

The other encouraging sign in Smith’s resume is his background as a tight ends coach. Working as with tight ends gives a coach a unique perspective on the dynamics that drive both the running and passing games. I can’t speak for the rest of the league, but both Bill Cowher promoted both Mike Mularkey and Ken Whisenhunt from tight ends coach to offensive coordinator, and the Steelers offense flourished under both.

With that said, if during the Steelers 2022 win over the Falcons, Atlanta didn’t lean into its running game when it should have and they lost because of it, so that’s something to keep in mind.

Of Precedents and Pedigrees

The Steelers tendency to keep things in the family when it comes to finding offensive coordinators is nothing new. Tom Moore, Chan Gailey, Mularkey, Whisenhunt, Bruce Arians, Randy Fitchner and Matt Canada were all in-house hires. Both Joe Walton and Todd Haley had ties to the city and/or the team.

So Smith is now just the 4th “virgin” Steelers offensive coordinator hire, with Ron Erhardt, Ray Sherman and Kevin Gilbride being the first three.

Looking at his track record, Arthur Smith looks a lot more like Ron Erhardt than a Sherman or a Gilbride. That’s a good thing.

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