Updated: Jun 4, 2021
(Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images)
The Steelers have one of the deepest receiving corps in the league with JuJu Smith-Schuster, Chase Claypool, Diontae Johnson, James Washington, Ray-Ray McCloud, Eric Ebron and Pat Freiermuth. In fact, they were the only team last year that had four receivers with at least 50 receptions for 500 yards and five touchdowns. Despite the strong depth, Pro Football Focus finds the Steelers' receiving corps below average, having them ranked 18th in the NFL.
"Last season, the Steelers struggled to create explosive plays, but they have the pieces in play to improve in that department in 2021," Steve Palazzolo of PFF wrote. "Chase Claypool had a strong rookie season with peaks that rival the best downfield threats in the league. He led all rookies with nine receiving touchdowns, and his size and speed should be used more often this season.
"Diontae Johnson is one of the better route runners in the league, but his 2020 was marred by 14 drops on just 102 catchable passes. Drops tend to be an unstable stat, so expect that number to fall and Johnson to settle in as one of the most effective short and intermediate receivers in the league. JuJu Smith-Schuster returns after flirting with other teams in free agency. He averaged a paltry 9.0 yards per reception, far below his career average of 12.0. He remains a solid slot option. James Washington is also in the mix as his quest for consistency continues. H graded at 69.3 in 2019 and 63.8 last season. Ray-Ray McCloud III will be used in the jet sweep game after averaging just 3.9 yards per reception on his 20 catches last season."
According to Sports Info Solutions, 14 of Johnson's league-high 16 drops last year were within five yards of the line of scrimmage. To Johnson's credit, he did improve when it came to catching the ball late in the year after being benched by Mike Tomlin for most of the first half against the Bills in Week 14 after two drops.
I think it was really just a focus issue with Johnson, as he couldn't haul in the easy ones. He had a bad habit of running with the ball before securing the catch. Hopefully, Johnson's issues with drops are behind him because he's really too good of a receiver to have that aspect hinder him. He's the Steelers' best route-runner and Ben Roethlisberger targeted him a team-high 144 times last year, so he definitely has the ability to create separation and get open.
As for Smith-Schuster, I think he was just not utilized right under former offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner last year, as he averaged just 8.6 yards per catch, which ranked 126th in the league.
According to Next Gen Stats, Smith-Schuster ran the shortest routes of any wide receiver last season (minimum 300 routes), with an average route depth of 8.3 yards. As a result, Smith-Schuster relied on yards after the catch to gain yardage -- 51.3% of his yards came after the catch, which was fourth among wide receivers, minimum of 75 targets.
Hopefully new offensive coordinator Matt Canada will use Smith-Schuster better and send him on some more deep routes this year. I mean, this is a receiver that has two 97-yard touchdowns in his career. He shouldn't be averaging 8.6 yards per catch. Smith-Schuster also shared on the Adam Schefter Podcast in May that he will be playing a lot more on the outside this year, opposed to being predominantly in the slot like last season. James Washington says the versatility of where wide receivers can lineup in Canada's offense is an aspect that he favors.
"That is what I like about this team," Washington told the media after today's OTAs practice. "Receivers can play any position. You're not just a Z, or an inside or outside guy. You may play that primarily, but you're never just that receiver. You can always move around. I think we're pretty fluid with moving around and keeping guys out there."
I think the Steelers' wide receivers corps should be higher on PFF's list due to their great depth, however, they do need to be more consistent and that goes for across the board -- Smith-Schuster, Claypool, Johnson, Washington, McCloud and Ebron.
Freiermuth will also add a different dimension to the offense, as he's a solid pass-catcher and run blocker, which the Steelers really haven't had at the tight end position since Heath Miller retired after the 2015 season. Vance McDonald showed glimpses of being a dual-threat tight end, but he struggled with durability. It will also be interesting to see if the Steelers run more two-tight end sets with Freiermuth and Ebron, as the two have the potential to make for an impressive duo that will keep the defenses guessing.
In addition, expect Claypool to be even better in Year 2 after an impressive rookie season where he finished the regular season with 62 receptions for 873 yards (14.1 average) and nine touchdowns. He also had two rushing touchdowns as well. Claypool tied Franco Harris (1972) and Louis Lipps (1984) for the most touchdowns in franchise history during a rookie season with 11. Claypool's 62 receptions on the season were also the most ever for a Steelers rookie and his nine receiving touchdowns last year were the most among all rookies. Not bad for the 11th receiver selected in the 2020 NFL Draft.