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5 for Friday: Pickens just scratching the surface

Zach Azzani has spent the past seven seasons coaching wide receivers in the NFL, doing so with the Jets, Broncos and Bears. Prior to that, he coached the position for 18 years at the collegiate level.

So he understands more than a little bit about the position.

That's why when some question what the Steelers have at the wide receiver position beyond budding star George Pickens, Azzani sees the group of receivers the team has acquired this offseason as an opportunity - not only for the players, but for himself.

In addition to Pickens and fellow holdover Calvin Austin, the Steelers have a bevy of veteran receivers they've brought in over the past year to revamp the position, including Van Jefferson, Quez Watkins, Scotty Miller, Denzel Mims, Cordarrelle Patterson and Marquez Callaway, all of whom have significant NFL experience. They round out a group that also includes rookie Roman Wilson, a third-round draft pick, Dez Fitzpatrick, Deuce Watts and Jaray Jenkins, three players who have spent time on NFL practice squads.

The group might not be loaded with household names, though both Jefferson and Mims are former second-round draft picks, but Azzani is excited about the possibilities of what they could be in the Steelers offense.

It's up to him to continue to mold their talents.

"They all come with their own bad and good habits. And we're just trying to get the habits that we want to create in our way, our style," said Azzani, who was hired in the offseason to coach the group. "We've got a lot of guys that are in some cool areas of their careers, though, at year four, going into year five. The only rookies we have is Roman, but George is going into year three. So we got some guys in some pivotal years. So yeah, we're trying to create new and brand new habits for these guys. We want to take their good habits, eliminate the bad."

If they can do that, the Steelers' perceived need of adding another star player at the position would be greatly lessened.

In Pickens, the Steelers have a player who is coming off a season in which he caught 63 passes for 1,140 yards and five touchdowns. He's clearly the team's top wide receiver, but the 23-year-old is just scratching the surface of what he could be.

"It's right there for him," Azzani said. "He's just got to got to pick it up and take the cheese, do the things we asked him to do and he can do anything he wants. He's that talented. I think you guys all know that Ray Charles can see that. You don't need to be a coach. So we know that's out there for him if he wants it. Now, he's just got to keep stacking the days and that's my job, too."

Beyond Pickens, who serves as the No. 2, 3 or 4 is a big question mark. But Azzani isn't as concerned with that.

"The competition has been great," Azzani said. "I know that a lot people look at the one, the two, the three. Listen, these days we move everyone around and guys get good balls depending on matchups so that number thing is a little overrated to me. But yes, we're trying to find the best three or four we can put out there for sure."

Jefferson, a former second-round draft pick of the Rams, has the best resume of the group of veterans battling for a spot. Before being traded to Atlanta last offseason, where he joined now-Steelers offensive coordinator Arthur Smith, Jefferson caught 50 passes for 802 yards and six touchdowns in 2021 before injuries slowed him in 2022 and 2023.

Still, the veteran caught nine passes for 102 yards in Los Angeles' run to the Super Bowl in 2021, so there's talent there as the Steelers search for a replacement for Dionte Johnson, who was traded to the Panthers in the offseason.

But Johnson had 51 catches for 717 yards and five touchdowns in 2023, so replicating that production for Jefferson or one of the other wideouts on the roster might not be all that difficult.

Watkins, another player with Super Bowl experience in his days with the Eagles, also has a skillset that's attractive. The deep threat had 98 receptions for 1,249 yards and six touchdowns on just 147 career targets over four seasons with the Eagles, where he largely served as the No. 3 receiver behind A.J. Brown and Devonta Smith.

Mims, meanwhile, had 42 receptions for 676 yards with the Jets, despite a largely unsettled quarterback situation in his three seasons there, while Callaway has 83 receptions on 143 career targets for 1,069 yards and seven touchdowns in three seasons with the Saints. Included in that was 46 catches for 698 yards and six touchdowns with Drew Brees at quarterback in 2021.

The Steelers participate in Day 3 of the 2024 minicamp at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex

Patterson, one of the best kickoff return men in NFL history, has 298 career receptions, with a career-high of 52 that he has achieved twice, while Miller 85 career receptions on 144 targets for 1,085 yards and six touchdowns.

Together, they might not have Johnson's overall game, but they each bring something different to the table.

Could the Steelers still upgrade there? Sure. But if they don't, it might not be the disaster some might believe -- as long as Pickens stays healthy.

"That's all subjective, and you know things happen coming into and during the season," offensive coordinator Arthur Smith said of labeling his receivers by number. "Things happen. Guys get injured first play the game, and you have to have contingency plans and that's our job. The ball is going to kick off … whenever they tell us to play. But you better have depth and you're always working on contingency and looking for improvement. And so you deal with whatever circumstance is thrown your way. I don't get too caught up in labeling guys, especially this time of year. The guys are all wearing football shorts, trying to do their job. Things will be worked out in Latrobe and things can always change too."

And then there is Austin, a fourth-round pick in 2022, the same draft that brought the Steelers Pickens in the second round.

He missed his entire rookie season with a foot injury, making 2023 essentially his rookie season in the NFL. Austin had 17 catches for 180 yards and one touchdown in 2023, and Azzani has been pleased with what he's seen from the speedster thus far.

"He's been outstanding," Azzani said. "That's a guy that is going from (down) here to (up) here in the last eight weeks. It's been really fun to watch. He's a worker. He's intentful. He's urgent. He wants to be coached. And you can see it because his game has done that. And I'm really excited for his season if he keeps practicing the way he's been practicing."

So, maybe the Steelers will just let things play out and see what they have at the position at training camp once it starts in late July at Saint Vincent College.

"We're a growing work in progress," Azzani said.

* On the subject of Pickens, there have been just four wide receivers in NFL history who have had 60-plus receptions and an average yards per catch of 18 or more yards by the time they're 22 years old.

Pickens joined that group last season. The others are Randy Moss, Ja'Marr Chase and Josh Gordon.

Some might look at that list and wonder how Gordon made it there. But remember, before he ran afoul of the league's substance abuse policy, Gordon had a monster season in 2013, catching 87 passes for 1,646 yards and nine touchdowns in his second NFL season.

As many other teams have done with their top receivers, the Steelers are embracing the idea of perhaps moving Pickett to the slot at times to get him better matchups and make it more difficult for opponents to use double teams against him.

"I'm a total receiver," Pickens said. "I like working in the slot just as much as I like working as an outside receiver. It puts me on linebackers, put me on safeties."

* Wide receiver isn't the only position on this team with excellent depth in terms of players with NFL experience.

In fact, if you look across the board at every position on this roster, the depth is very good.

Might the Steelers still look to add a player here or there? Absolutely.

Last season, the team added linebacker Kwon Alexander to the mix at inside linebacker in the first week of training camp. And there are a number of veteran players still available that will be on someone's roster this season.

A big reason why some of those veterans have yet to be signed could be because of the new kickoff rules this season. With a greater emphasis on bringing the kickoff return back into the game, teams are taking a longer look at younger players who will comprise their coverage and return teams, something they haven't needed to do as much in recent years.

And many of those veteran players still waiting for a call at this point aren't going to contribute on special teams quite as much.

So it only makes sense to look at those younger players a little longer and see if they'll be able to make contributions on special teams.

Dale Lolley is co-host of "SNR Drive" on Steelers Nation Radio. Subscribe to the podcast here: Apple Podcast | iHeart Podcast

• Steelers general manager Omar Khan made an appearance on 93.7 The Fan on Thursday and gave the most definitive response we've heard yet on the health of inside linebacker Cole Holcomb, saying Holcomb has an appointment with a doctor in July to see if he'll be cleared to return to the field.

"He's been working hard," Khan said.

That might be why when asked if there he anticipated anyone not being ready to participate at the start of training camp next month, head coach Mike Tomlin simply replied, "I don't."

That's big news.

If the Steelers can get Holcomb healthy and back on the field, they might have one of the better inside linebacker groups in the entire NFL with the additions of both Patrick Queen and third-round draft pick Payton Wilson this offseason to add to a group that also includes Elandon Roberts and Mark Robinson.

At the very least, it will be a far cry different from what they finished the 2023 season with, when Roberts was the only mainstay remaining and lined up to seemingly a new player each week down the stretch because of injuries.

• With plenty of new coaches on staff this season, including the strength and conditioning staff, come new and different ideas.

Because of some of those things, fans in attendance at training camp next month in Latrobe might see some different drills, approaches and, as we already know, times to the daily schedule.

The shift in the time of weekday practices to the mornings will be part of that.

But that shift in practice times on weekdays was put in place to help maximize the time coaches can spend with players on a daily basis while also taking care of their bodies.

"Our day was pressed on the other side of the practice, and I just want to give them an opportunity to do a better job of accommodating the fans while taking care of their bodies," Tomlin said this week. "A lot of times they're working to rehydrate, but dinner was running up on them, and so they didn't have the appetite to eat. And so, we just feel like with the early practice schedule, it just creates an opportunity for better wellness and keeping guys upright and rolling."