Another in a position-by-position series in advance of the start of free agency on March 13.
WIDE RECEIVERS (9)
Antonio Brown, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Justin Hunter, Eli Rogers, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Spencer, Ryan Switzer, James Washington, Ka’Raun White
(Free Agent Scorecard: 2; 2 unrestricted – Darrius Heyward-Bey, Justin Hunter)
A LAST LOOK AT 2018
This unit was highly productive last season, as to be expected when the quarterback started all 16 games and led the NFL in passing yards with 5,129. But when it came to that production, the unit was decidedly top heavy. JuJu Smith-Schuster (111 catches for 1,426 yards and seven touchdowns) and Antonio Brown (104 catches for 1,297 yards and 15 touchdowns) combined to account for 47.6 percent of Ben Roethlisberger’s completions, for 53.1 percent of his yards, and 64.7 percent of his touchdowns.
Brown, who has 686 receptions since 2013, the most by a player over any six-year span in NFL history, led the league with a franchise-record 15 touchdown catches last season. His 9,145 receiving yards since 2013 are also the most by any player in a six-year span in NFL history, and he became the fifth player since 1970 to record at least eight touchdown catches in six consecutive seasons.
Smith-Schuster had 111 catches last season and, at 22 years and 31 days old during Week 16 when he reached the 100-reception mark, he became the youngest player in NFL history to crack 100 receptions in a season. Larry Fitzgerald accomplished it at 22 years and 123 days old.
But as impressive as those numbers are, none of the other players at the position – and the Steelers had seven wide receivers on and off the roster during the 2018 regular season – developed into a consistent threat. The only guy who even carved out a consistent role for himself was Ryan Switzer, who was acquired in an Aug. 27 trade with Oakland and became a consistent presence as a slot receiver.
As for the other players on the depth chart, James Washington experienced some of the growing pains that are normal for NFL rookies; veteran Justin Hunter never developed any consistency; veteran Darrius Heyward-Bey was kept for his special teams play; and Eli Rogers opened the season on the physically unable to perform list and wasn’t added to the active roster until Dec. 15, a move that was in response to Hunter going on injured reserve on Dec. 4.
Because Rogers opened the season on PUP and wasn’t healthy by the sixth game of the regular season, his 2018 contract can be tolled into 2019, which means the Steelers could retain his rights for another year at the same salary he earned in 2018. A final decision on that has not yet been announced.
ONE STAT THAT STANDS OUT
As mentioned, Brown and Smith-Schuster combined for 47.6 percent of Roethlisberger’s completions, 53.1 percent of his yards, and 64.7 percent of his touchdowns. By comparison, the other five wide receivers – Switzer, Washington, Hunter, Heyward-Bey, and Rogers – combined for 15 percent of Roethlisberger’s completions, 11.3 percent of his yards, and 5.9 percent of his touchdowns.
LOOKING AHEAD TO 2019
It’s a foregone conclusion that Antonio Brown will be traded, but that transaction will not and cannot become official until 4 p.m. on March 13, which is the first day of the new league year. Provided the trade is official before March 17, which is when a $2.5 million roster bonus is due, Brown will count $21.2 million in dead money on the Steelers’ 2019 salary cap.
To understand the actual implications of the March 17 date when the bonus becomes guaranteed: Even though Brown won’t receive the money until the 2019 regular season begins and it is to be paid in weekly installments over the course of the regular season by whatever team employs him at that time, if Brown is still on the Steelers roster on March 17, they will have to carry the $2.5 million on their salary cap this year.
While the intricacies of the trade and what the Steelers recoup in return will interest and occupy fans for months, what will the depth chart at this position end up looking like come late July when it’s time to report to Saint Vincent College?
Smith-Schuster becomes the No. 1 receiver for certain, and he’ll be expected to handle that role. Based on his first two NFL seasons, there is way more evidence suggesting he can than he can’t, and then the issue becomes which players fill out the remainder of the depth chart.
Hopes remain high for Washington. He’s a serious professional who worked consistently hard at practices all the way back to OTAs and training camp, and he made a number of big plays and nice catches in practices to indicate he’s capable of much more than he showed during his rookie season.
Switzer, with 36 catches, is the guy who accounted for more than half of the receptions made by wide receivers not named Brown or Smith-Schuster, and he presented himself as consistently reliable, especially in light of not having the luxury of a training camp and preseason with the Steelers. Switzer also has added value as a returner of both punts and kickoffs.
Neither Hunter nor Heyward-Bey has contributed much at all as a receiver during their time with the Steelers, and as both are unrestricted free agents, bringing them back doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense right now. Heyward-Bey’s roster spot has been explained as necessary because of his special teams value, but he had only three tackles on special teams throughout the 2018 season.
As already mentioned, Rogers is expected to have his contract tolled, but he seems to be the same kind of player as Switzer, and teams typically don’t keep multiple slot receivers. Can Rogers be more than that? Can Switzer? Is it possible for the Steelers to strengthen this unit during free agency, or is it going to have to come during the draft? Any way these questions are answered, it seems as though there are going to be some new names dotting this depth chart, and maybe dotting the upper rungs of the depth chart.