Another in a position-by-position series in advance of the start of free agency on March 9.
WIDE RECEIVERS – (8)
(Free Agent Scorecard: 1 unrestricted – Darrius Heyward-Bey)
With Antonio Brown, hyperbole isn't necessary. The facts alone are sufficient, and here are some of the facts pertaining to his 2015 season and to his career to this point: In 2015, Brown tied for the league lead with 136 receptions, and he has 265 receptions over the past two seasons to surpass Marvin Harrison (252 in 2001-02) for the most catches in any two-season span in NFL history; and he joined Wes Welker (2007-09) as the only players in NFL history with three consecutive 110-catch seasons (129 in 2014; 110 in 2013). Brown had four 185-yard receiving games in 2015, the most in a single season in NFL history, and he became the only player in NFL history with at least 100 receptions and a punt return-touchdown in multiple seasons and has done so in each of the past three (2013-15). Signed through 2018, Brown's contract situation is the only issue surrounding him this offseason, and he just doesn't seem to have it in him to be a holdout. Last offseason the team moved some money from his 2016 base salary into 2015, and Steelers President Art Rooney II has said, "I don't like to speculate about what we are going to do about a player's contract. We have had a number of players over the years with whom we've had to make contract adjustments. We obviously try to be cautious about how we do that. We will just have to address that as the offseason goes on. AB is a great football player … and we hope he is going to be here for the long term."
Check out photos of WR Martavis Bryant's wild catch during the Wild Card game against the Bengals.
His second NFL season began with a four-game suspension for violation of the NFL's drug policy, and it included a publicly-issued challenge from the starting quarterback. Bryant finished the regular season with 50 catches for 765 yards and six touchdowns, and he added another 14 catches in the playoffs, with nine for 154 yards (17.1 average) coming in the game against the Broncos that Antonio Brown missed with a concussion. Bryant has the skills to be better than Brown, but he doesn't currently have the work ethic or the professionalism required to get himself to that level as a player. Bryant can go down in franchise history as one of the Steelers' most dynamic receivers, or he could end up being remembered as the ultimate "what if …" It's completely within his control, but the belief within the coaching staff is that what Bryant has shown so far is only scratching the surface of what he could be capable of accomplishing/producing.
In the immediate aftermath of the announcement of Bryant's suspension for repeated violations of the NFL's drug policy, the point was made by the Steelers that drafting Coates was done as a hedge against a potential loss of Bryant. While both have the potential to be dynamic NFL receivers, their styles appear to be different in that what Bryant accomplishes with speed Coates may end up getting done with strength and power. Life can be easy for a college wide receiver, based on the caliber of the defensive backs he faces and the simplicity of the coverages, but that's not the case in the NFL. There may be a lot of potential here, but there's also a lot of work necessary to unlock that potential. Coates and Bryant both have the perfect example of how to go about their work right in the same meeting room with them, and time will tell if both, or either, is savvy enough to mimic Antonio Brown.
Had Heyward-Bey entered the NFL as a fifth-round draft pick, he would be viewed by fans as a shining example of a hard-working, multi-talented individual who's willingness to contribute to the team in a variety of ways is essential to contending for a championship. But because he was a top-10 pick in the first round, he's viewed more in light of what he's not. But why should Heyward-Bey be punished for the Raiders' mistake? He's smart, he'll play special teams and he's good at it, he understands the offense and what defenses are trying to do to neutralize it. Heyward-Bey is a professional, and he still has the kind of difference-making speed opposing defenses must respect. It shouldn't be difficult to find a spot on a 53-man roster for a guy like him. Hopefully, he's again willing to re-sign with the Steelers.
Norwood (6-foot-2, 200) was released by the Chicago Bears on Aug. 30, 2015. He originally signed with the Bears as an undrafted rookie free agent out of Baylor on May 3, 2015. At Baylor, Norwood earned All-Big 12 honorable mention as a return specialist in back-to-back seasons (2013-14).
Maybe Phillips is back for another shot at making the roster after spending all of 2015 on the practice squad, but whether he gets to training camp could be determined by what else happens during the offseason. Signed as an undrafted rookie in May 2015, Phillips got himself to Latrobe with a nice offseason performance, and then through the first three preseason games he had six catches for 102 yards and a touchdown. But then Phillips hit a plateau, was waived on Sept. 5, and then signed to the practice squad the next day. This roster is not going to be an easy one for a wide receiver to break through and win a spot.
Signed last May 2 as an undrafted rookie from Louisville, Rogers was slated to compete as a slot receiver and punt returner. But he got hurt even before the five-game preseason kicked off, and so he has been on injured reserve.
Even though a lot of contemporary offensive football in the NFL is about matchups and the personnel groupings that create favorable matchups, there would seem to be a job with the Steelers as being No. 2 to Antonio Brown's No. 1. With Ben Roethlisberger as the quarterback over the next few seasons at least, that's not bad work if you can get it, and it's probably going to pay a decent buck when the time comes. Right now there are three guys in that line – listed alphabetically they would be Bryant, Coates, and Wheaton. They will be the ones who change that order into something more merit-based by the time the 2016 season opens. It should be fun to watch.