Another in a position-by-position series in advance of the start of free agency on March 14.
WIDE RECEIVERS – (10)
Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Trey Griffey, Justin Hunter, Tevin Jones, Eli Rogers, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Justin Thomas, Marcus Tucker
(Free Agent Scorecard: 2; 1 unrestricted – Justin Hunter; 1 restricted – Eli Rogers)
A LAST LOOK AT 2017
First-team Associated Press All-Pro. First player in Steelers history to be voted MVP by his teammates four times. The only player in NFL history with five successive 100-catch seasons. His 582 catches are the most by a receiver in NFL history over any five-year span. His six games with at least 10 catches and 100 receiving yards in 2017 tied Andre Johnson for the second most in a single season in NFL history. Antonio Brown authored a lot of
memorable moments this past season, but in addition to the individual records he set and the personal milestones he eclipsed, he came through for the team to impact the outcome of games as well. Just go back and re-watch the game-winning drive in the 20-17 victory over Indianapolis, or last 60 seconds of that 31-28 victory over the Green Bay Packers, as just a couple of examples.
And while Brown is by far this unit’s shining light – and also a generational player at his position – the Steelers wide receivers rolled up a lot of statistics and authored many highlights over the 2017 season.
JuJu Smith-Schuster was voted the Steelers’ Rookie of the Year, and he set a franchise rookie record with 917 receiving yards. His seven touchdown catches and six receptions of 40-plus also were the best in the NFL among
rookies in 2017. His touchdown catch in Week 2 – when he was still 20 years old – made him the youngest player to score a touchdown in the NFL since 1964 (Chicago’s Andy Livingston) and the youngest player to catch a touchdown pass since 1930 (Green Bay’s Arnie Herber). Smith-Schuster’s five touchdown receptions before his 21st birthday are the most in NFL history.
Martavis Bryant gradually worked his way back after missing the entire 2016 season, and 27 of his 50 catches and two of his three touchdown came over the final six weeks of the regular season.
Those three were the primary contributors, but not the only ones. Eli Rogers caught a touchdown pass vs. the Patriots and had a 27-yard punt return in Houston on Christmas Day; Darrius Heyward-Bey caught a 44-yard pass vs. the Bengals in October; and Justin Hunter caught a touchdown pass vs. the Texans.
ONE STAT THAT STANDS OUT
The Steelers opened the regular season with six wide receivers on their 53-man roster, and those six players ended up combining for 233 catches for 3,272 yards (14.1 average) and 21 touchdowns.
A LOOK AHEAD TO 2018**
Once again, this could end up being the toughest place to earn a roster spot. Brown is signed through the 2021 season; Bryant’s rookie contract was tolled because of his one-year suspension and he will be in the final year of that deal in 2018; and Smith-Schuster has three more seasons left on the rookie contract he signed last spring. There might be players available either in free agency or the draft who could compete to crack the Steelers’ 1-2-3 punch, but the team doesn’t figure to be interested in investing the capital – either in cap dollars or draft picks – to add those people to the mix.
Rogers reportedly injured an ACL in the playoff game vs. Jacksonville, and might not be ready for the start of the regular season. That’s a tough break for him, because he is a restricted free agent, and the injury surely will preclude him from securing the kind of long-term deal he otherwise might have been seeking.
With wide receiver now being one of the deepest positions in each and every draft, it seems unlikely the Steelers would commit salary cap space to signing a free agent, nor a premium draft pick to add to the position, as they did with Smith-Schuster in 2017. Unless the player has the potential of being a difference-making returner, and then it still figures to be a maybe. Justin Thomas, Marcus Tucker, and Trey Griffey all signed futures contracts and each of them should be considered a threat to crack the bottom of the depth chart if they can stay healthy through training camp.