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Steelers-By-Position: WRs

Another in a position-by-position series in advance of the start of free agency on March 18.

Deon Cain, Jamal Custis, Amara Darboh, Quadree Henderson, Johnny Holton, Anthony Johnson, Diontae Johnson, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Ryan Switzer, James Washington
(Free Agent Scorecard: None)

"In terms of this past season just to give a little bit of a recap, I have to say it was probably one of the craziest seasons I've been around in over 50 years of being around football. When you wind up having three different starting quarterbacks over the course of the year, and particularly one who earned his way on the roster starting out as a tryout in rookie minicamp, (it was) an unusual season. We had some other key injuries throughout the year. I was proud of the way our guys kept fighting through all of the adversity. Unfortunately, we couldn't keep it going there in the last few weeks of the season, but at least we had our chance. Maybe with a little more stability at the quarterback position, we could have gone a little further."

That was how Steelers President Art Rooney II evaluated his team's 2019 regular season, and nowhere was the impact of the instability at the quarterback position felt more definitively than at the wide receiver position. During the 2019 offseason, the Steelers had attempted to add some experience to this area by signing veteran Donte Moncrief as an unrestricted free agent, but it's still worth noting that when the players and coaches assembled at Saint Vincent College at the end of July, the most veteran presence within this unit, when it came to the combination of professional experience plus experience with the Steelers, was 22-year-old, third-year pro JuJu Smith-Schuster.

Then on Aug. 11, with the team still in training camp, the receivers lost their beloved position coach when Darryl Drake died. About a month later, Ben Roethlisberger was having surgery on his right elbow.

Whether Roethlisberger's injury or Drake's death had a bigger impact on the season turned in by the Steelers' wide receivers is a matter of opinion, but few could argue that the combination of those events within a short period made widespread success impossible. And the statistics reflected that.

James Washington led the team in receiving yards (735) and average per catch (16.7); rookie Diontae Johnson led the team in receptions (59) and receiving touchdowns (five); and the two players to turn in 100-yard receiving games were JuJu Smith-Schuster, who had 103 yards on five catches (20.6 average) and a touchdown vs. Miami, and Washington, who had 111 yards on four catches (27.8 average) and a touchdown in a win over Cleveland at Heinz Field. That was it. Two 100-yard receiving games, and no individual with more than one.

And the addition of Moncrief was an unmitigated disaster, with him contributing four catches for 18 yards before being released midseason after signing what was reported to be a two-year, $9 million contract.

In 2019, there were eight different wide receivers who caught at least one pass in the regular season. Those eight – James Washington, Diontae Johnson, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Deon Cain, Tevin Jones, Ryan Switzer, Johnny Holton, and Donte Moncrief – combined for 2,166 receiving yards and 11 touchdown. In 2018, Smith-Schuster (1,426 yards and seven touchdowns) and Antonio Brown (1,297 yards and 15 touchdowns) alone combined for 2,733 yards and 22 touchdowns.

In almost every way, last season was a wasted one when it comes down to evaluating this group of wide receivers because nothing was the same without Ben Roethlisberger and everything will be different with him. As an example, was JuJu Smith-Schuster's drop in production due to the fact he was trying to be a team's No. 1 receiver and wasn't up to the challenge, or was it because he wasn't 100 percent healthy and the quarterbacks doing most of the throwing to him had never played a down in the NFL before 2019 and were forced to learn on the fly?

The Steelers have seen enough from Smith-Schuster to know he belongs in the league and can perform at a Pro Bowl-caliber level, and both James Washington and Diontae Johnson flashed enough and were productive enough in spurts to indicate they're deserving of roles on a team that plans on contending. In fact, Johnson was the best of the group when it came to winning matchups with defensive backs and getting himself open at all levels of the field. The rest of the depth chart here will shake itself out at training camp, with each of the candidates who are vying for a spot carrying pluses and minuses on his resume.

It's also likely the Steelers will look to fortify this position in the draft, because they need more explosive players to surround Roethlisberger with as many dynamic weapons as possible. As previously stated, Diontae Johnson led the wide receivers with five touchdowns last season, and to put that into perspective, the last time a wide receiver led the team in touchdowns during a season with as few as five was in 2004 – Roethlisberger's rookie season – when Plaxico Burress had five.

This draft is said to contain one of the most talented and deep groups of wide receivers to enter the NFL in maybe forever, and it would be no surprise if the Steelers chose to add one with difference-making speed. A closer look at the current group of wide receivers on the 90-man roster shows that beyond Smith-Schuster, Washington, and Diontae Johnson, there isn't much behind them in the way of pedigree.

Deon Cain is interesting, but with his speed and his 6-foot-2 frame there had to be some reason why he was on a practice squad and available for the Steelers in the middle of last season. Quadree Henderson has a lot of speed, but he already failed at one shot at making the team, and he's just 5-8. His path to the 53-man roster is likely via special teams as a returner, but he's also going to have to flash some ability as a receiver unless he shows himself to be a Devin Hester-caliber returner. Johnny Holton has speed, he's 6-3, and is an asset on special teams, but expecting him at 28 years old to become a consistent contributor on offense is wishful thinking.

Today's NFL teams need at least four, and would prefer to carry five players who can threaten a defense, and complicating things somewhat is that Smith-Schuster will be entering the final season of his rookie contract. Going into the 2020 season, the Steelers can have some level of confidence that their top three receivers on the depth chart are capable, but the combination of the future and the talent available in this upcoming class point to them taking advantage and adding someone during the draft.
NEXT: Defensive Linemen