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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 16.

Rico Bussey, Chase Claypool, Diontae Johnson, Ray-Ray McCloud, Anthony Miller, Steven Sims, JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Washington, Tyler Vaughns, Cody White
(Free Agent Scorecard: 3 unrestricted – Ray-Ray McCloud, JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Washington)

At one point during the training camp period, it seemed as though the Steelers were going to have to cut wide receivers who would go on to play for other NFL teams, but at his final postgame media availability, Coach Mike Tomlin was unable to hide his dissatisfaction with this group.

The Steelers finished strong during the regular season with three wins over their final four games, including victories against eventual AFC No. 1 seed Tennessee, and division rivals Cleveland and Baltimore to squeeze into the playoffs, but then in the biggest game of the season the offense came up small. The Steelers were held scoreless in the first quarter in 11 of their 17 regular season games, and the Wild Card Round game vs. Kansas City proved to be a 12th. The offense scored one touchdown through the first three quarters, and the team trailed, 35-14, on the way to a 42-21 defeat. James Washington's 37 yards receiving that day was a team high.

Following the game, Tomlin was asked, "Do you feel there were plays that your receivers could have made?" He answered, "Ya think? Yes."

Diontae Johnson led this unit with 107 receptions for 1,161 yards (10.9 average), and eight touchdowns; Chase Claypool was fourth on the team with 59 catches for 860 yards (14.6 average), and two touchdowns; Ray-Ray McCloud was fifth with 39 catches for 277 yards (7.1 average), and no touchdowns; and James Washington was sixth with 24 catches for 285 yards (11.9 average), and two touchdowns. JuJu Smith-Schuster, who played only five games before going on injured reserve with a shoulder injury for the rest of the regular season, finished with 15 catches for 129 yards (8.6 average) and no touchdowns.

During the 2021 regular season, the five main wide receivers were targeted 412 times (Johnson 169, Claypool 105, McCloud 66, Washington 44, and Smith-Schuster (28). Because those receivers combined for 244 catches, that means 59.2 percent of the targets were converted into receptions.

Johnson has one year remaining on his rookie contract, but because he wasn't a first-round pick, the Steelers have no ability to exercise a fifth-year option to keep him around for an additional season. When General Manager Kevin Colbert was asked at the Combine about the possibility of a contract extension for Johnson this offseason, he said, "Everybody who's one year out (from free agency), we don't do business with them most of the time until we get through all of our current business, which is unrestricted free agency, then the draft, and after that usually we'll move into that group. But it's not a given. It's not a hard line, but that's usually when we've taken care of that kind of business."

There is more contractual urgency with Smith-Schuster, because he can become an unrestricted free agent on March 16. When Smith-Schuster injured his shoulder and then had surgery to repair it, the initial prognosis was that he would spend the entire rest of the season on the injured reserve list. But Smith-Schuster got himself back quicker than expected, and when he was able to be a full participant in practice the entire week leading up to the Wild Card Round Game against the Chiefs, he was added to the 53-man roster and given a helmet on the night of the game.

"We think he's 32 years old but he's only 25, and he's that veteran in a very young (wide receivers) room," said Colbert when asked about Smith-Schuster at the Combine. "So, what he did at the end of the year, coming back and putting his free agency issues aside to try to help us win a playoff game was huge. It was a huge step for him. But it wasn't surprising because he had done that previously, in the previous year when he had some knee issues that he worked his way through and made himself available for us."

Johnson had issues with dropped passes throughout 2020, and at one point was benched by Tomlin as a result. But after being charged with 13 drops during the 2020 season, Johnson worked consistently on his hand-eye coordination using tennis balls, and he cut that drop total down to five in 2021.

Claypool's measurables make him too intriguing not to give new wide receiver coach Frisman Jackson a chance to help him become what the Steelers believed he could be when they used a second-round pick on him in the 2020 NFL Draft.

This is a unit that could undergo some significant changes this offseason, with Smith-Schuster, McCloud, and Washington all scheduled to hit unrestricted free agency on March 16. The Steelers could end up losing 60 percent (3-of-5) of the receivers who were in uniform for the Wild Card Round Game in Kansas City.

Besides age and experience, what this corps lacks is a player who can break down a defense with speed. The Steelers currently have six picks in the upcoming draft – with the expectation of getting a seventh selection once compensatory picks are announced – and the team has several other needs to address. But the Steelers have picked 10 wide receivers during the nine drafts between 2012-20, which shows the team has no hesitation to address the position.

Colbert has said wide receiver is one of the deeper positions in this draft class, and at the Combine six wide receivers posted sub-4.4 times in the 40-yard dash: Baylor's Tyquan Thompson (4.28), Tennessee's Velus Jones (4.31), Memphis' Valcin Austin III (4.32), SMU's Danny Gray (4.33), Rutgers' Bo Melton (4.34), and North Dakota State's Christian Watson (4.32)
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