Another in a position-by-position series in advance of the start of free agency on March 17.
WIDE RECEIVERS (7)
Chase Claypool, Anthony Johnson, Diontae Johnson, Ray-Ray McCloud, JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Washington, Cody White
(Free Agent Scorecard: 1 unrestricted – JuJu Smith-Schuster; 1 restricted – Ray-Ray McCloud)
Take a look at the best photos of the Steelers wide receivers during the 2020 season
A LAST LOOK AT 2020
In 1954, a man named Darrell Huff wrote a book titled, "How to Lie with Statistics." It's not the story of the 2020 Steelers wide receivers, but the title of the book certainly can speak to the season that unit put together. The reason is because the statistics the Steelers wide receivers put together in 2020 can tell two very different stories.
The Steelers' top four wide receivers all finished the regular season with 30-or-more receptions, and the top three all posted at least 831 yards to go along with a combined 25 touchdowns. To get more specific with the breakdown of those statistics, JuJu Smith-Schuster led the unit with 97 catches for 831 yards (8.6 average) and nine touchdowns; Diontae Johnson was second with 88 catches for 923 yards (10.5 average) and seven touchdowns; Chase Claypool was third with 62 catches for 873 yards (14.1 average) and nine touchdowns; James Washington was fourth with 30 catches for 392 yards (13.1 average) and five touchdowns; and Ray-Ray McCloud had 20 catches for 77 yards (3.9 average) and no touchdowns.
Those numbers would seem to suggest the Steelers wide receivers were one of the top units in the NFL last season, but that wasn't the case. During a three-game losing streak, dropped balls were a significant issue, with Johnson even being benched for a time for repeatedly dropping catchable passes. Johnson finished the season with 13 drops, Claypool had six, Washington had four, Smith-Schuster had three, and tight end Eric Ebron also was a regular offender with seven.
So did the Steelers wide receivers have a great year, or were they more than a little bit responsible for the start of the slide that had the team go from 11-0 to 12-4, and then one-and-done in the playoffs?
The style of offense the Steelers ended up playing throughout 2020 was one that had to depend completely on the passing game to convert every possession down and every trip into the red zone, because the running game was largely ineffective through the early portion of the regular season and then completely ineffective from Thanksgiving on.
That style will change in 2021 because the Steelers didn't renew Randy Fichtner's contract to be the offensive coordinator and replaced him with Matt Canada, and fixing a running attack that finished last in the NFL has been identified as an offseason priority.
Ben Roethlisberger will be back as the starting quarterback in 2021, but there is unanimity that the offense cannot get stuck in the throw-short, run-long philosophy that showed itself to be unsustainable down the stretch of 2020 and into the Wild Card Round of the playoffs.
Take a look at photographs of Steelers WR Diontae Johnson from the 2020 season
ONE STAT THAT STANDS OUT
In 2020, the Steelers had three wide receivers finish the regular season with 60-plus catches: Smith-Schuster with 97, Johnson with 88, and Claypool with 62. That was the first time in franchise history that ever happened. In 2021, the Steelers also had three players finish the regular season with 60-plus catches, but one of them was a tight end. Heath Miller led with 71 catches, Antonio Brown had 68, and Mike Wallace finished with 64.
Take a look at photographs of Steelers WR Chase Claypool from the 2020 season
A LOOK AHEAD TO 2021
Of the players at this position who were on the roster for the 2020 regular season, James Washington is the oldest, but even as the oldest he isn't due to turn 25 until April 2. But even though the unit was loaded with such young and relatively inexperienced players, there is going to be turnover this offseason.
Smith-Schuster is set to become an unrestricted free agent on March 17, and despite his pronouncements on social media that he wants to continue his career with the Steelers, he's unlikely to want to accept what the cap-strapped Steelers would be able to pay him on a new contract.
Johnson's second NFL season was plagued with dropping the ball, and at one point Coach Mike Tomlin benched him during a game for repeatedly committing that wide receiver cardinal sin. But Johnson showed some mental toughness by bouncing back and making some big plays later in the season. Of all the wide receivers currently on the roster, Johnson, heading into his third NFL season, is the one with the most ability to win one-on-one matchups consistently but the dropping of the ball has to end.
In some ways, this is going to be a make-or-break season for Washington, simply because he will be entering the final year of his rookie contract. That means at some point soon the Steelers are going to be making a decision on whether to sign him to a second contract or replace him. Washington is a puzzling case in a lot of ways, because he has no distinct physical shortcomings and comes off as a hard-working player with his head in his profession, but he has yet to distinguish himself on the field.
Claypool didn't need very long to establish himself as a difference-maker, as a receiver capable of making plays down the field, and he was the offense's primary deep threat throughout the season. If there was a negative, it was that it seemed as though Claypool's diva quotient increased consistently over the course of his rookie season. Whether that turns into a problem or comes to be viewed in the future as growing pains will develop over time.
In one way, the Steelers' youthful experience at wide receiver can be viewed as an asset, especially since the team has salary cap issues and all of its best players at the position are still on their rookie contracts. But youth also can be synonymous with immaturity.