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Steelers Position Reviews: Wide receivers

Here is the first in a position-by-position series on the Steelers at the conclusion of the 2023 season as they head into the start of the NFL free agent period, which opens March 13.

Wide receivers (5): Diontae Johnson, George Pickens, Allen Robinson, Calvin Austin, Miles Boykin

A Last Look at 2023

Entering the 2023 season, one of the big questions surrounding the Steelers centered on how big of a jump George Pickens would take from his first to his second season.

Pickens went from 52 receptions for 801 yards and four touchdowns as a rookie in 2022 to 63 receptions for 1,140 yards and five scores in 2023. His 18.1 yards per reception led the NFL, while his overall yardage total was 16th.

Pickens has established himself as one of the top deep threats in the NFL, averaging a gaudy 16.9 yards per catch over his first two seasons.

He showed more ability as a route runner in 2023 than simply being a go-route guy. The next step is building overall consistency and chemistry with the quarterbacks.

While Pickens had five games with more than 100 receiving yards this season – the Steelers went 5-0 in those games – and eight games with 50 or more yards, he also had nine games under 50 yards. The Steelers were 3-6 when Pickens failed to record more than 50 yards in a game.

Pickens also had periods of immaturity on the field when he wasn't targeted, something that came to a head when he failed to block for running back Jaylen Warren on a run inside the 5 in a loss to the Colts.

Head coach Mike Tomlin addressed the issue with the 22-year-old receiver and he saw improvement in that area down the stretch.

"It has been in all areas in football and in life" Tomlin said of Pickens' improvements over the final month of the season. "But there's a lot of meat on that bone and I'm excited about continuing to be a component of that process with him."

Diontae Johnson had a mixed season, missing four games with a hamstring injury suffered in a season-opening loss to the 49ers that landed him on injured reserve.

Johnson recorded his fifth consecutive season with at least 50 receptions and had eight games with four or more catches. His career-low 51 receptions went for 717 yards, giving him an average per reception of 14.1 yards, a career high.

After failing to score a touchdown on 86 receptions in 2022 – an NFL record – Johnson showed that was an anomaly, getting into the end zone five times this season, matching Pickens for the team lead.

Johnson had at least 144 pass targets from 2020 through 2022, but that dipped to a career-low 87. Had he played all 17 games, he would have gotten 114 targets, which would have been just ahead of Pickens' team-best 106.

Behind that duo, the Steelers had veteran Allen Robinson and Miles Boykin along with second-year pro Calvin Austin.

The Steelers acquired Robinson in the offseason via a trade with the Rams. And while the 10-year veteran had just 34 receptions for 280 yards, he played 771 snaps, which was second-most of the team's wide receivers.

Johnson simply missing four games didn't account for all of that. Robinson excelled as a blocker in the running game and was often used in conjunction with Boykin, another big-bodied receiver, when the Steelers wanted to run the ball.

Boykin played 121 offensive snaps but caught just three passes for 17 yards. His biggest value comes on special teams, where he's one of the best gunners on punt coverage in the NFL.

After missing the entire 2022 season with a foot injury, Austin was essentially a rookie in 2023. He displayed the big-play ability that tempted the Steelers to select him in the fourth round of the draft in 2022. Austin caught 17 passes for 180 yards and one touchdown, a 72-yard reception in a win over the Rams. He also 11 rushes for 57 yards and a touchdown, while averaging 8.6 yards as the team's primary punt returner.

One Stat That Stood Out

Among wide receivers, Pickens finished fifth in the NFL in yards after the catch per reception this season at 6.2 yards, while Johnson was 21st with 5.1.

Of the Steelers' 3,421 passing yards this season, 51 percent (1,750) came after the catch. In 2022, the Steelers had 3,661 passing yards, but just 40 percent (1,473) came after the catch.

Dale Lolley is co-host of "SNR Drive" on Steelers Nation Radio. Subscribe to the podcast here: Apple Podcast | iHeart Podcast

Looking Ahead to 2024

Getting the most out of Pickens remains a work in progress, but progress was made. There aren't many receivers in the NFL that can match him in terms of overall physical talent.

But there were obvious issues with his overall maturity this season that isn't uncommon for uber-talented receivers. They want the ball because they always feel they're open and can be the driving force for the team to win.

Johnson remains one of the best route runners in the NFL and gives the Steelers an excellent one-two punch at the position.

Like Pickens, Austin needs to continue to develop in what will be his third season, but second overall on the field. His speed is unquestioned. But because of his overall lack of size (5-9, 162 pounds) he has to prove he can be more than a specialist.

The ability is there. He played on the outside collegiately at Memphis.

Robinson is under contract for 2024, but could be a candidate for a restructure of some type. The Steelers weren't unhappy with his overall play, particularly what he brought as a blocker, but he'll also turn 31 in August.

Boykin returned last offseason in free agency and is a free agent once again this offseason. The 27-year-old had five special teams tackles in 2023, but that doesn't come close to measuring his actual impact in the punting game, where he demands and often beats double teams.

After taking both Pickens and Austin in the 2022 NFL Draft, the Steelers ignored the position in the 2023 draft. It would be surprising if they did so again in 2024.