The focus of the entire football world was recently on the 2018 NFL Combine in Indianapolis, IN. This annual event, the nation’s most celebrated job fair, is the kickoff event on the road to Super Bowl LIII. The Pittsburgh Steelers, who are determined to finally capture their elusive seventh title, are looking for reinforcements. Their focus is on finding replacements for Ryan Shazier and safety Mike Mitchell. The goal is to fix a run defense that missed tackles, and a secondary that gave up too many chunk plays. The Pittsburgh Steelers primary needs are at middle linebacker and at safety, which is true. They have a sneaky need, however, that isn’t being talked about much, at wide receiver.
Pittsburgh Steelers Receiving Corps: A Sneaky Need This Off-Season
The defensive needs have been getting most of the off-season discussion to this point. The issues on Keith Butler‘s unit were a lack of gap discipline and missed tackles at the most inopportune times. The inability to stop the run, especially in two losses against the Jacksonville Jaguars, affected the secondary as well. Unable to stop the run, the secondary became vulnerable to play action, especially over the last seven weeks. This may have led to the “resignation” of defensive backs coach Carnell Lake. These defensive issues kept the Steelers from reaching their ninth Super Bowl, but there’s another issue quietly closing in. The Steelers offense is the most talented in the NFL. They have one of the elite quarterbacks, the best running back, and the best trio of receivers around.
Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, and JuJu Smith-Schuster are cemented as the top three, but could soon be all they have. An injury and potential releases have turned a stable unit into one the Steelers have to address in the draft. The Steelers have drafted some tremendous primary receivers since 1998, including Hines Ward, Plaxico Burress, Santonio Holmes, and Emmanuel Sanders. They’ve given Ben Roethlisberger some quality backups as well, with Antwaan Randle El, Markus Wheaton, and Nate Washington. Luckily, the Steelers needs at receiver are for depth, but the better the backups are, the more dangerous the entire unit will be.
Injuries, Free Agency, and Potential Releases
The Steelers have some decisions to make at wide receiver this off-season. Who will replace Eli Rogers? Will they release Darrius Heyward-Bey? Will they re-sign Justin Hunter? Rogers tore his ACL late in the loss to Jacksonville. Heyward-Bey could be getting too expensive to keep around primarily for special teams. Hunter has potential and would come cheap, but only caught four passes in seven games played for the Steelers. They will likely move on without him. The Steelers will have to find three new receivers assuming Rogers, Heyward-Bey and Hunter won’t be around for 2018. Luckily, they will be shopping for depth rather than a primary target.
Internal and External Solutions
The Steelers have signed four receivers to futures contracts, including Marcus Tucker and Trey Griffey. Tucker is heading to his third training camp with the Steelers, who really like how he has developed. He deserved to make the roster last season but was a victim of the numbers game. Tucker could very well find himself on the active roster opening day if he continues to develop. Griffey, the son of Hall of Fame baseball legend Ken Griffey, Jr, is looking to find a home. He has good speed and above average size but has questionable hands.
The Steelers are said to be interested in Tavon Austin, who would give them much needed return skills as well. He has game-changing speed and can line up both outside and in the slot. Austin would be an upgrade to Rogers in Randy Fichtner‘s offense, and a versatile long-term solution. Taylor Gabriel and Kendall Wright would be more than adequate answers to replace to replace Rogers as well. They both have excellent speed and quickness and move well in crowded spaces.
Dipping in the Draft Pool
The Steelers have had great success drafting receivers over the last 20 years. Those picks include two potential Hall of Famers and a Super Bowl MVP. They have to find a replacement for Rogers this year and a potential replacement for Bryant in 2019. The upcoming NFL Draft holds some interesting candidates for the latter as well. The two big receivers who would fit the offense are Equanimeous St. Brown (Notre Dame), and Javon Wims (Georgia). Both receivers were limited in their offenses, but are loaded with big play capabilities.
Two of the “smaller” receivers in the draft who fit the Steelers mold are D.J. Chark (LSU) and DaeSean Hamilton (Penn State). Both are polished route runners who are not afraid to mix it up in the run game. Like St. Brown and Mims, they are capable of big plays downfield and have excellent hands. They can line up either in the slot or out wide as well. Clark and Hamilton aren’t as small as Rogers but they are just as elusive.
Last Word on the Steelers Receiver Needs
The Steelers need at receiver may not be as profound as their main needs, but is real. This need goes beyond this season and is directly tied to the remainder of Ben Roethlisberger‘s career. Defense traditionally wins championships, but if Super Bowl LII was any indication, it’s all about lighting up the scoreboard now. That means replenishing Roethlisberger’s arsenal is of the utmost importance while fielding a defense that is at least adequate. The Steelers need a safety and a middle linebacker that can stuff the run, but they also need receiver depth. Bryant has been a huge weapon on offense. If they think they’ll need to replace him, it’s better to find Bryant’s successor before he is gone.