The Steelers have become known as an NFL Wide Receiver factory over the last few seasons. No matter how many receivers have left via free agency (Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders, Markus Wheaton), trades (Santonio Holmes) or retirement (Hines Ward) the Steelers have found ways to replace their production. This has occurred through the combination of unheralded prospects breaking through and recent high draft choices invested in the position. The receiver position in 2017 has been billed as one of the deepest units in the NFL and one of the most intriguing battles to watch play out during camp.
Unfortunately, the much-heralded training camp battle royale at wide receiver got off to a lackluster start. Aside from Antonio Brown rolling up in a Rolls Royce, the only news out of the first few days of camp was bad news. Sammie Coates reported he had a knee scope a few weeks ago and will miss a couple weeks of camp. Martavis Bryant’s reinstatement by the NFL was only a partial reinstatement and he is still working through the process and has yet to hit the practice field. Second round pick JuJu Smith-Schuster tweaked a hamstring in his first practice and has been sidelined ever since.
When healthy and available, the Steelers absolutely have the best group of wide receivers in the league. That obviously starts with Antonio Brown who is an absolute technician at the position. Brown is the best receiver in the league, not because of his overwhelming size or speed, but because he has mastered the minutiae of the game. His footwork along the sideline is some of the best you will ever see and the patented 15-yard out-route that he runs is nigh unstoppable. Brown will work all over the field, and led the Steelers in targets in all six directions. Brown can work the middle of the field just as well as he can work the deep routes and is well on his way to breaking all of Hines Ward’s team records.
Smith-Schuster was this year’s second round pick out of USC where he excelled with his physicality against defensive backs. He has long arms and can pluck the ball out of the air away from his frame and is not afraid of contact after the catch. He will likely see most of his work out of the slot this season (assuming Bryant and/or Coates are able to play) but could be the WR2 of the future as he has the ability to complement Brown. His physicality and willingness to block are an asset that means he won’t have to be taken off the field on running plays either, which enables Haley to keep the playbook open.
Eli Rogers came into his own as a slot receiver last season, and saw success against teams that played press man coverage. Rogers does not have elite deep speed, but his short-area quickness enables him to get open over the middle of the field through precise route-running. After a breakout 103-yard performance against Baltimore in Week 8, he had a quiet stretch before exploding down the stretch for 75 yards and a TD against Cincinnati, 84 yards against Baltimore, and 61 yards against Cleveland. He is fully healthy coming into this season but still needs a good showing in camp and preseason games to solidify his spot as the primary slot receiver.
Darrius Heyward-Bey has transformed his career from a former first-round pick to a solid veteran presence. He is the Steelers best special teams player and will contribute by doing whatever it takes to help the team win. His signature moment last season was not a touchdown, but running down a Browns defender from across the field to strip the ball after an interception and turn a sure pick-six into a touchback. Heyward-Bey is inconsistent at best on offense and will drop some and catch some. He has the speed to be a deep threat and has been in the league long enough to know how to work the underneath routes. He will make the team purely on his Special Teams play and anything he contributes on offense will be a bonus.
Demarcus Ayers was a 7th round pick last season who spent much of the year on the practice squad before being elevated in December. He showed an ability to work over the middle of the field in short slants and crossing routes and displayed good lateral agility with the ball in his hands. Ayers is certainly in the conversation for a roster spot this season, but is still practice squad-eligible if he falls below the line.
Given the uncertainty surrounding Martavis Bryant’s situation and Sammie Coates’ injury issues, the Steelers added Justin Hunter in free agency. Hunter was a highly-touted prospect coming out of Tennessee and has the size and straight-line speed to be a deep threat in the NFL. His career has been bogged down by bad quarterback play and untimely drops. He fits the physical mold the Steelers are looking for in a deep threat, but he doesn’t play on Special Teams which could hurt his chances of making the roster.
We all know what Martavis Bryant is capable of doing when he is on the football field. The question with Bryant is not his ability to perform, but his availability to play. He will continue to work his way back through the reinstatement process and won’t count against the Steelers roster limit until he is fully reinstated. Sammie Coates looked great for five weeks last season before suffering a laceration on his hand and broken fingers against the Jets. He was largely ineffective as a receiver after that but still played on Special Teams (which gives him an edge for a roster spot over a player like Hunter). That said, with Coates currently on the PUP list, the most prudent thing for the Steelers to do may be to leave him there until mid-season.
Cobi Hamilton has been a bit of a journeyman in his career and was a pleasant surprise last season when forced into action. He doesn’t have the speed to run away from defensive backs, but uses his frame well in the air and is able to go up and make contested catches. He made a few big grabs across the middle for the Steelers last season but is likely a long shot to make this roster given the depth at the position. That said, Cobi Hamilton is good enough to play wide receiver in the NFL and if the Steelers cut him he will be picked up on waivers. Unfortunately, he might not be good enough to make the 2017 Pittsburgh Steelers roster, given the depth at WR. Canaan Severin was an undrafted free agent last season who a lot of bloggers loved and hyped up but spent the year on IR. He came to camp in questionable shape this season and was injured early in camp. Marcus Tucker was also signed as an undrafted free agent last season and was added to the practice squad in November.
In conclusion, when all the receivers are healthy this is by far the deepest position group on the team. The Steelers usually keep 5 receivers to start the season but that number could go to 6 this year depending on Special Teams play. Brown and Smith-Schuster are absolute locks to make the team. Heyward-Bey should make the roster based purely on his special teams play and veteran experience. If Bryant is cleared for a full return he will be on the roster as well. The “bubble” right now consists of five players: Eli Rogers, Sammie Coates, Demarcus Ayers, Justin Hunter, and Cobi Hamilton. Coates’ injury may be a factor and if the Steelers can keep him on the PUP list for the start of the regular season, it would free up an additional roster spot for one of the other guys to make the team. That said, practice and preseason games will tell the tale of who makes the roster – particularly who is able to perform on Special Teams.