The Steelers report to training camp today. In the lead-up to camp one of the most discussed camp battles was at the Wide Receiver position. The free agent signing of Justin Hunter, coupled with the drafting of JuJu Smith-Schuster and the return of Martavis Bryant gave the Steelers one of their most crowded position groupings. Add those three to last year’s roster of Antonio Brown, Sammie Coates, Eli Rogers, Darrius Heyward-Bey, and Cobi Hamilton and it’s easy to understand why the receiving corps is considered one of the deepest units in all of the National Football League.
Then yesterday, news came out that Sammie Coates had injured his knee while training and underwent surgery last week. The length of time that Coates will be out is still unknown, but it is certain he will not be able to practice at the start of Training Camp tomorrow.
UPDATE: Upon arrival at camp, Coates stated he expected to be out a few weeks.
This begs the question – what should the Steelers do with Coates?
The immediate fan reaction across social media was that the Steelers should simply cut the third-year player. However, given that Coates is still on his rookie contract, there would not be significant salary cap savings gleaned from cutting him. As a young player on a cheap contract who has displayed upside in the past, the Steelers would be wise to do what they can to not expose him to the open market. Some are quick to ignore the fact that Coates led the league in yards per reception through 5 weeks last season. His production suffered a significant decline after he broke his fingers and lacerated his hand against the Jets. Coates opted not to have surgery on his hand and continue playing. Though the injury has healed, his hand shows some lingering effects.
Given Coates’ knee injury, the most prudent thing to do, as discussed last night on the Steel City Blitz Podcast, is to put Coates on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list. The Steelers could activate Coates from the PUP list at any time during camp, though that may be inadvisable depending on the timeline of his recovery from knee surgery.
If Coates remained on the PUP list at the beginning of the season, there are some significant advantages for the Steelers. He would not count against their 53-man roster out of training camp, which would enable another player (likely another Wide Receiver) to make the opening day roster.
As part of being on the PUP list to start the season, Coates would not be able to be activated to the roster for 6 to 9 weeks. Once taken off the PUP list, he would be able to practice for two weeks with a roster exemption and not count against the 53-man roster limit. After those two weeks, the Steelers would have to make a decision to either add him to the active roster (and cut another player), place him on season-ending injured reserve, or release him.
The advantage to the Steelers of keeping Coates on the PUP List is that they could start the season with a stable full of healthy wide receivers AND have one in the waiting who could return around mid-season in the event of an injury or ineffective play by one of the other players that made the roster. Even after his injury, Coates continued to play as a gunner on Special Teams, so he does bring some additional value beyond just being a wide receiver.
Coates’ injury presents a huge opportunity for guys who were on the roster bubble like Justin Hunter, Demarcus Ayers, and Cobi Hamilton to state their case for an opening day roster spot in the preseason. Placing Coates on the PUP list is the most prudent personnel move for the Steelers right now, and could pay dividends during the season once Coates is recovered and able to return, because it won’t use up one of their two “Injured Reserve – Designated for Return” spots. This move would essentially allow the Steelers to keep 7 wide receivers (6 on the active roster and Coates on PUP) on their opening day roster without exposing any to waivers.