Size, speed, vision, experience, youth, talent, agility and football smarts are just a few of the words that can be combined when defining the Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver corps.
It’s a unit that is undoubtedly the deepest on the team but is probably the best single unit in the entire NFL. It’s a good problem to have but there are guys that are here in Latrobe right now that aren’t going to be in Pittsburgh next month; not for any other reason than there is just not enough room to keep the plethora of receivers the Black and Gold have stockpiled.
One might ponder, “Why not trade one or two of these guys for a position of need?” Unlike MLB, it’s not that easy to make trades in the NFL, with salary cap implications and, more importantly, a complete absence of any kind of developmental system. By-and-large you have to trade one player for one player and their values need to match, which is hard to do when there are so many different positions on a football team.
So that leaves the conversation to, “How many receivers can the team realistically keep?”
Typically, the Steelers keep five receivers, but this year, I believe there is a strong chance they’ll keep six and find a way to make it work.
The roster currently touts 11 receivers, all with something to bring to the table…but at the end of the day, some of the decisions are simple, while others are not.
First, Canaan Severin, the second-year man out of Virginia. He’s out, he’s not going to make it, end of discussion. He’s just too far behind the other guys and ranks last on the 11-man depth chart. Right behind him on his way out the door is Marcus Tucker, there’s just no room.
Now, assuming the Steelers decide to keep six of the 11, we need to dissect who they will keep and which other three they will release.
The first three guys are obvious keepers and are on the squad no matter what. Antonio Brown, the best receiver in football will lead the way. Next are Martavis Bryant and JuJu Smith-Schuster. Bryant is back after a year-long suspension and his talent, height and skill are as good as anyone in the league. He will be a prime target for Big Ben. Smith-Schuster, has a lot of upside and being the second round pick in this year’s draft, he’s not going anywhere.
Our first real battle is for the slot receiver with Eli Rogers going up against Demarcus Ayers. I’m convinced at this point in camp that only one will remain. Rogers was the more productive player last year but Ayers has more upside in terms of contributing to special teams (Tomlin loves those special teams guys). Ayers is one inch taller and three pounds heavier and is a year younger. Ayers is a guy that has a spot in the league but at the end of the day, it’s not with Pittsburgh. Rogers is the guy that will take the slot, he’s a bit tougher, he’s trusted and he’s a little more proven, giving him the nod to remain on the squad.
Two more spots are open and those will be battled for between newly-signed Justin Hunter, veteran Darrius Heyward-Bey, young talent, but oft-injured Sammie Coates and young project Cobi Hamilton.
Hunter was signed in the offseason as an insurance policy, in case Bryant didn’t return. Ben needed a guy of Hunter’s size (6-feet-4) in the AFC Championship game loss last year and the team wanted to make sure they had at least someone on the roster that fit that bill, in the event Bryant didn’t return. However, with Bryant back and having a few very large tight ends, I have a feeling Hunter isn’t going to be retained after all.
Hamilton does have talent but I think he’s the odd man out here. He’s just not as skilled as the other guys and doesn’t have a spot on the team but I expect he’ll land elsewhere.
That means that Heyward-Bey and Coates will be kept. I originally projected both to be out but in talking with several folks around Steeler camp, Mike Tomlin loves all of the “intangibles” Heyward-Bey brings to the table with his speed and ability to play special teams as well as his veteran leadership, meaning he’ll probably be retained.
Coates, even though he fell off last year after his injury and has been injured this summer, will make the squad because the team loves his talent. When asked when he’ll be back, Coates stated, “Hopefully soon.”
He said he’s getting “closer” and hopes to “be back Wednesday (Aug. 16).”
While his return date may still be unknown, one thing we do know is that he was a monster the first five weeks of the 2016 season and the Steelers brass believe that’s who he really is. Look for him to be the last guy kept but if the Steelers are correct, he’ll produce down the stretch this time around.
So, after winding our way through all 11 spots in the receiving corps, the final six appear to be Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, JuJu Smith Schuster, Eli Rogers, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Sammie Coates.
That’s one heck of a group. This unit will be the best in the NFL and provide Big Ben with a lot of options, hopefully in the biggest games the season has to provide.