Untangling the Pittsburgh Receiver Room

By Kyle Dvorchak
Kyle Dvorchak

Pittsburgh has one of the most unique and talented three-receiver sets on deck for the 2020 season. Before talking about any single receiver, it's important to know just how weekly valuable a role on this team could be.

Pittsburgh on the Rebound

No team in the history of the NFL has lost as many passing yards from one year to the next as Pittsburgh did last year. Compared to 2018, they were down a mind-boggling 126.7 passing yards per game. That drop can be credited to the atrocious play of Devlin Hodges and Mason Rudolph. They were both ineffective passers and the Steelers defense allowed Mike Tomlin to transition the team to a ground-based attack. Nagging injuries to their top receiver didn't help the cause either.

With Ben Roethlisberger and Juju Smith-Schuster healthy again, things will turn around in short order. In 2018, Roethlisberger led all passers in yards and completion while also finishing top-five in touchdowns. He wasn't just compiling stats either. Big Ben finished 12th in adjusted yards per attempt and 11th in fantasy points drop back. Even at the age of 38, Roethlisberger can power an offense to fantasy heights. That's why you should be buying this team at every turn.

Alone at the Top

Juju has to be the clear choice to lead this team in targets. Posting over 2,300 yards before the age of 23 is unreal. The question should be are there any receivers as historically productive as Juju to fail?

Receivers with 2,000 career receiving yards at the age of 22.

Josh Gordon aside, Sammy Watkins is the big name that fits these criteria. Watkins was plagued by injuries and then bounced between teams but he does show that it's possible to collapse after a promising start to a career. However, Larry Fitzgerald and Amari Cooper both got off to blistering starts only to falter in Year 3. They both brushed it off and bounced back with impressive campaigns in Year 4.

Overall, eight players have posted at least 2,000 yards before turning 23. Only Josh Gordon and Sammy Watkins have disappointed going forward. DeAndre Hopkins, Mike Evans, and Randy Moss all back Juju's claim as a rising star.

The Battle for No. 2

Diontae Johnson has a lot going for him as the lead candidate to be Pittsburgh's No. 2 option. In his rookie campaign, he led the Steelers in targets (92), receptions (59) and receiving touchdowns (5). He also served as the punt returner in Pittsburgh and took one to the house last year. Johnson's talent has been obvious since his sophomore season at Toledo. He dropped 1,278 yards and 13 scores while contributing on special teams as well. He's the betting favorite to be the No. 2 in Pittsburgh based on ADP and it's for good reasons.

However...the ADP discrepancy between him and James Washington has gotten out of hand. Johnson is currently going as the WR35 while Washington is the WR69.

Despite the incredible ADP gap, Washington led the team in receiving yards at 735. He was also far more efficient than Johnson. Washington bested him in yards per target (9.3), yards per route run (2.1), and Pro Football Focus Grade (69.3).

Washington also has a terrific college resume of his own. He posted 1,549 yards and 13 scores in his final season and broke out in his freshman season, giving him a 98th-percentile, 18.4 Breakout Age. If Washington hadn't fallen flat his rookie year he would likely be the higher-drafted receiver. That's the biggest knock on his resume and it counts for something. It doesn't count for a gap of 34 receivers.


Room for One More?

The Steelers made a surprising move by selecting Chase Claypool in the second round of the 2020 draft. At 6'4" and 238 pounds, his 4.42 Forty-Yard Dash is absurd. He also tested well in the vertical and broad jump. The problem is that he is converting from tight end to wide receiver during an offseason that doesn't really exist. He also has three talented options ahead of him on the depth chart.

With his speed and ability to win contested catches downfield, Claypool is largely a backup to Washington. While there is a serious height-differential between the two, they both win the same quadrant of the field. Washington led the Pittsburgh receivers with an average depth of target of 14.9 and Claypool finished his college career with a 15.7 yards per reception season.

Eric Ebron is not a receiver but he has to be considered as a threat to the underneath options, namely Johnson and Juju. He stands no chance to take their respective roles away but he could take a slice of the target pie off the table.

Ebron got going in his final two seasons with the Lions and carried that over into his first season in Indianapolis. Over that span, he averaged 45.2 yards per game. In a full season that's 724 yards. His second season with the Colts was marred by injury but he also scored 14 times in 2018. With Vance McDonald showing little during his time as a starter, Ebron could be a locked-in starter by Week 1. With the rocky start to his career with the Lions in his rear-view, Ebron is now a reliable tight end who has to be accounted for when projecting the Steelers wideouts. He should also be taken at the end of every draft given his ADP outside the top 20 tight ends.