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Keep 5 or 6? A Look at the Steelers Options at Wide Receiver

Keep 5 or 6? A Look at the Steelers Options at Wide Receiver

The Pittsburgh Steelers are a team known in recent years for their ability to draft quality wide receivers outside of the first round of the NFL Draft and for continuously fostering a pipeline of talent. The Steelers have, in the past two decades, drafted the likes of Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson, and Martavis Bryant all past the first 32 picks. With former Steelers general manager, Kevin Colbert, retiring this off-season and discussions of his legacy abound, his ability to draft receivers has been highly touted. 

This year is a year of change for the Steelers offense, with 18-year veteran quarterback Ben Roethlisberger retiring, a newly rebuilt offensive line being formed, and the loss of Smith-Schuster, James Washington, and Ray-Ray McCloud due to free agency. 

This also creates immense opportunity and competition to see who can make the roster at wide receiver. With the Steelers’ top four receivers basically set, there is now going to be healthy competition for those backend spot(s) on the roster; and, while the Steelers only kept five receivers on the roster last year, there’s recent precedent for keeping six. How these players perform in camp will definitely play a role in if the Steelers choose to keep five or six going into the regular season. 

Today we’ll take a quick look at the state of the Steelers receivers’ room:

 

Diontae Johnson: A Lock to Make the Roster

Steelers Diontae Johnson Minkah Fitzpatrick

Steelers Camp, August 2020, Diontae Johnson (#18) cataches a pass over Minkah Fitzpatrick (#39). | Steelers.com

The Steelers drafted Diontae Johnson in 2018, and have generally struck gold once again with the third round product from the University of Toledo. Johnson will come into the 2022 season as the de facto wide receiver one, coming off of a productive 2021 campaign. Johnson, who struggled with drops in the 2020 season, was able to reduce his overall number of drops (from a staggering 13.2% in 2020 to only 3.6% in 2021). In 2021, Johnson put up his first 1,000-yard receiving season with 1,161 total yards and a career best 8 touchdowns. 

Johnson, who is heading into 2022 with the goal of securing a contract ahead of the season, will be looking to have a big year with a new quarterback throwing him the ball. 

 

Chase Claypool: A Lock to Make the Roster

Chase Claypool

Twitter: @JSKO_PHOTO

2020 second round draft pick, Chase Claypool, is looking to rebound from a sophomore slump that he suffered in 2021. While his numbers were by no means bad (putting up 860 receiving yards and 96 rushing yards), they were a far cry from his breakout first season in the league in which he was able to score 11 total touchdowns (as opposed to only two this past season). 

Claypool spoke at length in the Steelers locker room this past week about the need for him to be a mentor and step-up in helping to lead his teammates. As one of the more tenured players on this very young Steelers offense, the team will need him to help get their younger players up-to-speed, and it seems like Claypool shares that desire. 

 

George Pickens: A Lock to Make the Roster

USA TODAY

There’s not much to say here that hasn’t already been said, but the prolific Georgia receiver is obviously going to make the roster. The Steelers’ 2022 second round pick, George Pickens impressed at his Pro Day and showed off his health after tearing a ligament in his knee prior to the 2021 season. The receiver, who has over 1,300 career receiving yards in two full seasons at Georgia (discounting his third season in which he played only at the end of the year), was dubbed a “medical marvel” by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution after he returned to the team in time for the Peach Bowl. And, he didn’t just return to the team, he dominated, wracking up an astonishing 135 receiving yards and one touchdown in the College Football Playoff Semifinals. 

Pickens looks to bring some splash play ability to Pittsburgh, something that the team has frankly been missing in recent years. Look for him to shine early and be a household name by the middle of the season. 

 

Calvin Austin III: A Lock to Make the Roster

Steelers.com

A 5-9, 162 pound receiver will make the Steelers’ 53-man roster. That’s not something that you hear everyday, but it is absolutely the case for the Pittsburgh Steelers this off-season. The Steelers utilized their fourth round pick to acquire another speedy receiver, Calvin Austin III. Austin tracks to be the fourth option at receiver, but can use his lightning speed to burn defenses downfield. Austin ran a 4.32 40-yard dash and a speedy 4.02 in the 20-yard dash. When Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin was asked what he liked about Austin, his simple response was “speed.” 

Austin was a dynamic play-maker at Memphis, hauling in 74 receptions for 1,149 yards and nine total touchdowns in 2021. Austin, who played four years at Memphis, got better each year in terms of his yardage, and consistently showed off his big play ability with 65 and 75-yard touchdowns on his resume. 

 

Anthony Miller: A Contender to Make the Roster

Anthony Miller has a big advantage in trying to make the 53-man roster this season. After spending a year with the Steelers in 2021 and receiving little playing time, Miller is hoping to shine in 2022 with former teammate, Mitch Trubisky, being the favorite to be throwing him the ball this season. Miller brings a veteran presence, and a decently high pedigree (he was drafted 51st overall in the 2018 NFL Draft) to his case to make the roster. 

Scoring 11 touchdowns in three years with a rocky Chicago Bears franchise, Miller has occasionally flashed as a player and had a stellar rookie season in which he scored seven of his 11 touchdowns (with Trubisky largely throwing him the ball). If Miller can rekindle some of that connectivity with Trubisky, he may have a solid case to make the roster. 

 

Miles Boykin: A Contender to Make the Roster

Former Baltimore Ravens receiver, Miles Boykin suffered from not finding a consistent role on a team that has had issues for many seasons getting the passing game going with any receiving threat not named Mark Andrews. The 6-4 220lbs Boykin joins Diontae Johnson as being a member of the highly touted 2019 draft class, and brings a unique skill set to the team. Being a taller, speedier receiver, Boykin compares with Chase Claypool, being the exact same height and running the same 40-yard dash speed at the NFL Combine. 

Boykin was unable to gain traction in Baltimore, and was only able to compile 470 yards and 7 touchdowns in three seasons with the team. With a fresh start in Pittsburgh, however, Boykin has a shot to carve out a role in the return game, or as a depth receiver. Are his lagging stats a product of being in an inconsistent passing system? Time will tell. 

 

Gunner Olszewski: A Contender to Make the Roster

I hope that 2020 First Team All-Pro member, Gunner Olszewski, makes the roster even if it’s just so I can watch Cris Collinsworth try to pronounce his name on Sundays. Now, here’s a guy who comes to the Steelers with limited experience as an offensive wide receiver, but a glowing resume as a return man for the New England Patriots

In his three years in the league, Olszewski only managed 127 receiving yards and one touchdown on offense; however, has 834 yards each as a punt returner and a kick returner, with a 12.6 and 23.2 yards per return average, respectively. With Ray-Ray McCloud departing for San Francisco, there isn’t a clear return guy on the team, and it already seems like the team may have thoughts on Olszewski’s role on the offense. Look for him to make a serious push to make the team. 

 

Cody White: A Dark Horse to Make the Roster

Cody White

Twitter: @JSKO_PHOTO

Former Michigan State Spartan Cody White has been in the news lately, but it’s because his dad, Sheldon White, was recently hired as the Steelers Director of Player Personnel. The younger White, has been with the team since 2021 as a member of the practice squad. White was not given too many opportunities in 2021, but, with his limited playing time, he performed solidly. While only being targeted six times for 33 yards, White hauled in the ball 83% of the time, making almost every opportunity thrown his way count. 

White had a solid three-year career as a Spartan, amassing 1,967 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns on 143 receptions. Those stats were good enough to be fourth and fifth overall in the Big Ten in receptions and receiving yards, respectively. If White can rediscover that magic that he had in East Lansing, he has a strong case to make the roster. 

 

Stephen Sims: A Longshot to Make the Roster

Steven Sims

Twitter: @JSKO_PHOTO

Another three-year veteran in the NFL, Stephen Sims, is looking to make the roster and revitalize his NFL career. After a two-year stint with the Washington Commanders, Sims was signed to the Pittsburgh Steelers practice squad in 2021. Unlike Cody White, Sims was not given the opportunity to play in a reserve role with the team. 

While Sims does have experience as a traditional pass catching wide receiver, like Olszewski, his strength is in special teams. As a kick returner for the Commanders in 2019, Sims racked up 819 yards and one touchdown with a 25.6 yards-per-return average, placing his slightly ahead of Olszewski. Sims then dropped off in 2020 before being signed by the Steelers. Look for Sims to compete with Olszewski and Boykin as a return specialist who would benefit from the Steelers deciding to carry six receivers on their 53-man roster. 

 

Tyler Vaughns: A Longshot to Make the Roster

USC Trojan Tyler Vaughns is another 2021 practice squad member who is returning to make his case in 2022. Vaughns was on and off the practice squad throughout the season as the team made administrative moves. 

Vaughns had a productive four-year collegiate career with the Trojans, with a career 2,801 yards and 20 touchdowns to his name. Vaughns also has experience as a punt returner, and was able to return one for a touchdown during the 2018 campaign. Vaughns definitely has the skill set to produce, and it will be interesting to see if he can shine in camp ahead of the roster cutdowns. 

 

Tyler Snead: A Longshot to Make the Roster

Steelers Snead

CBS Sports

There was a fair bit of buzz when the Steelers signed East Carolina University’s Tyler Snead after the 2022 NFL draft as an undrafted free agent. Similar to Calvin Austin III, Snead is undersized, but his bio on his university website describes him as “pound-for-pound the toughest player in the country.” 

Snead amassed 2,380 yards at 19 touchdowns in his career at ECU, and has experience as both a punt and kick returner. A consistent fan favorite in Greenville, look for this scrappy receiver to try to find a productive role in camp, just like he did at the collegiate level. 

 

What do yinz think? Who should make the roster? Should the Steelers keep five or six receivers going into the season? Comment below or tweet at me at @jakevasilj.

#SteelerNation

I'm a lifelong Steelers fan who, as a result of moving around, has seen Steeler Nation all across the country. Originally from Sharon, PA, I now reside in Columbus, Ohio and grew up on the West Coast. A 2017 graduate of THE Ohio State University, my favorite current Steelers player is Cam Heyward. I spend the small amount of time that I'm not doing Steelers stuff as a government and public relations professional in Columbus.

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