One of the greatest quarterback-to-receiver combinations the NFL has ever seen came to an abrupt end when the Pittsburgh Steelers traded wide receiver Antonio Brown to the Oakland Raiders in March. Brown – who was a sixth-round draft pick in 2010 out of Central Michigan – developed into one of the all-time great receivers, making the divorce that much stranger. The topic has yet to reach its inevitable end, as both quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and Brown continue to bicker back-and-forth. Regardless of the minor antics, the Steelers lost a future hall-of-fame receiver and Roethlisberger lost one of the greatest playmakers in NFL history. Knowing they’d need to re-tool the cupboard, the Steelers adjusted in their receiver room both in the past and current timeframe.
The development of wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster has been marvelous. In only two seasons, JuJu has already compiled 169 receptions for 2,343 receiving yards with 14 receiving touchdowns to boot. JuJu automatically becomes the Steelers’ #1 receiver since the departure of Brown, offering better career catch percentage (69%) and yards per target (9.6) statistics than Brown has (66%, 8.8 yards). Neither of the numbers are truly indicative of pure skill and talent due to the variance in depth of target and quality of targets, though they’re interesting to note. Still, JuJu has developed tremendously and is already one of the best young receivers in the game. Majority of the onus will fall on JuJu’s shoulders, due to a “next man up” mentality.
After getting the top dog out of the way, the Steelers will have a myriad of options in the passing game. 26-year-old veteran Donte Moncrief was added in free agency, though he’s never panned out as his skill level suggested coming out of college. Thus far, Moncrief has ran with the #1 offense as the second boundary receiver, though that could change at any point in time.
Arguably, the most intriguing option after JuJu is second-year receiver James Washington. Washington was somewhat of a luxury draft selection in 2018, which has now become a major player in the receiving corps. Washington is known as a vertical deep-threat who possesses an innate ability to get over top of defenses and create massive plays. Washington struggled mightily in his rookie campaign, registering only 16 receptions for 217 yards and one touchdown. The issue was his low catch percentage of 42% and his yards per target at a measly 5.7. Luckily for both parties, Washington has exploded onto the scene in the preseason so far, totaling nine receptions for 203 receiving yards and two touchdowns. Washington’s big-play ability carried over into the start of this year as he had a 40-yard catch in all three preseason contests. Look for Washington to take a major step forward in his second season, particularly as the big-play threat.
Lastly, the other intriguing name in the receiver room is third-round pick Diontae Johnson. Johnson totaled 135 receptions for 2,235 receiving yards and 23 touchdowns in three years at Toledo. Highly respected NFL Draft analysts even compared his game to none other than Antonio Brown, as Johnson is a terrific route runner among all else. Johnson has yet to run with the first team offensively, though the potential is there for him to eventually make his way into legit playing time in 2019. The ability to run routes and snag passes at a high rate generally translate to an NFL level quickly, meaning Johnson could make an immediate impact.
The remaining names tend to moonlight more as slot receivers, as guys like Ryan Switzer and Eli Rogers will generally operate in between the hash marks (or in the backfield at times).
The Pittsburgh Steelers lost one of the best receivers the league has ever seen, and ironically, by way of great preparation, a strong development program, and excellent draft work, General Manager Kevin Colbert has once again set the offense up for success.