Steelers Nation may have concerns over critics debating who or how the team will replace Antonio Brown’s production in 2019.
With training camp just around the corner, we’re all going to see how that will shape up soon enough. The Steelers have a slew of young receivers and these six, minus one Mr. Rogers, are all ages 25 and under!
Here’s what the Steelers receiving corps will likely look like for the upcoming season and how each of these young studs is shaping up to contribute on the field.
JuJu Smith-Schuster (Current age: 22)
The Steelers leading receiver in both yards and receptions last season returns as one of the most experienced, but youngest at the position.
There’s a lot of speculation as to whether Smith-Schuster had a great 2018 because of “double teams” to Antonio Brown, and while that may be part of the puzzle, the rest of the pieces coming together don’t make it easy on opposing defenses…
Donte Moncrief (Current age: 25)
The first of the “other” weapons Ben Roethlisberger has to throw to in the WR group is free agent signing Donte Moncrief.
Moncrief had a bright future in Indianapolis, which was derailed by injuries to himself and then his quarterback at the time, Andrew Luck.
Moncrief’s best season came in his sophomore season, with 64 catches for 733 yards and 6 touchdowns. That was good for second on the team behind T.Y. Hilton’s 69 catches for 1,124 yards – and Moncrief’s six scores actually led all Colts pass catchers. (This was despite only having Luck for 7 games.)
Moncrief slipped in 2016 by only appearing in nine games and then played with Jacoby Brisset as his QB for 12 games in 2017. He was seen as expendable and sent to Jacksonville, a team further lacking quality quarterbacks.
There, Moncrief managed his second-best season as a pro with 48 catches for 668 yards and 3 touchdowns: more than enough of a glimpse to show us what he may be able to do with a stud gunslinger such as Ben Roethlisberger as his quarterback!
James Washington (Current age: 23)
The second-year second-round pick from 2018 looked sharp in training camp but had trouble translating that in the regular season behind a deep group of receivers.
Now Washington enters 2019 leaner, and meaner, looking to earn valuable playing time among another talented group of receivers.
It wasn’t a stellar 2018 campaign, but Washington appears to be a capable player on the rise: one that will make it difficult for teams to double-team Smith-Schuster.
Eli Rogers (Current age: 26)
The elder statesman of the group is 26, and enters this season with a new two-year deal.
A slot receiver by trade, Rogers will likely split duties with everyone else: especially the latter two names on this list who share similar traits, as the Steelers like to move their receivers around.
Reliable with good hands and crisp routes, Rogers provides exceptional depth which may be needed should others in this group fail to stand out.
Ryan Switzer (Current age: 24)
Traded for at the conclusion of last year’s preseason, Switzer immediately stepped in for the injured Eli Rogers and became the team’s go-to option not only at the slot receiver position, but also as a kick and punt returner.
Shifty and fast, Switzer was also deployed out of the backfield as a change-of-pace option in 2018’s offense. His versatility adds value and makes him another threat in the passing game, who should be even better with a full offseason to immerse himself with his teammates.
Diontae Johnson (Current age: 23)
This rookie’s tape reminded everyone of Antonio Brown.
However, that’s a lofty expectation that no one should be seeking from the third-round draft pick. Yet, Johnson’s ability to break tackles and his smooth, fluid route running, combined with the ability to run every route on the tree and play anywhere on the field, could see him find snaps even early on, despite the Steelers having five other capable hands on deck.
Even lowering the bar for expectations, if Johnson excels quickly, he could surpass every other name on the roster in much the same way Martavis Bryant shot out of canon midway through his own rookie season.
Johnson is a name to watch for – it just might take a month or two for him to get his feet wet if the coaches follow a similar pattern as they have with other rookie receivers.
Antonio Brown leaves 168 targets and nearly 1300 yards on the table for the Steelers receivers to gobble up. While I don’t expect an uptick in volume for Smith-Schuster, I could see his touchdown total increase from 7, as AB’s 15 touchdowns are available for others to be targeted in the red zone.
Another name not mentioned here, TE Vance McDonald, could be relied on much more this season. He was third on the team in receiving yards, receiving touchdowns, targets and catches: and could be the security blanket to Big Ben in much the way Heath Miller used to be.
Should McDonald chew into those totals, one other name who could find more time in the passing game this season is second-year back Jaylen Samuels. Known as an offensive weapon in college, his skillset bodes well for operating out of the backfield or the slot: areas where Le’Veon Bell used to eat up the stat sheet.
Aside from those players, and Pro Bowl RB James Conner adding into the mix, none of the other receivers should be seen as having to “replace” Brown. Instead, each offers a unique dynamic that makes this group of Steelers a hungry bunch who could all see a variety of playing time depending on the matchups.
That should scare opponents as 3, 4, and 5 WR sets offer a complexity of ways to tear down defenses.