2021 Steelers Training Camp Preview: The Wide Receivers

It’s hard to believe but the Pittsburgh Steelers 2021 Training Camp is right around the corner. As we countdown the days until camp begins, each week SCU will highlight one position group, detailing the players who will be competing for a spot on the Steelers final 53-man roster at the end of this Summer.

If it were any other season it would seem awkward that the Pittsburgh Steelers didn’t select a wide receiver in this year’s NFL Draft.

However, the Steelers had more needs this offseason than their receiver group, which is still bursting at the seams with talent.

The following is a list of receivers the Steelers are taking to training camp. I tried to stay with the most relevant players, not only to be concise, but if a receiver isn’t listed here, it’s likely they have an uphill battle to make the team in 2021. These are the players I feel are the best bet to make an impact for the Steelers this season.

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JuJu Smith-Schuster

Let’s start with the centerpiece.

Smith-Schuster was all but gone. The young, talented receiver was set to become a free agent with the Steelers prepared to move on, due to having little cap space to offer JuJu the sizeable contract he was seeking in the marketplace.

With a glut of receivers available as free agents and a deep position group in the draft, JuJu’s market was next to nil – with the Baltimore Ravens knocking at the door but only offering an incentive-laden contract to catch passes on a run-first team.

Loyalty kicked in and Smith-Schuster returns on a one-year deal after leading the team with 97 receptions, however, not leading the team in yards.

JuJu’s statline is the least receiving yards on the most catches in history. He is still looking to strike back after becoming the team’s offensive MVP in 2018.

Most will say that he became part of the “WR1” conversation due to Antonio Brown, and fell off when the latter was no longer drawing double-teams, but it’s also more likely that the Randy Fichtner dink-and-dunk offense hurt JuJu’s numbers as much as anyone’s, as the receiver became the “go-to-guy” on third downs – about the most reliable target the Steelers had while leading the league in dropped passes.

Look for JuJu to rebound greatly in Matt Canada’s offense. Even with a lot of mouths to feed, I feel as if he can once again come close to his 97 catches in 2020… except this time, he should be pairing that with over 1,000 yards as well.

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Diontae Johnson

I’m not sure we have to wait for a breakout season from Johnson, as he’s already one of the most elusive players in the NFL when the ball is in his hands.

The latter part is the keyword: in his hands.

Johnson had major issues with focus and catching the ball last season – and admittedly started working on that this offseason in order to become a more reliable pass catcher.

He’s also a stellar special teams weapon, when given the chance to return punts.

Johnson should eat plenty in the Steelers offense. It just depends which of these talented receivers takes a backseat when it’s his turn at the table.

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Chase Claypool

I laugh when other analysts and media round the league debate about the best wide receiver groups. Sure, Tennessee added aging, 32-year-old Julio Jones, but the Steelers have one of, if not the lowest amount of cap space dedicated to their group – with everyone 25 years of age or younger.

Entering his second season, “Mapletron” is the big play target on the Steelers offense. Traditionally, rookie receivers don’t see as much action as Claypool did last year – and honestly, he didn’t always play as much as he could’ve.

I believe the handcuffs come off of Claypool this season and he continues to dazzle fans.

He tied for first in receiving touchdowns on the team with 9 (tied with JuJu) and second in yards plus third in receptions.

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James Washington

Now you can see how the Steelers offense, especially one that should be more balanced in 2021, will absolutely feast on opposing secondaries. They have a legit three receivers atop their group, with another waiting to burst onto the scene when given the opportunity.

Washington was drafted four years ago to help us all forget that Martavis Bryant was traded to the Raiders. He enters a contract season where he has shown flashes of being a player who can catch anything thrown his direction.

Washington’s main issue has been getting buried in the depth chart – which could be a byproduct of practice or something else, which I’m not sure of. (I’m only speculating.)

We know he’s a favorite of Ben Roethlisberger. However, he has has to put up bigger numbers than 30 catches for 392 yards. His 5 touchdowns were a career high, but his other numbers took a massive hit – a bit of a disappointment considering Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges were throwing him passes the season prior.

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Ray-Ray McCloud

McCloud only caught 20 passes for 77 yards last season, but his straight-line speed helps open up the Steelers offense in other areas – if only as a decoy.

His paychecks are primarily earned returning kicks and punts, something he was dynamic at in 2020. His special teams prowess gave Pittsburgh some great field position last season, and as such, his spot on the roster should be plenty safe unless the next Antonio Brown floats onto the roster sometime in July.

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Everyone Else

Since no receiver was drafted by the Steelers, it appears they’re content with their incumbents and having everyone else compete for a spot on their practice squad.

Rico Bussey, Anthony Johnson, Isaiah McKoy, Mathew Sexton, Tyler Simmons, and Cody White round out the names on the Steelers current roster.

Johnson and White were added to the team shortly after the season ended in January, signed to futures contracts.

Simmons is the intriguing prospect, as he sat out an entire year of football before being spotted by staff at Georgia’s pro day during the draft process. He was immediately offered a similar deal.

Sexton was also spotted at Eastern Michigan’s pro day this year and signed soon after as well. According to NFL Analyst Tom Pelissero:

Sexton went undrafted out of Eastern Michigan in 2020 and reportedly ran the 40-yard dash in the low 4.3-second range. He had 100 catches for 1,335 yards and nine touchdowns while in college. He took part in The Spring League last year and was used as a kick returner in addition to playing wideout.

McKoy went undrafted out of Kent State, despite some feeling he was at least a sixth or seventh round selection. The former 100m runner harkens to the style of receivers the Steelers stash on their practice squad and develop within their “receiver factory”.

While none of the names pop off of the page as in previous years, it’s simply because this position group is already overloaded with more than enough talent to befit their 53-man roster.

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