How much did the Steelers lose by losing JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Washington, and Ray-Ray McCloud?
A collective panic overcame some of Steelers Nation over the weekend, as not one, not two, but three of Pittsburgh’s free agent wide receivers signed deals with other teams.
Fans tend to have legacy thoughts on certain players, and the losses of JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Washington, and Ray-Ray McCloud were no different, with many shifting gears ever so quickly to repair the holes left by that trio.
Quickly, other clickbait writers started tossing out the names of potential free agent signings for the Steelers to replace these receivers. Former Browns WR Jarvis Landry, Falcons/Titans WR Julio Jones, and Cowboys/Bills WR Cole Beasley were among the “headliners” to catch the short attention span of those who failed to realize one key detail: Smith-Schuster, Washington, and McCloud really didn’t do much in 2021… or 2020… or maybe at all, depending on how we want to evaluate each player.
That means each – and in my opinion all – are replaceable.
Here’s a look at all three of those departing free agents and what kind of “holes” they have left the Steelers to fill.
The biggest name of the three, JuJu had an infectious attitude which brought a playful youth movement to the Steelers when he was drafted in 2017. He has since, by tenure not age, become the veteran of the receiver room.
A physical and willing blocker, the unfortunate truth is that Smith-Schuster lost a step in recent years, dating back to when Antonio Brown flew the coop following the 2018 season.
In the years that followed, JuJu’s last 100-yard receiving game occurred in 2019, in a late October Monday Night Football game against the Miami Dolphins. That season, Smith-Schuster missed four entire games and portions of others, as his numbers dipped from 111 receptions and 1,426 yards down to 42 catches and 552 yards. He would finish fourth in catches and third in yards on the team in 2019, but rebound in 2020 with an awkward stat.
His 97 catches for 831 yards represented one of the worst yards-per-catch averages in the league with 8.6.
Unfortunately, that’s the same that JuJu would average in 2021, missing a dozen games until he miraculously rehabbed his way back into the Steelers Wild Card game against the Kansas City Chiefs.
The bitter pill to swallow is that the organization always felt JuJu would leave. It was just a matter of when.
The Steelers drafted Chase Claypool in the second round of the 2020 NFL Draft anticipating such a move. However, the inevitable was delayed by one season as the pandemic reduced every team’s salary cap and made splurging for receivers an unnecessary expense against their budgets. As such, JuJu would return to Pittsburgh on a one-year deal.
Oddly, he also took a one-year deal with the Chiefs for this upcoming season, but one has to think that’s more to do with the certainty of getting targets from Patrick Mahomes versus whoever is under center for the Steelers.
Regardless, Smith-Schuster’s 15 receptions for 129 yards – with no touchdowns – can be replaced with almost anyone who can remain available on game days. (His leadership and other intangibles, however, will sorely be missed.)
For the life of me, I cannot understand the fascination fans had with Washington.
Initially drafted one day after the team traded WR Martavis Bryant away, the former Oklahoma State wide receiver was the top at his position available in the 2018 NFL Draft.
Many, including myself, applauded the pick, thinking the Steelers may have landed yet another stud receiver in the second round of the draft. Yet, what came to be is far from what we envisioned, as Washington failed to top more than 30 receptions and 400 yards in three of his four seasons in the Steel City.
Washington’s biggest success came in 2019, as the Steelers were without Smith-Schuster often (noted above), and failed to replace Brown, falling face first on the signing of Donte Moncrief (who was cut before the mid-year trade deadline).
Washington would lead the team in receiving yards but fall behind rookie Diontae Johnson in receptions and receiving touchdowns. In fact, despite missing lots of time, JuJu would equal Washington’s three touchdowns and only trail his catches by two: this while running routes for his college teammate, QB Mason Rudolph.
The connection never materialized and Washington would see the Steelers draft and play Chase Claypool ahead of him.
In 2021, when Smith-Schuster was sidelined again, Washington would be passed over in playing time for Ray-Ray McCloud, who was thought of nothing more than a return specialist at the time.
Washington’s 2020 and 2021 seasons would see him available for all but two games, despite the pandemic protocols. Yet, he would only muster 30 catches for 392 yards (5 TDs) and 24 catches for 285 yards (2 TDs).
By comparison, former Steelers WR Ryan Switzer, who used to be the butt of many jokes as well, had 36 receptions for 253 yards and a touchdown back in 2018, when he was the team’s fifth or sixth option behind Brown, Smith-Schuster, Eli Rogers, Vance McDonald, Jesse James, James Conner, and even Jaylen Samuels. (Who’s 47 receptions in 2019 are more than Washington had in any of his four individual seasons.)
An offseason where Washington was rumored to have asked for a trade further cemented the perception he was in Mike Tomlin’s doghouse. Regardless, his low output of offense combined with his inability to separate from defenders made it an easy decision for the Steelers to move on.
A surprising signing that was stolen from the Steelers is McCloud, who was among the league leaders in kick and punt return yardage over the last two seasons.
McCloud’s two-year deal with the San Francisco 49ers is the only agreement between the trio mentioned here that goes beyond a single-year contract.
While McCloud clung to his third NFL team, the Steelers, by showing special teams prowess, he was called upon to replace JuJu as a slot receiver and nearly equaled Washington’s numbers in 2021, with 39 catches for 277 yards.
The detriment on his resume?
McCloud has never caught an NFL touchdown pass – and had a miscue with Mason Rudolph against the Lions midseason which may have put his name in the Steelers scorebooks at the minimum.
While he played above the line when called upon, the Steelers primarily viewed McCloud as a return specialist as opposed to the versatile receivers they prefer. The team moved on, opting to sign former New England Patriots special teams standout Gunner Olszewski.
Olszewski, a first-team All-Pro in 2020, nearly mirrored his stellar season again in 2021 and may represent an upgrade as a returner over McCloud. If called upon to play offense, he’s shown limited capability to do so: and even has at least one touchdown reception in his career too.
While I’m happy that McCloud was able to parlay his success in Pittsburgh into a longer-term deal with San Francisco, I won’t pretend that he too was replaceable. The expectation is that, like McCloud, the Steelers won’t need to rely on Olszewski to appear on the offensive side of the ball either.
In that aspect, I can’t consider losing McCloud much of a loss for the Steelers, and in fact, they may have improved their special teams by signing Gunner.