Training Camp Battles: Wide Receivers

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Jason Bridge/USA Today Sports

Links for the other articles in the series can be found at the bottom of the page.

Before last Friday’s game I would have said that the wide receiver situation was entirely straightforward. Antonio Brown is the unquestioned No. 1, and Markus Wheaton is the No. 2, as he’s better on the outside than in the slot anyhow. The No. 3 is Sammie Coates, and the Nos. 4 and 5 are Eli Rogers and Darrius Heyward-Bey, in whichever order.

After Sammie Coates had a seriously disappointing game, has this changed? Actually I don’t think so, unless he continues to struggle in game action. My guess is, like quite a few of the youngsters, he was trying too hard. In camp he makes it look effortless. Obviously, if he can’t translate the stuff he does on the practice field into game action, that’s another story. But he already has a nice track record in admittedly a very small sample size, in not only NFL games but playoff games.

So what’s the difference? It’s probably a mistake to do the armchair psychologist thing on a guy I’ve never met, but probably 90% of the stuff we write about here is entirely speculative anyhow, so I won’t let that stop me. My guess is that last season there was a lot less pressure on him. Martavis Bryant was there. Markus Wheaton was there. And guess who was throwing to him?

Now the fumbles are another matter. In fact, William Gay had taken him aside a week or two ago when he was taking kick returns in the drill and spoke to him about ball security. My guess is that it was one too many things to think about in game action. And it isn’t that the balls were jarred out of his hand when he fell, or that he just dropped it—in both instances Detroit defenders were able to knock the ball out with their helmet.

It occurs to me that this may be one of the few liabilities of being tall. It’s hard to imagine a defender doing so that easily on Demarcus Ayres or Brandon Brown-Dukes, for instance, because the angle would be much less favorable. That’s my theory, anyhow, and I’m sticking to it.

At any rate, I may well be proven wrong, and it won’t be the first time, but I fully expect Coates to settle down and do some of the stuff we were expecting.

And for that matter Coates wasn’t the only receiver with hand issues. In the irst series on a  3rd and 13, Landry Jones threw a nice pass right to DHB, who dropped it. Right near the end of the game Dustin Vaughan escaped a sack and threw it to Marcus Tucker, who dropped it. So while Coates was the most egregious offender, he had company.

So if the Nos. 1-3 slots are sewn up do the 4 and 5 spots still go to DHB and Rogers? Well, an awful lot could happen between now and the beginning of the season, but that seems reasonable to assume. A quick look at the published depth chart on Steelers.com shows AB, Wheaton, DHB, and Coates as the first four, with Eli Rogers behind Coates and four guys in the “other” column.  Those four are Levi Norwood, Isaac Blakeney, Marcus Tucker, and Demarcus Ayers.

So are any of those four likely to unseat any one of the trio of DHB, Coates and Rogers? Your guess is as good as mine, but they would have to show a lot more than they have done so far. Ayers did have a pretty exciting end around or sweep or whatever you want to call it, nicely blocked for by Jesse James, BTW, which gained a bunch of yards for a first down on a2nd and 13. So there’s that. He was sent out for a punt return near the end of the game which was good for a short gain, although it was negated by an illegal block in the back penalty on Al-Hajj Shabazz (the only ST penalty for the Steelers.)

Isaac Blakeney is an interesting guy. He’s 6-6, 225 pounds, and looks more like a TE than a wide receiver. (I don’t really believe the 225 pounds. He looks sturdier than that to me.) But he’s more of a development project at the moment, or so it seems.

Both Levi Norwood and Marcus Tucker  have had flashes of potential, but from what I’ve seen more of them have been from Norwood. It’s hard to see either finding a place ahead of the other guys.

And lest anyone is disappointed that DHB gets a hat over a younger guy, there are several points to ponder: 1. He’s still blazingly fast, 2. He’s a hard worker and a veteran presence, 3. Despite the drop the other night, his hands have gotten a good bit more reliable, 4. He is quite a decent pass blocker, something which has extra value with the dearth of tight ends, and 5. He is one of the best special teams gunners.

To me it says a tremendous amount that a guy who was a No. 7 overall draft pick, in a notably diva-ish position, is willing to go out and get his hands dirty because that’s what the Steelers need him to do. Furthermore he could have retired long ago on the money he’s made. So either he really loves football, he really wants a Super Bowl ring, or he’s really not attuned to his best interests (a nice way of saying what I originally wrote.)

I mean, I realize a million dollars isn’t what it once was, but if he never played another minute in the NFL he would have already made over $39 million. $39,299,500, to be precise. Most people can live fairly comfortably on that. The money he has made since joining the Steelers in 2014 is considerably less than 10% of that $39+ million, in almost 30% of his time in the league.

I’ve finished the DHB love fest, and will just throw out a thought that potentially leaves me open to ridicule. I have previously mocked the sort of fan who thinks other teams are searching the waiver wire for Steelers cast-offs at the end of the cut-down to the 53 man roster. After all, those teams have all just engaged in the process of cutting guys they would love to keep. However, I do think there might be a possible exception in the case of wide receivers.

Somehow or other, since about 2010 Pittsburgh has turned into a wide receiver factory, taking unheralded youngsters later in the draft and putting together possibly the best group of receivers in the NFL. That was certainly true before Bryant’s suspension, and might still be true if Sammie Coates* takes a deep breath and some Inderol. (At least if that isn’t a banned substance.) If I were a team who is short on WR talent I would definitely be taking a look at Pittsburgh’s cast-offs. So whether any of the backups the Steelers may want to keep make it through waivers and onto the practice squad will be interesting.

to be continued…

Here are the links to the rest of the series:

1.Veteranosity vs. Youth, 2. Quarterback, 3. Defensive Tackle4. Tight Ends5. Inside Linebackersand 6. Running Backs and Offensive Lineand 7. Outside Linebackers.

*Coates just won the Home Run Derby for, I believe, the second year in a row. So he obviously doesn’t have a problem seeing the ball…

8 comments

  • cold_old_steelers_fan

    No mention of Cobi Hamilton? I admit he is further down the list but for I thought he had a couple of grabs as well (but my memory isn’t all that crisp this early a.m.*).

    It will be interesting to see if there is a sixth WR and who is signed to the PS (and will they have to give a proper salary to hold that player?).

    * I am impressed to see this posted so early in the morning. Are you living abroad again?

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    • I was going to say that, too. Apparently he stepped in and really impressed some people. He’s got great size. He hasn’t stuck with anybody, though, so it doesn’t seem likely.

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    • Nope, right here in the US of A. (I schedule them beforehand.) You’re right – Cobi Hamilton got a few mentions. I just missed him. Sorry, Cobi! As for the PS, IIRC if another team is willing to put them on their 53-man roster the Steelers can’t keep them except by doing the same. They have right of first refusal. That’s how we lost Josh Mauro. Arians probably did it just to piss the Steelers off. (Actually, Mauro played well for the Cards.)

      If the TE situation doesn’t resolve soon (in other words, Green comes back soon—he actually ran a few drills yesterday) then I could easily see them keeping a sixth WR instead of signing a clapped-out TE. (Apologies to the FA TEs out there…)

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    • Thank you. Cobi has a lot of talent, hope the former Razorback makes the roster. Going to be hard to do with all the talent on our team, the three catches he had in the second half of the first preseason game should help the cause.

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  • I don’t think height really factors into the fumbling. If DBs can dive helmet first at the knees, and they can, then they can get low enough to knock the ball out of anybody’s hands. It’s really just being aware of surroundings and situation, and ball protection technique. I think I read that Coates didn’t fumble once in college–not sure.

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    • Good point, but there’s a bit more precision involved in knocking the ball out. That said, you’re probably right. As for college, youare correct, at least according to College Sports Reference. Possibly the college DBs weren’t as aggressive…

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  • Ben seems to have faith and chemistry with DHB which ought to help his role, especially with main man Heath no longer around.

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