Pittsburgh’s Goin’ to the Super Bowl: Ask and Ye Shall Receive

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The title seemed appropriate to celebrate the news of Antonio Brown’s massive extension. And no, he didn’t get a new hair style, although I suspect he will, just to mark the occasion—he got a nice fat contract.

I expect if you are a betting sort of person you can find a site someplace in which you can lay down money on the odds of him committing even more outrageous and extravagant hi-jinks, now that he has $19 million in guaranteed money to tide him over, besides all the rest of it. We can only hope his post-season heart to heart meeting with Mike Tomlin at a downtown steakhouse included some equally extravagant promises of future good behavior. But in the end I expect what they mainly care about is future performance.

Because of this news it seems appropriate to address the wideouts. So let’s get this out of the way first. We just looked at the defensive backs and pondered why it is that the Steelers, who have come up smelling like roses in drafting later-round wide receivers, have generally smelled like something else in their drafting of defensive backs. goffthesloth left a very interesting comment on that post, which I quote in its entirety:

Interestingly our success rate drafting DBs, and especially CBs, was really bad during the years Dick Lebeau was a coach here.

During the Dick Lebeau years (1992-1996, 2004-2014) we drafted 22 DBs, 16 CBs. Only 2 of those CBs rank in the top 50 in draft class AV. Willie Williams and William Gay. Three more, Deion Figures, Bryant McFadden, Keenan Lewis, rank in the top 100 of their class.

From 1997-2003 we drafted 10 DBs, 5 CBs. Of the 5 cornerbacks drafted 3 rank in the top 50 of their draft class, Chad Scott, Deshea Townsend and Ike Taylor. One more, Hank Poteat, ranks in the top 100, although he was mostly a returner for us.

Since Lebeau left we have drafted 5 DBs, 3 CBs, and while it is a little early to put stock in their rankings, Artie Burns ranks in the top 50 after one season, while Doran Grant and Senquez Golson haven’t made it on the field yet.

But consider that in 5 draft picks over 7 years we got more impact players than we did with 16 picks over 17 years while Lebeau was here, that’s pretty crazy.

In my younger days I did some keyboard teaching, mainly organ lessons. I decided to stop, because I realized I wasn’t a very good teacher. Playing the organ came more or less naturally to me, and although of course I had to work at it, the problems I encountered in my students were pretty incomprehensible to me, as I couldn’t see what the problem was.

I took up downhill skiing in my very late 30s, and taught at a ski school for a year. I was a much better ski instructor than I was an organ teacher. I knew exactly what the problems were for most students because I had struggled with all of them myself. As a result I had much more useful information to impart and could empathize with their difficulties.

In later years I did some more keyboard teaching, and I was definitely better at it, because I had a better understanding of the frustrations, even if I hadn’t dealt with them myself.

Dick LeBeau was a fabulous defensive back in his playing days, and I wonder if his assessments of defensive backs didn’t suffer from a similar problem. (This is, naturally, complete speculation.) Perhaps he would see the deficiencies in the prospects, but would assume they were an easy fix, because all they would need would be to be told the right way to do it, and the problem was solved. Or perhaps he saw much more clearly the potential of the player than the downside.

Perhaps it is a small sample size problem. But it will certainly be interesting to see if the drafting of DBs appears to get better.

If this was the problem, one might assume a similar situation with the receivers, because after all Mike Tomlin was a wide receiver in college. He had a distinguished career at William and Mary as was inducted into their Hall of Fame in 2012. But perhaps football didn’t come quite so naturally to Tomlin.

Another difficulty with parsing this out is figuring out just how much influence LeBeau had in those decisions, or, for that matter, Tomlin himself. I don’t suppose we’ll ever know.

But be all that as it may, the fact is the Steelers have been extraordinarily fortunate in their wide receiver drafting. Each year at camp the question is which of the very promising-looking young guys we see are going to have to be cut because there isn’t room for all of them. I would go so far as to say this problem doesn’t exist at all, or at least not to such an extent, in any other position on the team.

This is part of why last season’s sudden dearth of wide receiver talent came as such a shock. Between Martavis Bryant’s suspension—surely the worst blow—to Sammie Coates’ broken fingers, Markus Wheaton’s season-ending shoulder injury, and Darrius Heyward-Bey’s foot injury, what had been the deepest position on the team was suddenly dangerously thin.

And the position at the moment isn’t much better. Bryant has applied to the league for reinstatement but no decision has been handed down, and given that he failed multiple tests on his way to the one-year suspension, it’s hard to feel confident about his ability to stay clean. When you know you are going to be tested frequently, and you know that failing those tests is going to cost you a lot of money—a lot!—and still you can’t stop yourself from smoking, there’s a problem that goes beyond any sort of recreational use.

Unless that problem was somehow dealt with during the past year—a year in which, stupidly in my opinion, he was not able to have any contact with the team, the one group of people with the most interest in helping him and probably the best chance to influence him—this left him to pull himself up by his own bootstraps. I really hope he managed to do so, but, like Kevin Colbert, I’m not overly optimistic. As Colbert said, Bryant is going to have to rebuild trust with the team, which will be a long process and one which may be beyond the capabilities of what I presume is a fairly fragile individual.

So let’s assess where the team is at the moment. They’ve locked up one of the best receivers in the league, and although Antonio Brown is reaching the point where one presumes he is peaking, or has already done so, there is no reason to believe he won’t be a force for several more years. Certainly there is no reason to believe he won’t have an excellent 2017 season, always assuming 1) Ben comes back and stays healthy  and 2) the team is able to line up another credible threat or two (besides Le’Veon Bell) to take some of the unwanted attention off of Brown. Nobody is going to be able to do a great deal when they are consistently double or even triple-teamed, and if they are there has to be someone else to take advantage of that fact.

The candidates for that role are:

  • Bryant, who, despite the uncertainties surrounding him, is nothing short of amazing on the field. Assuming he can get there.
  • Sammie Coates, who comes with his own on-field issues (off the field he’s a paragon.) We can, hopefully, assume his problems with drops were mainly due to the broken fingers, but one has to ask if this is possibly going to recur. After all, he apparently broke not one but two fingers, at different times. Hopefully, for his sake as well as that of the Steelers, this doesn’t indicate some sort of underlying problem with his bone strength.
  • Ladarius Green, who of course isn’t a wide receiver but who can clearly fill the role of a deep-ball and YAC threat, if his few cameo appearances with the team last season are any indication. But of course you have to consider the medical issues. He may or may not have a concussion issue, depending on whether you ask the team or the local press. He may or may not have taken forever for his ankle to heal, once again depending on who you ask. But the concussion issue possibility is scary, and if I were his wife I would be begging him to retire right now, I suspect.

And while this may seem like a lot of unknowns, after this it gets really murky, because we’re talking about the possible emergence of a hitherto-unknown practice squad guy or a lowish draft pick, because given the need for another corner or two and a pass rusher, the upper rounds of the draft are almost certainly going to be defensive picks.

So let’s have a look at who’s left and their status:

  • Eli Rogers—emerged as a pretty darn good slot receiver.
  • Markus Wheaton—a free agent, highly unlikely to be re-signed, as he was made redundant by what we saw from Rogers.
  • Cobi Hamilton—the Steelers gave him a one-year contract. He made some great plays and had some equally bad ones. We’ll see whether his experience in 2016 and the opportunity to go through the full off-season program will make him more reliable, because he definitely has potential. (He wasn’t picked up by the Steelers until partway into training camp last year.)
  • Demarcus Ayers—although he didn’t get many chances to prove himself last season, I would say he did more with them than Dri Archer did in the two years he was on the roster. So at least he isn’t a poor man’s Dri Archer. With any luck he can maybe be a poor man’s Wes Welker. (I suppose, really, he would be a rich man’s Wes Welker, because Welker went undrafted in 2004.)
  • Darrius Heyward-Bey—he is signed through 2018, but there have been some murmurings that he might be a cap casualty, as his cap hit for this season will be $1,333,333, with only $200,000+ of that dead money. Personally I think he showed just how valuable he was on special teams, but we’ll see. I don’t foresee him being a big part of the offense unless something goes seriously wrong, although if he is I’m rooting for him.
  • Marcus Tucker—someone who showed flashes in camp last season and spent latter half of the season on the practice squad. Cut in early September and was signed to the PS in early November. He has another chance this season. Let’s see if he can become the next receiver from a small college in Michigan to make his mark on the Steelers.
  • And finally, the forgotten man, Canaan Severin. He spent the year on IR but had showed a great work ethic and a lot of promise before a shoulder injury sidelined him for the season. A lot of people were excited about him last year as a tall, strong possession receiver.

Most everybody thinks the Steelers will also take a flyer on a lower-round receiver, and most everybody is usually right. They will surely also sift through the pile of UDFAs.

But what all this says is, best-case scenario, they are going to be unstoppable on offense. Worst-case scenario, they will muddle along with AB and Bell and whatever they can get out of a revolving cast of characters. Surely history won’t repeat itself to that extent, though. We can only wait and see.

And speaking of seeing, from a BLA perspective, or any other, there’s no question who is the top dog in the WR room. Antonio Brown, despite some of his poor choices in the sartorial and barber-ial realm—really, who thinks up some of those haircuts?—is a fine looking man, a great father, and has a really lovely smile. That’s all we need to know…

Click here to read the overview and here to read about cornerbacks.

6 comments

  • Love you highlighting the challenges of one who is gifted in a particular way trying to effectively teach those who may not. I would offer, totally unsubstantiated, the confluence of three factors that might contribute to the team’s ongoing success at wide receiver.

    1. Richard Mann is a really, really good coach.

    2. Ben Roethlisberger is a talent who brings out the best in his receivers (Exhibit A: Mike Wallace)

    3. Extraordinary peer leadership in the form, first of Hines Ward, followed by Antonio Brown, who bring high standards and crazy work habits to bear, necessary because each had to overcome real and perceived limitations to become great players.

    With that in mind, one has to wonder how the story of Martavis Bryant will play out. Much more talented than AB or Hines, he has the potential of being a Hall of Fame caliber player, which would make the chance (50/50 I would say at this juncture) of failure all the more tragic. Let us hope for all of our sakes for a happy ending here.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Great theory. And all very true about Bryant. My heart breaks for that young man, and as much as I’d like to see him a handle on his problems for the Steelers’ sake, I want to see him do so for his own.

      Like

  • Tomlin’s arrival signaled a suddenly higher success rate on receivers 6’0″ and shorter.

    From 2007-2012 we drafted a total of 6 wide receivers.

    Of those 6 three were under 6’0″: Mike Wallace (6’0″), Emmanuel Sanders (5’11”) and Antonio Brown (5’10”). Every one has had a thousand yard season, and they rank 6th(t), 24th(t) and 2nd(t) in draft class AV respectively. That’s incredible, but we all know about them.

    In the same time span we drafted Dallas Baker (6’3″), Limas Sweed (6’5″), and Tony Clemons (6’3). combined they have 11 receptions for 116 yards on 28 targets for their careers, which are over.

    Then in 2013 Richard Mann became our WR coach.

    Since then we have drafted 5 more receivers. (I’m counting Dri Archer as a RB)

    Of those 2 were 6’0″ or shorter: Markus Wheaton (6’0″) and Demarcus Ayers (5’10”). Markus has been a solid #2 receiver at times, when healthy and not overshadowed by the volume of receiving talent this team has. Demarcus Ayers showed some small flashes his rookie season, he’s unknown still.

    Three were taller than 6’0″, Justin Brown (6’3″), Martevis Bryant (6’4″) and Sammie Coates (6’2″). Justin Brown recorded more catches than Baker, Sweed and Clemons combined in the 8 games he played for the Steelers, before losing his spot to Martevis Bryant, being waived in the offseason, picked up by Buffalo where he was injured and appears to be done.
    Martevis Bryant racked up 1314 yards and 14 TDs in 21 games, and Sammy Coates threw down an incredible 5 games before getting injured in 2016.

    Since Tomlin became our head coach w have drafted 5 short WRs, who have 8 Pro-Bowl appearances between them, are all still in the league and only 1 hasn’t been a starter for over half a season, and that one was just a rookie.

    With receivers taller than 6’0″, we got nothing from three picks, but since Richard Mann was hired we’ve done much better, with 2 of 3 looking like they have the potential to be a big time player, if they can recover from addiction and injury to reach the form we’ve already seen them achieve in the past.

    That’s a really good return on investment so far, especially considering the picks we’ve spent.

    Liked by 1 person

  • Love the research. If you want a job, we all get paid the same : )

    Like

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