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Are the Steelers still great at drafting wide receivers?

The Pittsburgh Steelers are historically known for several things. Hard-nosed football. Punishing defenses. Lombardi trophies. The list might be debatable, but it could go on and on.

In more recent Steelers history, the team is known as being able to constantly find wide receivers through the NFL draft. Not only have the Steelers found some gems late in the draft, such as Antonio Brown in 2010, but it seems like the Steelers are getting good contributions from their wide receivers who they find in the draft on a continual basis.

But as that 2010 draft which brought two quality wide receivers gets farther away, does this narrative hold true for the Steelers drafting the position?

In order to answer the question, let’s dive into what the Steelers have done recently. I decided to go back 12 years through the 2012 NFL draft. It was 2010 when the Steelers drafted Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown, and the Steelers did not select the wide receiver in 2011. For that reason, this seems to be a logical starting point.

Here are the players who were listed as wide receivers when drafted by the Steelers since 2012 according to Pro Football Reference:

Toney Clemons (2012, Round 7, Pick 231)
Markus Wheaton (2013, Round 3, Pick 79)
Justin Brown (2013, Round 6, Pick 186)
Martavis Bryant (2014, Round 4, Pick 118)
Dri Archer (2014, Round 3, Pick 97)
Sammie Coates (2015, Round 3, Pick 87)
Demarcus Ayers (2016, Round 7, Pick 229)
JuJu Smith-Schuster (2017, Round 2, Pick 62)
James Washington (2018, Round 2, Pick 60)
Diontae Johnson (2019, Round 3, Pick 66)
Chase Claypool (2020, Round 2, Pick 49)
George Pickens (2022, Round 2, Pick 52)
Calvin Austin (2022, Round 4, Pick 138)

While we could look at all 13 names, it’s much better to whittle down this list to look at more information from a more appropriate group of players.

The first players I eliminated were players chosen in the sixth or seventh round of the draft. These players are not expected to come through and be major contributors. This is what makes the Antonio Brown pick so legendary because of what he accomplished as a late round draft pick. If any of these players were going to be looked at in a positive light as a quality pick, I would have left them in. Instead, they would have increased the number of players that didn’t work out so therefore I don’t think they should be counted. I also was not sure whether or not I should include the fifth round of the draft, but the Steelers did not select any wide receivers in the fifth round during this time span so it did not become an issue.

Toney Clemons (2012, Round 7, Pick 231)
Markus Wheaton (2013, Round 3, Pick 79)
Justin Brown (2013, Round 6, Pick 186)
Martavis Bryant (2014, Round 4, Pick 118)
Dri Archer (2014, Round 3, Pick 97)
Sammie Coates (2015, Round 3, Pick 87)
Demarcus Ayers (2016, Round 7, Pick 229)
JuJu Smith-Schuster (2017, Round 2, Pick 62)
James Washington (2018, Round 2, Pick 60)
Diontae Johnson (2019, Round 3, Pick 66)
Chase Claypool (2020, Round 2, Pick 49)
George Pickens (2022, Round 2, Pick 52)
Calvin Austin (2022, Round 4, Pick 138)

The next set of players I eliminated from the breakdown were for two different reasons. First, Dri Archer was considered a wide receiver but was not really utilized in that way for the Steelers. Archer had more rushes than receptions during his short time with the Steelers (less than two seasons), so I didn’t want a player who wasn’t a clear-cut wide receiver to throw off the data.

The other two players I eliminated were those selected in 2022. While two seasons could potentially be an indicator of greatness, things can fall off fast as will be seen with some of the other players who were left on the list. Also, since Calvin Austin only has one season that he’s played because of being injured his rookie year, he is extremely difficult to judge. And when it comes to George Pickens, the different categories players fall into at the end will show that there are still two different groups in which Pickins could land.

Markus Wheaton (2013, Round 3, Pick 79)
Martavis Bryant (2014, Round 4, Pick 118)
Dri Archer (2014, Round 3, Pick 97)
Sammie Coates (2015, Round 3, Pick 87)
JuJu Smith-Schuster (2017, Round 2, Pick 62)
James Washington (2018, Round 2, Pick 60)
Diontae Johnson (2019, Round 3, Pick 66)
Chase Claypool (2020, Round 2, Pick 49)
George Pickens (2022, Round 2, Pick 52)
Calvin Austin (2022, Round 4, Pick 138)

Now that our list is complete of seven players drafted in the first four rounds by the Pittsburgh Steelers from 2012 through 2020, let’s take a look at their statistics from their time in Pittsburgh:

Markus Wheaton (2013, Round 3, Pick 79)

4 seasons, 47 games, 22 starts, 107 receptions, 1,508 yards, 8 TDs

Martavis Bryant (2014, Round 4, Pick 118)

3 seasons, 36 games, 16 starts, 126 receptions, 1,917 yards, 17 TDs, 1 rushing TD

Sammie Coates (2015, Round 3, Pick 87)

2 seasons, 20 games, 5 starts, 22 receptions, 446 yards, 2 TDs

JuJu Smith-Schuster (2017, Round 2, Pick 62)

5 seasons, 63 games, 51 starts, 323 receptions, 3,855 yards, 26 TDs, 1 rushing TD, one 1,000+ yard season, one Pro Bowl

James Washington (2018, Round 2, Pick 60)

4 seasons, 60 games, 25 starts, 114 receptions, 1,629 yards, 11 TDs

Diontae Johnson (2019, Round 3, Pick 66)

5 seasons, 77 games, 67 starts, 391 receptions, 4,363 yards, 25 TDs, one 1,000+ yard season, one Pro Bowl

Chase Claypool (2020, Round 2, Pick 49)

3 seasons, 39 games, 27 starts, 153 receptions, 2,044 yards, 12 TDs, 2 rushing TDs

It’s quite interesting how a number of these players are easily grouped together based on their time and output with the Pittsburgh Steelers. I broke the seven players up into three different categories as to how it ultimately panned out in Pittsburgh.

Quality Draft Pick:

JuJu Smith-Schuster
Diontae Johnson

Good for a short time:

Martavis Bryant
Chase Claypool

Underachieved:

Marcus Wheaton
Sammie Coates
James Washington

Based on this information, since the Steelers great wide receiver draft of 2010, it is not a slam dunk that the Steelers will get quality play from a wide receiver drafted in the first half of the NFL draft. While the Steelers have had a couple selections that have panned out well and early in JuJu Smith-Schuster and Diontae Johnson, they also had players who never came around such as Marcus Wheaton, Sammie Coates, and James Washington. As for the two players in the middle, they had quality time with the Steelers  but did not last their rookie contracts. It really becomes middle ground as these players did give high contributions but simply did not stand the test of time.

So how does this information answer the original question of the Steelers being great at drafting wide receivers?

My ultimate conclusion is the Steelers still do a great job of finding wide receivers in the NFL draft. But…

Really, it all comes down to the “but.” The Steelers do find quality wide receivers and have a number of them work out so much more than is typically found when looking for players in the NFL draft. I would still put them among the very best to do so. This is, of course, in flux at this time as new general manager Omar Khan has yet to draft a wide receiver in the NFL draft. While this variable could change things, it can’t be determined at this time.

Now to get back to the but…

The Steelers success is not at the level that some fans and commentators make it out to be. For those who think the Steelers will find another quality wide receiver this year in the draft just by grabbing one in the middle rounds because “the Steelers are good at it,” it is not something that Steelers should bank on and not address in free agency and simply leave it to the draft. Yes, they’re good at it. But being good at drafting players in the NFL draft is not hitting every time. Frankly, hitting half the time is really good.

So while the Steelers are an NFL franchise that continues to draft well when it comes to the wide receiver position, operating under the assumption that every wide receiver they select will turn out is a very dangerous and foolish thought.

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