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The Steelers prioritize scheme fit in drafting Michigan receiver Roman Wilson

The Steelers checked off an important box of need on the second day of the draft on Friday when they selected wide receiver Roman Wilson of Michigan with the eighty-fourth overall pick.

Wilson, at 5’11-190 pounds, is a bit undersized and seemed like an odd choice for Pittsburgh given how they’ve loaded up on big, physical players since announcing Arthur Smith as the team’s new offensive coordinator in January. Smith seems destined to run the same style of smash-mouth football he employed as a play-called in his previous stops in Tennessee and Atlanta. The Steelers’ first two picks in this draft — Troy Fautanu and Zach Frazier — were powerful offensive linemen who fit that style. Many figured when the team got around to drafting a receiver they’d proceed accordingly. Someone in the George Pickens mold seemed likely — a player who was fast enough to stretch the field on the outside but big enough to block in-line when necessary. Jalen McMillan of the University of Washington, for example, who was on the board when Pittsburgh drafted at #84. Or UCF’s Javon Baker, both of whom are bigger than Wilson and more closely resemble Pickens.

The Steelers, however, opted for Wilson. It seemed curious, given both his stature and the fact that Wilson, as a true slot player, doesn’t seem likely to get a ton of reps in what is expected to be a two-tight end base offense in Pittsburgh.

And yet, when you put on the tape, you find that Wilson is actually a great fit for what the Steelers seem likely to do.

Why? To begin, he’s selfless. In the Jim Harbaugh-led offensive scheme at Michigan, all players were expected to block. Wilson did so willingly, if not spectacularly. Granted, he was sometimes overpowered by bigger defensive backs and safeties. But that didn’t detract from his willingness to mix it up. It was satisfying to watch Wilson stay after defenders until the whistle, inevitably getting under their skin and causing them to engage in one-on-one battles with him. Perhaps a good adjective for Wilson as a blocker is “pesky.” For every snap you can remember where a certain recently-departed Steelers’ receiver stood and watched a run play unfold without even pretending to throw a block, there is one of Wilson at Michigan pushing and shoving with a defender at the end of a play. Point blank: he’s annoys people, and that’s a good thing.

In the passing game, Wilson was highly productive despite Michigan’s emphasis on the run. He caught 117 balls for over 1,700 yards and 22 touchdowns in his career, averaging 16.0 yards per catch. He is a crisp route runner who knows how to recognize coverage and adjust accordingly, and he is dangerous with the ball in his hands after the catch. In the film room I linked to below, there’s a clip where Wilson made a pivotal play in Michigan’s national semi-final win over Alabama at the Rose Bowl. Trailing 20-13 with just over 2:00 to play, Wilson had a 29-yard catch-and-run on a Yankee route where he ran a deep cross, made a leaping grab on a high throw from J.J. McCarthy then faked out two Alabama defenders to run the ball inside the five yard line. Wilson made a key adjustment mid-route where he recognized the depth of the drop of an Alabama linebacker and came under it to create space for himself. Had he tried to go over top of the backer, he would have been trapped between the backer and the safety and run himself into coverage. It was a subtle move but one that showed great poise and understanding of how to get open.

Two plays later, Wilson caught the tying touchdown and Michigan went on to win in overtime.

Navigating clutter will be a huge element of Wilson’s success as a pro. His size limits his route tree, so understanding coverages, how to exploit them and where to find holes will be critical. 72% of Wilson’s receptions at Michigan came between the hashes, which means he’s comfortable operating in the middle of the field. This is what makes him a very different player from Calvin Austin III, another under-sized receiver with great speed the Steelers drafted in 2021. Austin III does not operate much in the slot and does not have great spatial awareness. As a result, he has to line up outside predominantly, where his size (5’9-165) makes it hard for him to win sideline routes against bigger NFL corners who can smother him at the line of scrimmage. Wilson is different. He makes his living in traffic and is comfortable working horizontally. That could be huge for a Steelers offense that should lean heavily into the play-action passing game, where the middle of the field is often a great place to scheme receivers open.

In the end, it’s understandable why some Steelers’ fans would have liked a bigger receiver who runs a more complete route tree. In Wilson, though, I believe they’ve found a selfless, team-first player who will do the little things their receivers haven’t always done, who will be a great target off of play-action and whose run-after-the-catch ability makes him valuable in Arthur Smith’s offense.

For a better look at Wilson, check out my video breakdown below, and please tune into SCN YouTube for upcoming breakdowns of some of Pittsburgh’s other draft picks as well.


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