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What’s the plan for the Pittsburgh Steelers at wide receiver?

The Steelers acquired a wide receiver on Wednesday, but it was far from the splash move many were anticipating.

After weeks of speculation they might trade for San Francisco’s Brandon Aiyuk or Deebo Samuel, and rumors linking them to Miami’s Jaylen Waddle, Denver’s Courtland Sutton and former Bengal Tyler Boyd, the player they added was… Scotty Miller?

Yes, Scotty Miller, a diminutive speedster from Arthur Smith’s former home in Atlanta who caught all of 11 passes for 161 yards last season. Miller is lightning quick but measures at just 5’9 and 174 pounds. The Steelers seem to be hoarding receivers who fit that description. Earlier in free agency, they signed former Eagle Quez Watkins, who is a bit bigger (6 ’0-190) but still on the slight side. Watkins’s best attribute is his speed, of which he has plenty, clocking 4.35 in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine in 2020. Pittsburgh then selected Roman Wilson, another small (5 ’10-185) and speedy (4.39/40) receiver, in Round 3 of the NFL draft. They also retain Calvin Austin III, who at 5 ‘8-170 with a 4.32 time in the 40 is the smallest and speediest of the bunch.

I don’t know what kind of receiving corps this group will amount to, but they’d make a heck of a 4×100 team.

The Miller signing gives the Steelers six viable receivers with whom to go to camp. George Pickens and Van Jefferson, two larger, more traditional outside types, join Miller, Watkins, Wilson and Austin on the roster. Smith’s preference for bigger personnel groupings – he ran sets with multiple tight ends or running backs on over 80% of the snaps in Atlanta last season –  means just two receivers are likely to be on the field together most of the time. We know Pickens will be one of them. Who’s the other?

Jefferson has decent size (6 ’1-202) but has been little more than a depth piece the past few seasons. Since catching 50 passes for 802 yards and six touchdowns with the Rams in 2020, he’s combined for 44-578-3 the past three years. Last season, with the Rams and Atlanta, he had 20 catches for 203 yards. Jefferson can block, which makes him attractive in Smith’s run-heavy offense, and he has familiarity with Smith’s scheme. But he feels like a poor compliment to Pickens as a starter.

It seems likely, then, that Pittsburgh will go with one of the speed guys as their #2. This makes sense. With all of the multiple tight end sets they’re expected to run, and the condensed formations they’ll use, defenses will be forced to play with one of their safeties down in the box to get another hat into the run fit. This means there should be plenty of man-coverage and one-high looks for the receivers to (hopefully) exploit.

Pickens has operated mostly outside the hashes thus far in his career, but should see his route tree develop with more crossing concepts as the Steelers seek to open the middle of the field with the play-action passing game. To do this, they’ll need speed coming from somewhere else to take the high safety out of the picture. The quartet of Miller, Watkins, Wilson and Austin has likely been assembled for this purpose.

Miller has worked mostly out of the slot in his career and is probably the least likely of the four to earn the #2 role. His route tree is limited and he needs to play off the ball to avoid being jammed at the line of scrimmage. He is good after the catch, though, and the Steelers may see him as a candidate for quick screens, jet sweeps and gadget plays like they’ve done recently with the likes of Ray Ray McCloud and Steven Sims.

Watkins had a career year in 2021 when he caught 43 passes and averaged 15.0 yards per reception. The past two seasons, he’s averaged just 10 yards on 48 combined catches. Watkins is almost exclusively an outside receiver and he runs solid underneath routes. But, despite his 4.3 speed, he’s not an accomplished deep-ball threat. Watkins struggles to track balls effectively and isn’t great at winning contested throws. Against press coverage, he can struggle to separate from contact. It’s conceivable that a play-action based system like Pittsburgh’s will make him a more potent deep threat but that has not been the case the past few years.

Wilson can play both inside and outside but tended to do his best work out of the slot at Michigan. He’s very shifty and operates well in the middle of the field. 72% of the routes Wilson ran in college were between the hashes. If the Steelers want someone to run post routes to occupy the deep safety so Pickens can work the middle, or vice versa, Wilson can command that role. Unfortunately, if the team is as heavy on 12 and 21-personnel groupings as is suspected, Wilson will have to do it as an outside receiver, where he too can struggle to separate from press coverage.

This leaves Austin, who did take most of his reps last season on the outside. Austin caught 17 passes for 180 yards as the Steelers’ fourth receiver behind Pickens, Allan Robinson and Diontae Johnson. With a season under his belt, the Steelers may be ready for him to leap into a bigger role. He certainly has the speed to threaten defenses deep, although his route tree last year was limited and he will need to get stronger to create separation against the league’s more physical corners. Still, Austin feels like the clubhouse favorite right now to start opposite Pickens.

Discounting Wilson, who was in college, the four candidates the Steelers currently have for their #2 role combined for the same number of catches last season as Pickens (63), while Pickens had almost twice as many yards (1,140-686) and touchdowns (five-three). This feels discouraging. However, Smith may not need a prominent player to fill that role, in which case a committee approach could suffice. Or, given his penchant for being aggressive, Omar Khan may still have a move up his sleeve. Whatever happens, the battle for the second receiver spot will be one of the more interesting ones as the Steelers approach training camp.

For my video breakdown of the situation with Pittsburgh’s receivers, check out the video below:


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