Challenge for Steelers is figuring out how to replace Antonio Brown’s production
How do you replace a perennial All-Pro who accounted for 28.5 percent of a team’s receptions, 32.4 percent of receiving yardage and 36.4 percent of touchdown catches over a record-setting six-year stretch?
That’s the question the Pittsburgh Steelers are left to ponder now that they have a deal in place to trade wide receiver Antonio Brown to the Oakland Raiders when the new NFL calendar year kicks off Wednesday afternoon.
The trade agreed upon in the wee hours of Sunday morning rids the Steelers of a boomin’ headache that had hovered over the organization for nearly three months. But shedding a seven-time Pro Bowl receiver — the only one in NFL history to have 100 catches for six consecutive seasons — also leaves a significant void in an offense that produced the fourth-most yards and sixth-most points in the NFL.
How will the organization compensate for the loss of Brown, who totaled 686 catches, 9,145 yards and 67 touchdowns in that six-year span and ends his Steelers career ranking first or second in almost every franchise statistical receiving category?
Likely not with one player, and probably through a combination of free agency, which also begins Wednesday, and the NFL Draft, which takes place in late April.
This much is known: Brown’s departure elevates JuJu Smith-Schuster, the 2018 team MVP who is entering his third NFL season, into the No. 1 receiver role.
Smith-Schuster seems up for the challenge. He responded to the Brown trade news by writing “I’m ready” and posting a photo of his toe-tapping, back-of-the-end-zone touchdown catch against the Raiders last season. Lurking in the background of the photo was Brown.
The player — for now — elevated to the No. 2 spot is James Washington, last year’s second-round draft pick. Although Washington didn’t match Smith-Schuster’s productivity and reliability from the 2017 season, the Steelers were encouraged by the way his confidence grew and his drops decreased at the end of the season.
Slot receiver Ryan Switzer is the only pass-catcher from last season’s 53-man roster still under contract, with Eli Rogers, Justin Hunter and Darrius Heyward-Bey hitting free agency. For depth purposes alone, the Steelers will need to bring in at least two receivers.
With offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner entering his second year, he could tweak the offense to make tight end Vance McDonald a bigger part of the passing game. James Conner also might assume a bigger role catching passes out of the backfield. Without Brown to placate, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger won’t feel pressured to make sure his No. 1 receiver is heavily involved in the gameplan from the outset of each game.
What transpires once free agency begins will determine the course of action the Steelers take in the draft. According to the NFL Players Association, the Steelers are about $12 million under the salary cap, with wide receiver not being their only position of need entering free agency. The Steelers also could target a starting cornerback on the open market.
Standing at the head of the free-agent wide receiver class is Golden Tate, whose recent contract averaged $6.2 million a season. A more cost-friendly option could be John Brown, who earned $5 million last season with the Ravens.
Jamison Crowder, who is just 25, also will be available, but despite ankle injuries that limited him to nine games last year with the Redskins, he might command $8 million a year on the open market.
Depending on what happens in free agency, the Steelers could use the No. 20 pick to target a wide receiver in the first round for the first time since they drafted Santonio Holmes in 2006. Or they could select one in the second round — they hold the No. 52 pick — for the third year in a row.
At the NFL Combine in Indianapolis, the Steelers visited many of the top receivers in the class, including the Mississippi tandem of D.K. Metcalf and A.J. Brown, Oklahoma’s Marquise Brown, Georgia’s Riley Ridley and Arizona State’s N’Keal Harry.
Options are plentiful for the Steelers, and with the Antonio Brown saga behind them, they can finally begin plotting their future at the position.
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .