Early-round wide receiver picks become norm for Steelers
If it’s April, then the Pittsburgh Steelers must be planning their strategy on selecting a wide receiver in the NFL Draft.
Since Ben Roethlisberger was drafted in 2004, the Steelers have taken at least one wide receiver in 13 of 14 drafts. In nine of those 13 drafts, they addressed the position in the third round or higher.
The last year the Steelers didn’t use an early-round pick on a pass catcher was 2016, the year Martavis Bryant served his one-year suspension for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy.
With Bryant’s full reinstatement uncertain when the 2017 draft rolled around, the Steelers used a second-round pick on JuJu Smith-Schuster, who made the Pro Bowl in his second season.
With Bryant getting traded to the Oakland Raiders during the first round last year, the Steelers selected James Washington with their second pick, and they hope he can be a productive starter this season.
Thanks to Antonio Brown forcing a trade this offseason, the Steelers are in the market for additional depth at wide receiver to complement Smith-Schuster, Washington and free-agent signee Donte Moncrief.
The good news for the Steelers is this year’s class is considered deep at the position. It’s just a matter which type of receiver the Steelers prefer. Iowa State’s Hakeem Butler stands 6-foot-5 and weighs 227 pounds. Oklahoma’s Marquise Brown, cousin of Antonio, is 5-9 and tips the scales at 166 pounds. Both are viewed as high-round prospects as well as a dozen other receivers of various shapes and sizes.
“We talk about receivers being like a basketball team,” NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah said. “If you have big guys, OK, maybe you’re looking for a little more explosive player, smaller player. If you have small guys, you want a bigger guy and you need a slot guy. It’s whoever you’re looking for.
“There’s all kind of flavors, and I think you’ll see a bunch of those skill players roll off the board in the second, third, fourth round. There will be a boatload of them.”
ESPN analyst Todd McShay had 13 wide receivers being selected in his recent three-round mock draft.
“It’s a unique group,” McShay said. “Receivers aren’t lasting as long as they used to.”
One reason is the proliferation of three-receiver and four-receiver threats aimed at taking advantage of mismatches in the secondary. Slot receivers are becoming valued commodities, and prospects such as 5-9 Massachusetts receiver Andy Isabella have seen their stock increase as a result.
“College offenses, you sometimes have to use your imagination with the route trees and things like that, but there is some speed, there is some size, there’s some playmakers and there’s some small packages that can really create some offense,” Raiders coach Jon Gruden said at the NFL Combine. “I think it’s a good group of receivers. It really is.”
The Steelers haven’t used a first-round pick on a wide receiver since taking Santonio Holmes in 2006. With general manager Kevin Colbert admitting the team has “needs,” particulary at inside linebacker and cornerback, the Steelers could target a receiver in the second round for the third year in a row.
Colbert struck paydirt by grabbing Smith-Schuster in 2017. Smith-Schuster has shown he can play inside or outside, and he isn’t afraid to get physical and help the running game. Washington has the same traits, but the jury remains out on whether he can make the same type of impact as Smith-Schuster.
Arizona State’s N’Keal Harry (6-2), Stanford’s J.J. Arcega-Whiteside (6-2), Georgia’s Riley Ridley (6-1), N.C. State’s Kelvin Harmon (6-2) and West Virginia’s David Sills (6-3) are examples of taller, well-rounded receivers who are expected to be second-day draft picks.
“There are a number of guys who have tremendous size, which is what we are looking for at wide receiver,” Arizona Cardinals general manager Steve Keim said. “Guys who cannot only take the top off, but be physical in the run game.”
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at email@example.com or via Twitter .