Receiver Donte Moncrief catching on with Steelers
On the retreat to his Georgia lakehouse in May, Ben Roethlisberger brought along 10 of the Pittsburgh Steelers skill position players.
Among the collection of wide receivers, tight ends and a running back, nine were Roethlisberger’s teammate last season.
The 10th was someone who had been with the organization for only two months and hadn’t participated in one practice with the Steelers’ franchise quarterback.
But with Donte Moncrief taking over — if in name only — for Antonio Brown as the veteran receiver on the roster, Roethlisberger thought it was imperative to include him on a junket that featured plenty of boating and swimming and, yes, some occasional football.
“It was fun to get to know him as a person,” Roethlisberger said.
The quarterback then spent the next month — over three weeks of organized team activities and three days of minicamp — getting to know Moncrief as a player.
Roethlisberger likes what he has seen of Moncrief, who will turn 26 during training camp.
“When he came in, I wasn’t sure what to expect,” Roethlisberger said. “Obviously, we played against him and I’ve seen him go against us in game situations, but I didn’t know him. Now, you see his work ethic, the type of person he is, the desire to be great. He has a knowledge of the offense already.
“I’ll give him no-huddle stuff, and I’ll give him a signal, and I’ll say, ‘Are you good?’ and he’ll say, yeah. … I’ve enjoyed the ability to work with him and opportunity to know him so far.”
The Steelers are turning to a collection of receiving options this year as they try to replace Brown, the five-time All-Pro who averaged 114 catches, 1,524 yards and 11 touchdowns over the previous six seasons.
Joining his third team in as many seasons, and as he enters his sixth year in the NFL, Moncrief is one of those components. He is slotted as the No. 3 receiver and could move up higher — or drop lower — on the depth chart depending on the development of James Washington and rookie Diontae Johnson.
Moncrief also is a bit of a wild card considering he has averaged just 40 catches, 508 yards and four touchdowns in his career. But if his participation at offseason workouts is any indication, he’s prepared for whatever role offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner throws at him.
“I’ve been extremely proud of what he’s done since the day he got here,” Fichtner said. “I don’t know if he’s missed one day in this building. That’s been exciting. He brings an unbelievable professional attitude, and that’s encouraging.”
Moncrief’s impression on teammates was made most days this spring before the Steelers hit the practice field. He usually could be found each morning holed up in a meeting room with wide receivers coach Darryl Drake.
“It’s finding your weaknesses and working on them,” Moncrief said. “Going in and watching film and finding out what you are doing wrong and try to get it right. The timing is better. When you’re in the room and learning, the only thing you can do is get better.”
In just a few months of teaching Moncrief the Steelers offense, Drake found his newest student to be a quick learner.
“For a guy that hadn’t been in the system, he’s really done some things that are innate,” Drake said. “He does some things that come natural. Picking up the system, there are times when you get a guy, you bring him in and he’s been in two or three different systems and those systems start running together.
“But he’s been able to distinguish the differences and go out there and do things that make my job a lot easier because he has a feel for the position. One thing he’s doing is playing with a lot of confidence, and Ben has confidence in him. He’s just got to continue to grow.”
Benefiting Moncrief is his opportunity to spend an entire offseason with the Steelers. That’s unlike tight end Vance McDonald and slot receiver Ryan Switzer, who were acquired late in the past two preseasons and had virtually no time to learn the playbook before the regular season began.
“It’s awesome that he’s had this chance,” Roethlisberger said.
Moncrief also has found comfort in catching passes from a quarterback with three Super Bowl appearances and two wins on the back of his trading card. In the final of his four seasons with the Indianapolis Colts, Moncrief’s quarterbacks were Jacoby Brissett and Scott Tolzien. Last year, in his lone season with the Jacksonville Jaguars, Moncrief caught passes from Blake Bortles and Cody Kessler.
Moncrief managed 48 receptions for 668 yards — each the second-highest totals of his career — with Jacksonville, numbers the Steelers think will increase with Moncrief working with a more accomplished passer.
Moncrief already has seen the dividends.
“I feel like you can tell from practice,” he said. “He’s trusting me. He trusts that I’m in the spots that I’m supposed to be in. He believes in me in being in spots. As long as we continue to throw and get plays in, we can continue to get better, and it will make the season fun.”
Although Moncrief has played just five seasons, four fewer than Brown, he is the most experienced receiver on the roster. He also has brought a measure of leadership to the roster.
“It’s the way he carries himself, it’s everything he does,” wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster said during minicamp. “We were just in the hot tub, and he’s like, ‘I’ve got to do this, I’ve got to do this, I’ve got to do that before I go out.’ For a guy who has been in the league for five or six years, you can tell he knows what he’s doing.
“I’m pretty much following in his footsteps, taking what I can and learning the details.”
The true value of Moncrief’s worth, of course, won’t take place until Sept. 8 when the Steelers open at the season in New England. For now, a few months into his Steelers tenure, Moncrief couldn’t be happier.
“It’s everything,” he said, “and more.”
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .