Steelers counting on Moncrief for more than on-field production
Donte Moncrief was sporting a bushy black beard when he reported to Saint Vincent for training camp six weeks ago. But when he looked around the Pittsburgh Steelers’ wide receivers room, it might have made him feel like a graybeard.
Moncrief is no grizzled vet, but he is by far the Steelers’ oldest and most experienced receiver. Signed to a two-year, $9 million contract in March, Moncrief has played as many NFL seasons (five) as the other four receivers who made the Steelers’ initial 53-man roster combined.
Moncrief turned 26 last month. The next-oldest Steelers receiver is 24. He has almost as many career games played (69) and catches (200) as the rest of the team’s receivers combined (76 and 227, respectively).
“I kind of look at him as my big brother on the field,” rookie Diontae Johnson said. “I look up to him because he’s been successful. He’s been in the league a few years. I am just trying to pick his brain and see how he looks at the game, and whatever information he gives me I try to apply that to my game.”
Aside from a thumb injury that prevented him from practicing for more than a week early in camp, Moncrief consistently has worked as a starting receiver throughout organized team activities, minicamp and the preseason.
Receiver Donte Moncrief catching on with Steelers
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A sturdy 6-foot-2, 216 pounds, Moncrief is the Steelers’ tallest and heaviest receiver. And with a 40-yard-dash time of 4.4 seconds at the 2014 combine — the third fastest among receivers at the event that year — he also has been timed as their fastest, too.
Moncrief, though, never has developed into the pro star some envisioned when he was at Ole Miss. His NFL career highs are 64 receptions, 733 yards and seven touchdowns — the former two in his second NFL season and the latter a year later in 2016.
But much of Moncrief’s perceived lack of star-level production can be attributed to playing for teams that were starting middling quarterbacks. Andrew Luck missed 26 games over the four seasons Moncrief played for the Indianapolis Colts. Last season, he played for the Jacksonville Jaguars, who started Blake Bortles and Cody Kessler at quarterback.
That’s why Moncrief cited the chance to play with Ben Roethlisberger when discussing his decision to sign with the Steelers.
“Playing with a guy like Ben Roethlisberger,” Moncrief said. “Who wouldn’t want to play with a guy like that who’s going to the Hall of Fame when you’re a receiver?”
Moments earlier, Moncrief said, “God put me here for a reason.”
From the Steelers’ perspective, that reason, in part, was to help replace the production lost by the trade of perennial All-Pro Antonio Brown. The hope is playing with a Hall-of-Fame quarterback will bring out the best in Moncrief.
The team, though, had an additional role in mind for Moncrief, as late wide receivers coach Darryl Drake explained during camp.
“His experience,” Drake said a week before his sudden passing at Saint Vincent. “He’s a guy who’s been out there and been through it all.”
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Known as a cerebral receiver who can adapt to different route trees and different formations, Moncrief, by all appearances, has been a nice addition to the chemistry of a wide receivers room that has had no shortage of distractions in recent years.
“We expect him to behave like the veteran that he is,” coach Mike Tomlin said. “Although he is new to us … this is not his first rodeo. And any wisdom he can glean on young people, obviously, we encourage him and others to do. It helps us.”
Moncrief will start the season as one of the three receivers the Steelers deploy in their most-used formations. The Steelers have legitimate reason to believe he could have a career year. But outside of catches, yards and touchdowns, the organization anticipates Moncrief helping the cause in other ways.
“I just try to use the knowledge that I have and impart it onto the young guys,” he said. “Even if I am talking to JuJu or James or those guys, I see something that they can work on that I know, I just tell them and they will listen. That’s the good thing about that room: We all listen to each other.”
Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .