Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver corps skyrockets in latest rankings

Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver George Pickens (14). Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver George Pickens (14). Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports /

The Pittsburgh Steelers had a lackluster group of receivers in 2021, but here’s why Pro Football Focus has them ranked so high ahead of the 2022 season.

Steelers fans had relatively high hopes for their receiving corps in 2021. Chase Claypool was coming off a stellar rookie season, and many thought that JuJu Smith-Schuster and Diontae Johnson would take a step forward.

While Johnson certainly stepped up his game last year, Claypool had a sophomore slump. Meanwhile, Smith-Schuster was on IR for most of the season and was remarkably inefficient when he did see the field over the first five games.

Entering the 2021 season, Steve Palazzolo of Pro Football Focus ranked Pittsburgh’s wide receiver corps as the 19th-best unit in the NFL. However, the overall view of this group steadily dropped throughout the course of the season as both the production and performances failed to meet expectations.

Fortunately, it didn’t take long for Pittsburgh to change this perspective in the eyes of the NFL media. Though the Steelers lost three of their top five receivers this offseason in JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Washington, and Ray-Ray McCloud, Pro Football Focus believes they did more than enough to make up for their losses after their impressive offseason.

In a recent article from Ben Linsey of PFF, the Steelers have the 11th-best wide receiver corps ahead of the 2022 season. Here’s what Linsey had to say about Pittsburgh’s WR unit:

"11. PITTSBURGH STEELERSIn many respects, the Steelers’ receiving corps is similar to the Broncos’ group. They don’t have a bona fide elite wide receiver, but they do have one you can at least make the case for. That’s Diontae Johnson for Pittsburgh. While he has battled drops and poor quarterback play early in his career, his 1.83 receiving yards per route run over the past two seasons ranks 25th among 96 wide receivers with at least 500 routes. Chase Claypool is in the same vicinity at 1.84 yards per route run since 2020.The additions of George Pickens and Calvin Austin III in the 2022 NFL Draft to pair with those two and tight end Pat Freiermuth creates an intriguing young collection of talent for either Mitchell Trubisky or Kenny Pickett at quarterback."

Interestingly, Linsey mentions Pat Freiermuth among the talented, young options Mitch Trubisky and Kenny Pickett will have to work with. Almost surprisingly, he has the Steelers ranked just ahead of the Dallas Cowboys and their WR corps which includes players like CeeDee Lamb, Michael Gallup, and rookie Jalen Tolbert.

How good can Steelers WR corps be in 2022?

In addition to being slotted ahead of Dallas, Pittsburgh’s WR corps also topped some talented units like Minnesota, Arizona, and Seattle. The Steelers receiving corps was ranked just outside of the top-10 behind the Rams, Bills, Chargers, and Broncos.

Linsey obviously has a lot of confidence in this unit before ever seeing several of them take the NFL stage. By the looks of it, Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool are going to be the only two returning receivers who will carve out significant roles. The rest are either coming from the NFL Draft or free agency.

Of the remaining depth, George Pickens is likely the most talented of the group. The 2022 second-round draft choice flashed as a freshman at Georgia before injuries plagued his sophomore and junior seasons. Now fully healthy, he could be set for a big rookie season — similar to what we saw with Claypool in 2020.

Joining him from the same draft class is speedster, Calvin Austin III. Despite his tiny frame (5’7 3/4” and 170 lbs.), Austin is a natural receiver and an electrifying athlete with terrific college production and 4.32 speed. He could see involvement early as a return specialist and in the slot.

In addition to these talented rookies joining the squad, the Steelers claimed former third-round pick, Miles Boykin, from waivers and signed former All-Pro return specialist Gunner Olszewski in free agency. This doesn’t even include former Bears’ second-round pick, Anthony Miller, who signed with the Steelers last season.

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On paper, the Steelers clearly aren’t lacking depth or upside at the wide receiver position. If Claypool can take a step forward and Pickens and Austin could be as good as advertised, we are in for a treat at the wide receiver position sooner rather than later.