Why the Steelers could pass on wide receiver in the 2024 NFL Draft

Could the Steelers’ new offensive coordinator feel comfortable with the wide receiver group he already has in the building? 
Van Jefferson
Van Jefferson / Harry How/GettyImages

It’s no secret that the Steelers are considering taking a wide receiver in the 2024 NFL Draft. This became a big topic for discussion with previous starter Diontae Johnson recently being shipped to Carolina and veteran slot receiver Allen Robinson being released during the offseason.

But based on Arthur Smith’s style of offense, could it be that the Steelers’ new offensive coordinator and former head coach of the Atlanta Falcons feels comfortable with the wide receiver group that he already has in the building?

According to a recent article by Dale Lolley on Steelers.com, Smith’s Falcons played with 12-personnel (two wide receivers, a tight end, and two running backs, including a fullback) nearly 42 percent of the time, which led the NFL last season. 

Smith likes bigger wide receivers who are stout enough to block downfield, as evidenced by the fact that four of the five receivers on his roster were at least 6-1 and 200 pounds. The lone exception was 5-9, 174-pound Scotty Miller, who played in all 17 games but participated in just 24 percent of the Falcons’ offensive snaps. 

The Falcons’ top two receivers - at least in terms of playing time over the last 12 games of the season - were Drake London (6-4, 213) and Van Jefferson (6-1, 200). London started 16 games and played 81 percent of the team’s snaps, while Jefferson started five times and played 45 percent of the Falcons’ snaps after being acquired from the Los Angeles Rams early in the season.

Not so ironically, Jefferson is now a Steeler, as he signed a free-agent deal with the team shortly after Smith made the move to Pittsburgh. At the 2020 NFL Combine, Jefferson (6.27 NFL.com prospect ranking) ran a 4.39 in the 40 on way to being selected in the second round by the Los Angeles Rams. One year earlier, the 5-10, 183-pound Johnson (6.20 NFL.com prospect ranking) ran a 4.53 before being selected in the third round by the Steelers.

Therefore, it’s not a stretch to think that returning starter George Pickens (6-3, 200) is Smith’s new London, while Jefferson could step into Johnson’s old role. While Johnson has had better statistical success — such as catching 25 career receiving touchdowns compared to Jefferson’s 10 — he has also averaged 8.3 targets per game over his career compared to Jeffersons 3.4.

Jefferson’s best season was the Rams’ Super Bowl-winning campaign in 2021, as he started all 17 games during the regular season and caught 50 passes for 802 yards and 6 touchdowns. 

The Steelers also have other options at receiver, although they're unproven.

Yet another second-round selection in 2020 on the Steelers’ roster who could play a large role in Smith’s offense is 6-3, 207-pound Denzel Mims. His career has never gotten on track, as he didn’t have much success in three years with the Jets. He was released by the Lions due to an injury last year and was picked up by the Steelers as a practice squad player at mid-season.

Mims (6.33 NFL.com prospect ranking) has the size and speed (4.38 in the 40) that coaches love. He was drafted two spots behind Jefferson, but ahead of Gabe Davis (Bills, 4th Round), Darnell Mooney (Bears, 5th Round), and K.J. Osborn (Vikings, 5th Round).

Perhaps Mims can finally find a way to put it all together while catching passes from new Steelers quarterback Russell Wilson. Mims’ younger brother, Marvin, certainly did last season as a rookie in Denver, showing glimpses of explosive play-making ability.

When the Steelers do go to three receivers, with one in the slot, they already have a choice between the 5-9, 162-pound Calvin Austin III (6.00 NFL.com prospect ranking), and the newly acquired, 6-0, 185-pound Quez Watkins (5.95 NFL.com prospect ranking). Both have blistering speed and awesome athleticism, with Austin running a 4.32 in the 40 with a 39.0-inch vertical jump and Watkins clocking a 4.35 in the 40 with a 36.5-inch vertical.

Austin, a fourth-round pick by the Steelers in the 2022 NFL Draft, missed his entire rookie season after suffering an injury late in training camp. He returned to the fold last season, playing in 17 regular-season games (one start) and making 17 receptions for 180 yards and a TD. That one scoring reception covered 72 yards (against the Raiders), so if you take that out of the equation, he wasn’t able to make much of an impact.

That could be why Khan signed the free agent Watkins away from Philadelphia. While he spent much of last season on and off the IR, he has a proven ability to contribute. In 2021, he started 12 of 17 games and had 43 receptions for 647 yards and a TD.

If the season started today, this would likely be the Steelers’ wide receiver room:

  • George Pickens (2nd Round pick)
  • Van Jefferson (2nd Round pick)
  • Denzel Mims (2nd Round pick)
  • Calvin Austin III (4th Round pick; slot)
  • Quez Watkins (6th Round pick; slot)

Keep in mind that Smith believes in “positionless football” and had TE Kyle Pitts lined up in the slot many times. That’s the role Steelers’ TE Pat Freiermuth will likely play in 2024, which is why the Steelers recently signed yet another tight end to the roster in former Falcon MyCole Pruitt.

There’s also the fact that the Steelers signed the 6-2, 220-pound Cordarrelle Patterson away from Atlanta. Patterson is listed as a RB/KR but spent the first half of his 11-year career playing wide receiver primarily.

That being said, if there’s an opportunity to acquire Brandon Aiyuk (49ers) or Courtland Sutton (Broncos) via trade, or a top receiver falls to them in the draft, the Steelers would be crazy not to pull the trigger.

Aiyuk (6-0, 200) makes the most sense due to his contrasting size and skill set, not to mention his back-to-back 1,000-yard receiving seasons. He would provide a nice compliment to Pickens and should replace Johnson’s production with ease.

Sutton (6-4, 216) would give Wilson some comfort since he played with him the last two seasons, and provide the Steelers with another big target opposite Pickens. Sutton had the best season of his career last year, hauling in 10 TD receptions.

If a trade for one of these two doesn’t work out, there are two options in the draft that intrigue me. 

If the Steelers stay put at No. 20 and LSU’s Brian Thomas, Jr. (6.47 NFL.com prospect rating), falls to them, they should think about grabbing him. The positives are that he posted a FBS-leading 17 TD receptions last season while playing alongside arguably the best receiver in the draft in Malik Nabers (6.86 NFL.com prospect ranking). The 6-3, 209-pound Thomas also has 4.33 speed to go along with a 38.5-inch vertical jump.

However, it should be noted that Denzel Mims has very similar size and athletic traits. Some would also say that Thomas is a “Pickens clone”, and the Steelers would be better served to draft a center like Graham Barton (Duke) or an offensive tackle like Amarius Mims (Georgia) in the first round. Those people might be right, but boy, would it be fun to watch Thomas and Pickens on the field together. And Smith isn’t opposed to starting two big receivers.

A sleeper option that I like in the draft is the Steelers grabbing a cornerback like Cooper DeJean (Iowa) in the first round and a wide receiver like UCF’s Javon Baker (6.25 NFL.com prospect rating) in round two. Center Sedrick Van Pran-Granger (Georgia) will likely be available for the Steelers in the third round.

Baker, who played his final two seasons at UCF after spending two years as a reserve at Alabama, is bigger than Diontae Johnson at 6-1 and 202 pounds but has similar speed (4.54 in the 40) and college production. 

Baker can play both inside and outside, runs good routes, and has great ball skills. The first-team All-Big 12 Conference honoree averaged over 20 yards per catch last season, collecting 52 receptions for 1,139 yards and 7 TDs for the Knights.

Now, the time has come for the Steelers to make a decision on whether or not to add a receiver. Chances are, they will. But don't be surprised if it's not in the draft, due to other areas of need and Smith's offensive philosophy.