With the return of Martavis Bryant to the fold, the Pittsburgh Steelers once again have the NFL’s top 1-2 punch at wide receiver, and nobody is happier about it than Antonio Brown, except for Ben Roethlisberger. With Bryant back on the field, it would be suicide for teams to continue to double and triple cover Brown as they did all of last season when Bryant was suspended. Even with all the extra attention that he received, Brown still managed to haul in 106 passes and reach the endzone 12 times. With his top wingman along side of him once again, there should be a lot more room for AB to roam in 2017. With the return of Bryant, the Steelers top two receiver spots are locked, leaving the final four spots to be determined.
As of now, it appears that going into training camp, there will be seven candidates competing for the final four spots on the roster which includes a few players who made an impact in their first real NFL action.
Sammie Coates started last season off in a big way for the Steelers before his year was ruined early on, against the Jets, by a pair of serious finger injuries. Still, he finished tied for the NFL lead in receptions of forty yards or more, with 6, including a 72 yard touchdown, and averaged 20.7 yards per catch. Despite the injuries, Coates remained a gamer, making some big stops on kickoff and punt coverage teams. A healthy Sammie Coates gives the Steelers offense a second dynamic deep threat.
Eli Rogers performed admirably out of the slot in 2016. He made numerous catches that kept the chains moving in crucial situations, most notably against the Baltimore Ravens on Christmas Day.
This brilliant reception by Rogers was perhaps his signiture moment of 2016, and helped put the Steelers in position to clinch the AFC North title. While he was essentially a rookie, Rogers played with the poise of a seasoned veteran, guaranteeing himself a roster spot for 2017.
Demarcus Ayers was the Steelers seventh round pick in the 2016 NFL draft, and worked tirelessly to earn a spot on the active roster in week 16 against Baltimore (1 catch for 9 yards). In week 17 against the Browns, he caught 5 passes for 44 yards and his only touchdown. Despite showing potential during his rookie season, Ayers looks to be a victim of the numbers game and seems destined for the practice squad in 2017.
Cobi Hamilton, one of the top prospects in the 2013 NFL Draft, spent the offseason last year working out in Fayetteville, Arkansas, where he was approached by former Razorback QB Brandon Allen, who asked Hamilton if he could throw passes to him during his Pro Day. Hamilton agreed to do it and ended up impressing Steelers QB coach Randy Fichtner. When Cobi Hamilton was released by the Panthers, he was quickly signed by the Steelers, most likely on the recommendation of Fichtner, and payed dividends throughout 2016. The 6’2″/205lb Hamilton caught 2 touchdown passes among his 17 receptions and proved to be a valuable third down target. The Steelers thought enough of Hamilton and his 13.8 YPC average, that they resigned him for 2017.
Darius Heyward-Bey has spent his time with the Steelers reinventing himself after failed stints with the Oakland Raiders and the Indianapolis Colts. The former first round draft pick has come to embrace his status as a role player and a gunner on special teams, and in the process, DHB has become a team leader. However, with the emergence of several young and talented receivers around him, along with the selection of JuJu Smith- Schuster in the second round of the 2017 NFL Draft, those attributes may not be enough to maintain his roster spot. Blessed with tremendous deep speed, DHB is a bit of a one trick pony whose special teams role could be filled by a number of candidates.
JuJu Smith-Schuster may have been the youngest player in the NFL Draft, but he brings with him to Pittsburgh a maturity beyond his years. From the moment he was drafted, JuJu enthusiastically embraced everything about his new city, especially the way football is played. Smith-Schuster has already been compared to Hines Ward for his physical blocking style and his versatility to line up either inside or out, not to mention his permanent smile and love for the game. With the speed to go deep, and a lack of fear for going across the middle, the young rookie is capable of having an impact on offense from day one, as well as on special teams. The addition of JuJu Smith-Schuster could be the end of the road for Darius Heyward-Bey.
Regardless of how things ultimately shake out with the wide receivers, the group that the Steelers take into the regular season could end up being the best group in years. With plenty of size and speed to choose from, Ben Roethlisberger just might have the incentive and motivation to finish out his contract before he decides to retire, and who knows, maybe he’ll stay a year or two after that. Either way, in 2017, the Steelers receivers will likely be the cause of many headaches suffered by the defensive coordinators they will be facing, because if they can stay healthy and on the field, they could be darn near impossible to stop.