There’s an old cliche that says something like “you can never have too much talent,” but as the Steelers begin training camp in Latrobe this week, it’s worth wondering if, in the case of the Pittsburgh pass catchers, that may not be true.
The Steelers have a lot of receivers. A lot. And as Mike Tomlin rounds out his roster from those invited into camp to those who will make the team, whittling that list down to those who will dress, play and start, it’s worth wondering if there will be enough balls to go around.
While working on an upcoming piece about the fantasy football value of each of the Steelers’ skill position players for The Incline — spoiler alert: draft them all as soon as you can — it came to my attention that, well, the Steelers have A LOT of quality receivers on the roster. Too many.
Of the 90 players on the Steelers current preseason roster, ELEVEN are listed as wide receivers. By comparison, there are only 15 offensive linemen coming to camp this summer and five of them play at a time!
Add in the five listed tight ends on the roster and that makes 16 players — nearly 18 percent of the preliminary roster — listed in primarily pass-catching positions.
There are eight running backs on the initial roster, putting the offensive skill position tally heading into camp at 24. That’s nearly 30 percent of the entire roster, and it gives Ben Roethlisberger and Co. the next six-odd weeks to put together a unit that will rival any other in pro football.
The top name at each position is obvious — Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown are regarded as two of the five best skill position players in the game. But after that, there are a ton of slots up for grabs, and a remarkable number of talented players vying for these spots.
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— Antonio Brown (@AB84) July 20, 2017
Obviously 11 wide receivers aren’t all going to make the team. Plus, there are 10 cornerbacks, eight safeties and 15 linebackers and there’s nobody saying those positions have too much talent coming to camp. Training camp in the NFL is little more than a numbers game at the bottom of the roster, especially this year, as the league has eliminated the first round of preseason cuts.
In past years, teams would have to cut rosters to 75 before the final week of the preseason, then get down to 53 before the regular season began. Now teams just have to get down to 53 by Sept. 2, which gives players a longer opportunity to catch on with clubs, but also floods the free agent market with 480 players just before the season starts.
It’s going to be chaos.
We know how many of those players the Steelers will be forced to cut — 37 will be axed from every team — but looking at the list of receivers specifically, there’s a case to be made that seven or eight have a legitimate shot to make the team and play this season. There just won’t be enough volume to keep all of them happy, and that’s not even factoring in the number of passes that will go to Bell and tight end Jesse James this season.
Last season, the Steelers quarterbacks attempted 596 passes, with Roethlisberger throwing 509 in 14 games, Landry Jones tossing another 86 and Bell throwing one. Of those 596 passes, 509 had qualified targets, with a team-best 154 going toward Brown and 94 going to Bell out of the backfield.
Eli Rogers was second on the team in targets for receivers with 66 and Sammie Coates was third with 49, the fifth-most on the offense after Brown, Bell, Rogers and James.
But with Martavis Bryant back after being suspended last season, the Steelers are adding a legit No. 2 wideout to an already dynamic offensive attack. In 2015, Bryant was targeted 92 times and caught 50 balls in just 11 games.
Something has to give. Back in April, Bryant and Coates joked on Twitter that one of them was soon going to be out of a job, to the point where Tomlin had to step in and tell them to play nice. But they were probably right. There just aren’t going to be enough snaps for everyone to get their touches.
Bell is going to demand the ball as much as possible, especially with his contract situation looming. The Steelers will be smart to work rookie James Conner into the mix as well, not just running the ball, but also out of the backfield, if for nothing else to see what he can do in the pass game should Bell miss time or, gasp, leave after this year.
Brown will need to see the ball as much or more than Bell. With 2016 being a statistically down year in terms of both targets and receptions, don’t be surprised if he’s somehow more involved in the offense in 2017.
Let’s say Bell and Brown combine for 250 targets, that leaves roughly 350 for the rest of the offense, based on passing averages over the last three years. In the last few seasons, Roethlisberger has targeted his tight ends about 100 times per season, which would leave just 250 for all the rest of the receivers.
By drafting JuJu Smith-Shuster out of USC, the Steelers added another potential playmaker to the offense, but where in the heck he’s going to fit in might be the biggest story of the preseason on the offensive side of the ball, contracts notwithstanding. Even if he beats out Rogers, Bryant or Coates for playing time, it’s worth asking … how will there be enough pigskin to go around?
The fantasy projections indicate there won’t be. Brown is the top-rated wideout by most fantasy sites, and Bell, with his pass-catching ability, is ranked first or second overall anywhere you look. Bryant is ranked around the 25th-best receiver (and around 60-65th overall) on most sites. Then, despite the talent, there’s a signifiant dip in production projections.
Rogers is ranked around the 90th best receiver in fantasy projections — probably not draft worthy in most 12-team leagues — while Smith-Schuster ranks anywhere from 92nd to 116th in the rankings we’ve seen so far, ahead of both Coates and yet-unmentioned Justin Hunter.
Hunter is just barely ahead of Darrius Heyward-Bey, who caught just six balls last year on 19 targets. So it’s not as if either of them are suddenly going to get more reps with who the Steelers have added. Still, as camp opens, they are both veterans in the receiver mix.
The Steelers also have Canaan Severin, Marcus Tucker, Cobi Hamilton, and Demarcus Ayers listed at wide receiver as camp starts. Will any of them be the next Antonio Brown? Probably not, no. But remember: Brown was a sixth-round pick in 2010 and played in just nine games as a rookie, getting 19 targets and catching only 16 balls. In other words, even Antonio Brown wasn’t Antonio Brown when he first joined the Steelers.
One never knows what hidden gem might be buried deep on the offensive depth chart. As camp gets set to open with a roster of 11 receivers and 24 skill position players, there won’t be a ton of time, and aren’t too many opportunities, for the team to find out.