There is no way to slant this as a win for the Steelers. They lost the best receiver in the NFL for next to nothing and were active contributors to the demise of a super important relationship with an elite player. The blame doesn’t all fall on Pittsburgh’s front office and coaching staff, but much of it should.
However, it is now time to move on. Every Steelers fan needs to understand there is no replacing Antonio Brown. He’s the best in the world at what he does, and the offense won’t be able to replicate his unique impact. Still, the team has a budding star in place in JuJu Smith-Schuster and a deep draft class at the position with plenty of picks to work with.
When looking for Brown’s replacement, the first thing to do is think about the role. The Steelers should be looking for an X-receiver who plays primarily on the outside, keeping Smith-Schuster in the slot for the majority of snaps (he will still play outside a handful of snaps every game) and James Washington at the Z. The Steelers already have a backup slot in Ryan Switzer or Eli Rogers (whoever makes the final roster), so the emphasis should be on finding an outside target in the passing game.
What to look for traits-wise in an outside target? Here’s are the most important criteria to look at:
-Size and speed. Doesn’t have to necessarily be big, but does he play big? Doesn’t necessarily have to be a burner, but does he play fast? I’m not counting on James Washington to be the dominant vertical threat this offense needs, so finding a player who can win down the field is critical.
-Route-running/Releases. Steelers run 11 personnel about as heavily as any team in the NFL. Currently, they do not have a starting outside receiver for that alignment without bringing Switzer into the starting lineup and severely compromising the flexibility of the unit (Switzer can’t play outside), which is not preferable. Getting a pro-ready talent who can handle a heavy early workload and press coverage is crucial. This means drafting a wide receiver with one of the team’s first two picks is essential.
With this in mind, here are my top 5 draft targets for the Steelers at wide receiver, assuming D.K. Metcalf is off the board at no. 20:
1. Hakeem Butler, Iowa State
Butler is a sky-scraping speedster who offers 4.4 speed and a monstrous wingspan to corral contested catches down the field. He was one of the most dominant vertical threats in college football last season, capable of running by defenders or going up over them for tough catches.
He’s also a very underrated route runner and can create post-catch, showing an all-around skill set that is rare at the receiver position. He’s a first round caliber talent in my book, with the ability to beat any type of coverage and pro-ready football IQ. Butler also played in the slot a ton at Iowa State, which will continue to give the Steelers offense important flexibility in their receiving corps, a staple of Randy Fichtner’s offense. Oh, and he’ll block too.
The downside? Not much to be honest, except Butler drops the ball much more than you’d like. High-variance play has never scared away Pittsburgh, and it shouldn’t in this situation. If Butler is there at no. 20, it’s a no-brainer. Even if you have to trade up a little for him, it’s worth it to secure the best non-Metcalf weapon for Pittsburgh in this class.
2. Deebo Samuel, South Carolina
Samuel isn’t the vertical threat that Butler is, but he’s a terrific route runner, excellent off the line of scrimmage against press and can make things happen with the ball in his hands. Samuel has the speed to win downfield, but doesn’t create splash plays at the rate Butler does.
That said, horrid quarterback play held back Samuel’s production in 2018, and his inside/outside flexibility with Ben Roethlisberger at the helm could make for a huge rookie season. He’ll also help the Steelers in the return game, where he was a weapon for the Gamecocks with four kick return touchdowns, including at least one each of the past three seasons. Good chance he’s available in Round 2.
The downside? Samuel isn’t a great contested catch receiver, he doesn’t put much effort into blocking and he is more limited as an outside threat than Butler. Decent chance Samuel’s best NFL football will come in the slot, which would make the roles a little blurrier in Pittsburgh.
3. A.J. Brown, Ole Miss
A new AB? Big, fast and accomplished as a route runner, Brown is the type of player the Steelers are likely to target in terms of size, strength and athleticism to play on the outside. He’s fast enough to create splash plays and dynamic enough in space to take a short catch and turn it into a big gain.
The downside? Brown played heavily in the slot at Ole Miss, making him unused to press coverage or even the vertical nature of playing outside receiver. He doesn’t elevate and pluck for contested catches like you’d hope from a big wideout, and his releases will need work to reach his peak in the NFL. Also, I’d be surprised if he’s available in Round 2, which means the Steelers may need to take him at no. 20. A little rich for my blood.
4. Kelvin Harmon, N.C. State
I personally would enjoy Harmon in Pittsburgh, but I’m not sure they’ll go for a 4.6 wide receiver, thus why he is further down the list. After the Combine there should be no concern about whether they can land him in the second round, despite the fact that Harmon’s contested catch ability and ball skills are the best in the class.
The N.C. State early declaree is also a detailed route runner who is elite at breaking press coverage to establish position early in the route. Harmon is one of the best blocking receivers in the draft, rarely drops the ball and could start right away on the outside with a strong football IQ.
The downside? Harmon isn’t an elite athlete, tested poorly at the Combine and will probably always have some separation issues against man coverage. His ball skills are so good it didn’t matter much on tape, but the corners will be bigger, longer and more well-rounded in the NFL. Harmon also won’t move the needle much after the catch, which is of decent important in the quest to replace AB, who was elite in that area.
5. N’Keal Harry, Arizona State
The good: Harry is big, strong and fast for his body type, with leaping ability and splash play catches that are truly special. His body control and high-point prowess can be outstanding, and his ability to create post-catch for a big receiver without great agility only adds to his diverse skill set.
The downside? Harry is generally inconsistent, lacks the burst and separation ability to create easy throwing windows and was somewhat limited in his route tree by Arizona State. He’s a splashy player with peak plays to match anyone in the class, but will he be able to contribute on a drive-to-drive basis in the NFL? His tape is worse than a similar player like Harmon, but his traits are decidedly better. Many believe he would be best as a big slot in the NFL, which would again complicate the receiver roles in place.