Chase Claypool had four touchdowns on Sunday. You may have heard about it.
The rookie second-round pick for the Pittsburgh Steelers won in about every way you can against the Philadelphia Eagles. He had a rushing touchdown, a screen touchdown, a catch-and-run score on a nice route, and the dagger when the Steelers adjusted their offense to give him the matchup they wanted. In the absence of Diontae Johnson, who went down with a back injury early, he was the feature part of their passing offense.
As is often the case when a rookie plays well, the posthumous assertions fly: “You’re telling me the 6-foot-5, 238-pound, 4.42s 40-yard dash wide receiver is good?” or “Oh wow, the Steelers drafted another good wide receiver? Crazy!”
Both of those claims do hold water, which makes them interesting to talk about, especially in concert. Claypool’s athletic profile was so stunning, it had people theorizing a change to a flex tight end role given his size: 6-foot-5, 238 pounds. Per Mockdraftable, there was only one measure (arm length) in which Claypool was less than an 80th percentile athlete for wide receivers. His comparable athletes included Andre Johnson, Vincent Jackson, and Larry Fitzgerald.
And Claypool was drafted by the Steelers, who are storied for their wide receiver drafting prowess. While their success is a bit more hit-and-miss than narrative memory would hold, the Steelers are known for taking receivers on Day 2 and quickly developing them into solid contributors—for a couple, they’ve become storied veterans in the league.
But the Steelers’ hits at wide receiver don’t often look like Claypool. Going back to Kevin Colbert’s first year with the Steelers in 2000, when he was the director of football operations, you find a successful pick of a big receiver: Plaxico Burress, a 6-foot-5, 230-pound catch-point monster taken with the eighth overall selection. For the next decade, their big hits would be Antwan Randel El (62nd overall pick in 2002), Santonio Holmes (25th overall pick in 2006), Mike Wallace (84th overall pick in 2009), Emmanuel Sanders (82nd overall pick in 2010), and of course, Antonio Brown (195th overall pick in 2010). Sanders and Wallace were the only two of that group at least 6 feet tall, with Sanders maxing out at 6-foot-1.
2010 was the first year of Colbert’s general manager tenure with the Steelers, which has lasted through the decade. The Steelers also hit on JuJu Smith-Schuster (62nd overall pick in 2017) and Diontae Johnson (66th overall pick in 2019) after largely struggling in the mid-2010s—again, Smith-Schuster hitting that 6-foot-1 mark, but like Sanders, largely playing an underneath role from the slot. In 2014 they did draft Clemson’s Martavis Bryant, the closest thing they’ve had to a hit on a big receiver since Burress. Bryant wasn’t really a bust—he had some great games when healthy and always showed up in the playoffs—but off-field issues limited his ability to stay on the field. For a fourth-round dart throw, getting explosive plays for three seasons isn’t a bad exchange.
Across those two decades, the picks the Steelers spent on bigger receivers were misses. They spent a fourth-round pick on Fred Gibson (6-foot-4) in 2004 and a second-rounder on Limas Sweed (6-foot-4) in 2008, neither of whom panned out. Late-round darts on Justin Thomas (sixth-rounder in 2013; 6-foot-3), Toney Clemons (seventh-rounder in 2012, 6-foot-2) and Lee Mays (sixth-rounder in 2002, 6-foot-2) all missed as well.
When the Steelers drafted Claypool, they weren’t focused on bucking a bad trend on big wide receivers—rather, they were focused on getting a particular player for a particular role. Anticipating and acknowledging the decline in Roethlisberger’s arm strength, the Steelers appropriately added a receiver who could fill the deep role that was left vacant by Smith-Schuster and Johnson, both of whom are better underneath receivers. Roethlisberger has been one of the highest volume deep passers in the league even through his 30s, but has typically relied on speed receivers that he can hit on long downfield bombs. The Steelers already had a player who could potentially win in that role with James Washington; but they added Claypool, who was one of college football’s best vertical receivers in 2019, not just as a speed threat, but as a back-shoulder and contested-catch monster who can help erase some inaccuracy on Roethlisberger’s declining deep ball.
The Steelers nailed the fit. Roethlisberger’s deep passing has fallen off this year, but he remains explosive when targeting Claypool. Of Roethlisberger’s 18 deep targets in 2020, Claypool has seen seven (39%); but of Roethlisberger’s four completions, Claypool has three (75%), bringing in every catchable pass and scoring two touchdowns to boot. Some of those are schemed; some of them are near misses. But Claypool’s quick rise to prominence in the offense will only offer him more snaps, targets, and opportunities deep as he commands the snaps that he once split with Washington.
So why did Claypool dominate against the Eagles on Sunday? Was it because “he’s 6-foot-5, 238-pound, 4.42s 40-yard dash athlete—of course he’s good” or “well, obviously, he was drafted by the Steelers!” Not really. He was a talented college player destined for a vertical role in an NFL offense, and he found a talented wide receiver roster with that niche open, and a willing deep-ball passer in need of a big, speedy target. Like most successful rookies, the truth of the matter is in finding a quick fit, not just playing a certain position or getting drafted by a certain team. Claypool won’t score four touchdowns every week, but he’ll continue to be the Steelers’ top deep threat and give that offense the explosiveness it needs to compete in the AFC.