A second-round talent out of Notre Dame by way of Abbotsford, British Columbia, Chase Claypool took the NFL scene by storm in his first season donning the black and yellow.
An electric combination of both size and speed, Claypool’s rookie campaign was nothing short of spectacular, amassing a Pittsburgh Steelers rookie record of 62 receptions on his way to finishing within the top five in multiple rookie wideout categories including targets (109) and receiving yards (873). He also had nine touchdowns, first among all first-year wideouts.
However, with large production comes large expectations, and Claypool’s projection heading into his second season looks muddied when scoping the health and potential drop-off in talent of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who enters his 18th (!) season under center for the Steelers. A first-round selection back in 2004, Roethlisberger’s tenure and longevity have been nothing to scoff at or criticize, but a downtick in production seems inevitable, right?
All signs point to yes.
Following a 2019 season where Roethlisberger appeared in a career-low two matchups due to an injury to his throwing elbow, the stoically nicknamed gun-slinger roared back to start in 15 games in 2020 despite totaling his lowest passing yard total since 2012 (3,803) and posting the second-lowest yards per attempt in his career (6.3).
2021 will offer an entirely unique set of obstacles for Roethlisberger, as front-five talents Maurkice Pouncey, Matt Feiler, Alejandro Villanueva, and David DeCastro are all now vacant from a once top-tier offensive line. That’s the last thing Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin wants as his quarterback approaches the age of 40: an inexperienced line that allows heavy pressure with No. 7 ending up on his tail. However, that’s exactly how the Steelers are set up some two-odd months out from Pittsburgh’s Week 1 matchup against the Buffalo Bills.
It could spell bad news for Pittsburgh, and inherently Claypool, as their Super Bowl window begins to close ever so slightly.
While the return of every starter on the perimeter will provide a similar look on paper to the Steelers’ 2020 passing game, Claypool’s progression could take a massive hit with the arrival of first-round ball-carrier Najee Harris—the do-it-all talent out of Alabama who has already drawn rave reviews during Steelers offseason workouts. Similar to Le’Veon Bell’s role in Pittsburgh, Harris looks prepared to take on a massive presence in his first season, serving as the bell-cow back and as a threat on designated route concepts. As the clock ticks on, whether it’s Brett Favre, Drew Brees, or Philip Rivers, Father Time has proven to be undefeated. If Tomlin eyes the guts of the offense stemming from the success of its run game, Claypool, Diontae Johnson, and others, could be on the outside looking in.
While Pittsburgh faithful desperately cling to the coattails of Tomlin and Roethlisberger in hopes of success past the turn of the New Year, it would be silly to project Claypool in a larger role than his prior campaign simply due to the drastic changes Pittsburgh has undergone in the past couple of months. A weaker offensive line coupled with an aging quarterback and a nod toward an improved punch in the run game spells fewer targets in a crowded wideout room, and in turn, a halt in progression for the most talented pass-catcher in Pittsburgh.
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” is a perfect moniker to describe how Pittsburgh has done business the last couple of seasons. But, to the contrary, if the radiator goes out, and the A/C shuts down within the metaphoric Steeler engine, it’s time to make drastic upgrades or head to the dealer for a brand new start.
While Roethlisberger could very well turn back the clock in year 18, the signs are apparent toward the fall of Pittsburgh’s beloved signal-caller, leaving one of the league’s most budding wideouts on the outside looking in on a potentially massive year two.