When you go back and research the wide receiver groups the Steelers have put together during the Mike Tomlin era, it’s quite impressive. Tomlin started his career with the Hines Ward – Santonio Holmes – Nate Washington trifecta. This of course, is the group he won his only Super Bowl with in 2009. Next came the “young money crew” that consisted of Antonio Brown – Emmanuel Sanders – Mike Wallace. Following that we had perhaps the best grouping of all for a very short time of Antonio Brown – Martavis Bryant – Sammie Coates – Markus Wheaton. That collection of talent had so much promise, but fell apart very quickly. Most recently the Antonio Brown – Ju Ju Smith Schuster – Martavis Bryant crew also can be argued as best of the Tomlin reign. All this, and we haven’t even brought up perhaps the best tight end in Steelers history in Heath Miller. Miller was a key receiver for this team from 2005 to 2015.
So where does this current crop of Ju Ju Smith-Schuster – James Washington – Donte Moncrief – etc. land among the wide receiver groups? At the very bottom is where. Granted, Ju Ju Smith Schuster will be among the best of any of Tomlin’s receivers if he continues along the path he is on. The problem arises when trying to find another wide out to pair with him. This is compounded when you realize Ju Ju’s best position is in the slot meaning the Steelers need not one, but two wide receivers to step up in order for this offense to really shine. What comes after Smith-Schuster is one giant question mark after another. Will journeyman Donte Moncrief finally realize his potential playing with his best quarterback in years? Will James Washington rebound from a very disappointing rookie season? Can a rookie like Diontae Johnson make a significant impact in year one? The reality is two out of three of these will have to happen to make this group anywhere near as good as the ones from the past. One thing this upcoming season has going for it is Vance McDonald. McDonald is the most dynamic receiving tight end Mike Tomlin has ever had. Health is always a concern with this player however. McDonald has never played a full sixteen games in his six years in the NFL.
It certainly is a high bar set by the Pittsburgh Steelers when it comes to wide receiver groupings. Even in a down year like 2016 where Martavis Bryant was suspended and injuries ravaged the team’s depth, there was always the all-world Antonio Brown to fall back on. Sure, the team could hit lightning in a bottle and get breakout years from one or two of the players not named Ju Ju Smith Schuster. It’s more likely however that this becomes a down extremely down year at this position.
It took quite the set of circumstances to get here. From Martavis Bryant’s drug issues to Antonio Brown’s meltdown to Sammie Coates and Markus Wheaton’s flameouts, it has been a whirlwind at receiver the past few seasons. No team drafts this position better than the Pittsburgh Steelers, so it stands to reason this will be a short-term problem. Having said that, the fact remains that this class of receivers is at the very bottom of any in the Tomlin-Kevin Colbert era in Pittsburgh.