Absent rookie fourth-round pick Calvin Austin III, who missed the entirety of the preseason, the Pittsburgh Steelers will have all hands on deck at the wide receiver position come Sunday afternoon when they visit the Cincinnati Bengals for their regular season opener.
That is significant given that their number one receiver, Diontae Johnson, injured his shoulder during the preseason finale when he was reeling in a deep catch from quarterback Mitch Trubisky, landing awkwardly. But following some initial concerns earlier in the week, he finished out the final practice with no injury designation.
Still, he left no doubt about the fact that he very much believes in the rest of those in the wide receiver room and their ability to step up in the event that anybody, including himself, is absent or should miss time for any reason.
“I love this room. Everybody’s good in their own way. I think they’ve got their own unique talents”, he told reporters on Friday, via the team’s website. “They make plays. Everybody can do what I do out there, if not better, so I have full confidence in the rest of those guys that they can go out there and compete and make plays. Even if I’m not out there, if I need a breather or something, somebody’s gonna come in and make plays and keep the ball rolling”.
Now, that’s a big hyperbolic to say that every other wide receiver can do what he does, if not better than he can. It’s documented that Johnson is one of the best route-runners in the entire NFL and consistently gains separation better than all but just a handful of others around the league.
That’s why he is a safe projection to continue to be a high-volume target no matter how many other weapons the Steelers might throw into the mix, because at the end of the day, short of catches the pass, there is nothing more valuable at the position than being open. The open man gets the ball. Unless you’re Calvin Johnson, where you get the ball no matter how many people are covering you and you still catch it.
Certainly, though, there is talent in this room beyond Johnson. While Chase Claypool didn’t have the follow-up second season everybody was anticipating, he still made his share of highlight-reel plays, and there is nothing stopping him from continuing to get better and reaching his potential.
Then, of course, there is the guy everybody is talking about, rookie second-round draft pick George Pickens, who has been meme-ified since the day he was drafted, and will likely continue to be so—whether that will be positively or negatively will be determined by how well he lives up to his potential.
Rounding out the group are a trio of veterans who did not have much of a role on their respective teams’ offenses last season: Gunner Olszewski, former return man for the New England Patriots; Miles Boykin, former second-round pick for the Baltimore Ravens who fell out of the rotation due to injury; and Steven Sims, who missed the cut last season and spent the year on Pittsburgh’s practice squad.
All of them have talent, but could they as a group adequately replace what would be lost if one of the top three receivers were to go down? Fortunately, we won’t have to find out this week, since Johnson is good to go.