PITTSBURGH — The Steelers are going to use Chase Claypool differently than they have over the past two seasons. Not just because they should be using more of the playbook with younger, more mobile quarterbacks, but because their personnel at wide receiver will give them them more flexibility.
Claypool admitted as much when I spoke to him Wednesday before the Steelers’ second minicamp practice at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. It was the way he answered a question I posed about what aspects of his game that new Steelers receivers coach Frisman Jackson had emphasized for Claypool to improve.
“Now that I’m in the slot,” Claypool started when I asked my question, “I’m working out what linebackers and safeties are doing in zone coverage. I’m looking at them while running the route. I need to recognized zones while in the slot.”
That would be an interesting development for Claypool, who enters his third NFL season this year. You couldn’t tell from Chase Claypool’s yard totals, but there was a step back in his 2021 season after a strong rookie year in 2020.
Sure, Claypool caught 62 passes for 873 yards in 2020 and 59 passes for 860 yards in 2021, but his touchdown receptions dropped from nine to two. At the same time, Pro Football Focus notes his drops increased from four to seven. His drop rate on catchable passes almost doubled from 5.6 percent to 10.1 percent.
But Claypool is a real talent and has the potential to be gamebreaker. It just might help his skillset if he’s put in different positions to succeed. He’s even been that gamebreaker before, like when he scored four touchdowns against the Eagles in 2020. That was a game where he played more in the slot, where he gave the Eagles’ secondary fits for 110 receiving yards, the second-most of in a game in his career.
“Yeah,” Claypool said when I asked him about playing in the slot more as a rookie. “Based off how things worked out, I couldn’t be in the slot as much as I wanted to or as much as they wanted me to be in the slot. I just take it when I can get it. Now they’re moving me all around. Outside, slot, number three and running back too.”
The “how things worked out” part of Claypool’s statement is a mix of circumstances. The biggest of which most likely involved JuJu Smith-Schuster’s injury that took him out for most of the 2021 season and how the Steelers’ offense was deployed. That led to him lining up more on the outside for the Steelers, but only marginally so.
PFF has Claypool listed in the slot for 119 snaps in 2020 vs. 106 snaps in 2021, with his 2020 slot plays taking up 22.4 percent of his total snaps vs. 18.7 percent in 2021. Still, Claypool’s tape shows more advantages for his skillset in the slot.
Claypool’s issues with drops came more on contested deep balls when he lined out wide. Watch this pass that hit his hands against Raiders cornerback Casey Hayward Jr. in 2021. Claypool did a good job to beat Hayward and establish inside leverage on his go route. Ben Roethlisberger’s throw was a bit behind Claypool and the ball bounced off his hands as he adjusted to the pass:
The ball should’ve led Claypool to the inside for an easier, non-contested catch. But it’s still a play Claypool needs to make if he wants to be a star NFL receiver.
Despite any perceived notions of Claypool’s struggles on contested passes, Claypool’s numbers there aren’t terrible. They just need to be better if he wants to become a true WR1 for the Steelers. PFF clocked Claypool for catching 41.5 percent of his contested targets in 2021.
Among players with at least 105 targets last season (Claypool’s total targets), that’s the 24th-highest contested catch rate. That put him ahead of some big name receivers like Ja’Marr Chase, D.K. Metcalf, D.J. Moore and Tyreek Hill.
Here’s another contested catch example when Claypool faced Browns cornerback Greg Newsome II and high-pointed a good pass from Roethlisberger. Claypool go the release he needed and posted at the right spot, but couldn’t hold onto the pass as Newsome fought through his hands:
That’s where Claypool has to just improve his hands. But that’s also something he told me he’s emphasized throughout the offseason.
“I bought a JUGS machine and put it in my backyard,” Claypool said when I asked about his offseason training. “I try to catch a couple hundred (passes) every day. I got a Monarch at the field we work out at. It’s like a superhero version of a JUGS machine. It’s automatic with a clicker so you can shoot balls to yourself. I’ve been working on deep balls a lot.”
If the drops go back down, Claypool can get back to being where he’s the most dangerous: with the ball in his hands and grass in front of him.
When Claypool lined up in the slot and anywhere on the inside for the Steelers, he became a mismatch. Few slot cornerbacks have the size to stick with a player officially listed at 6-foot-4, 227 pounds. But Claypool combines that with good quickness in tight spaces too.
That’s a combination of size, speed and skills that can bring nightmares in the slot. If a bigger but slower safety or linebacker tries to run with him, he can burn them with his speed showcased in his 4.42 40-yard dash time from his combine. If a smaller cornerback tries to jam him, his size and strength can fight them off.
Watch how the Eagles had to play him on this 3rd and 4 play. It’s a short distance, but Claypool lines up with his man backed off to the marker without pressing him. That’s enough space for a seven-yard slant and a first down:
But there are tricks to slot receivers that require a different level of thinking. On the outside, you have one cornerback on you and maybe a safety. But on the inside, you could have a cornerback, a linebacker or two, and a safety.
“When you’re a wideout it’s easier,” Claypool said about making reads. “The corner safety basically tells you the coverage, for the most part. When you’re in the slot, you have to figure out if someone’s covering you on the backside or if they’re right in front of your face. But they disguise it more when you’re on the inside.”
Those disguises require a slot receiver to attack the right spaces for their quarterback. But Claypool has shown the ability to do that before. Here’s an example on his 35-yard touchdown against the Eagles in 2020. The Eagles were in Cover 2 to defend against the deep ball on either sideline while the Steelers were in a spread offense.
That led to Claypool getting a one-on-one matchup against a linebacker with no safety in the middle of the field. His speed was too much and Roethlisberger made the throw:
But just as Cameron Sutton noted about playing slot cornerback Thursday, the passing game is all about matchups. Matt Canada has to put Claypool in more positions to be a tough matchup for defenses to lock down.
A lot of Claypool’s deep targets and chances for big plays came while lined up outside. That allowed defenders to isolate him easier and not have to consider matchups as much.
But in the slot, Claypool can not only force tougher matchups with defenders, but also tougher reads if they’re in zone coverage. Watch this touchdown reception on a corner route from 2020 when Claypool lined up inside of Diontae Johnson.
The Ravens didn’t want to stick to man coverage on this play so they went to zone. They’re in Cover 2, which forces the right cornerback to pinch down on Johnson’s flat route. That left only the safety to cover Claypool’s corner route, and his reaction was too slow to stop him:
These are ways the Steelers can minimize when Claypool’s big play chances have to come in tougher contested catch scenarios. If Canada can generate more of those opportunities while Claypool can improve his hands, that has the makings of making him a star.
Claypool doesn’t just want to be the top receiver for the Steelers, either.
“I’m aiming to be a top three receiver,” Claypool said. When I asked if he meant top three in the NFL, he replied, “yep, that’s my goal.”
Johnson’s 1,161 receiving yards was tenth-most in the NFL last season in a year Roethlisberger was far past his prime. If Claypool can put together more aspects of his game and get more chances in the slot for the Steelers’ younger quarterbacks, maybe he puts himself in the star receiver conversation before his contract year in 2023.