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NFL Draft

Steelers Draft Picks in the 21st Century: Wide Receiver



Steelers WR Diontae Johnson

Despite fears of the coronavirus, the NFL is soldiering on with their plans for the 2020 Draft. At least for now.

Although the Steelers don’t have a first round pick, they have a 2nd and this week they were officially awarded a 3rd round compensatory pick–which will be their only one in that round.

Last week we looked at every running back selected by the Steelers since the turn of the century and every tight end.

Today, a position that the Steelers under Kevin Colbert have historically been very successful drafting, the wide receiver.

Think of Plaxico Burress, Antonio Brown, Santonio Holmes, Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders, JuJu Smith-Schuster. All impact players that have contributed greatly to the Steelers success in the 21st century. But then there’s Limas Sweed, Markus Wheaton and Sammie Coates.

You can’t win ’em all.

But you really can’t have enough receivers in this day and age. Despite spending a 2nd round pick on JuJu Smith-Schuster in 2017, James Washington in 2018 and using a 3rd round pick on Diontae Johnson last year, the Steelers could look to add a playmaker this year with one of their first selections. TCU’s Jalen Reagor or Baylor’s Denzel Mims could be good fits.

Let’s take a look back at their successes (and failures) from the past 20 years.

Although he had more success with the Giants, Plaxico Burress’ was a constant downfield threat and basically uncoverable (ask the Patriots) when he was on his game. Unfortunately he’s probably more remembered for going to jail for twenty months and missing two season after shooting himself in a nightclub.

2000: 1st round, Plaxico Burress, Michigan State; 4th round, Danny Farmer, UCLA
2001: 7th round, Chris Taylor, Texas A&M
2002: 2nd round, Antwaan Randle-El, Indiana; 6th round, Lee Mays, Texas El-Paso

Few players in modern NFL history were more versatile than Antwaan Randle-El, originally a college quarterback from Indiana. He was dynamic on punt and kick returns, blazingly fast, and capable of running every trick play in the book.

2003: None
2004: None
2005: 4th round, Fred Gibson, Georgia
2006: 1st round, Santonio Holmes, Ohio St.

One of the two men responsible for the greatest catch in Super Bowl history (the third greatest catch of all-time according to NFL Films). Drafted in the 1st round out of Ohio State, Holmes spent four seasons with the Steelers putting up very good, but not great numbers. Like Plaxico before him, Holmes left the Steelers in free agency for a New York team (the Jets instead of the Giants).

2007: 7th round, Dallas Baker, Florida
2008, 2nd round, Limas Sweed, Texas
2009: 3rd round, Mike Wallace, Mississippi
2010: 3rd round, Emmanuel Sanders, SMU; 6th round, Antonio Brown, Central Michigan

For better and worse, the 2009 and 2010 drafts brought the Steelers “Young Money”, a trio of incredibly talented receivers that brought with them their fair share of the field turmoil. But oh, the productivity! Wallace spent four years in Pittsburgh racking up 235 receptions for 4042 yards and 32 touchdowns. Sanders didn’t completely blossom until joining the Broncos, but had 161 catches for 2030 yards and 11 touhdowns in four seasons. There isn’t much more that needs to be said about Antonio Brown’s off the field issues, so here are his numbers in nine seasons with the Steelers: 841 catches, 11263 yards, 75 touchdowns. The only thing missing was a Super Bowl ring.

2011: None
2012: 7th round, Toney Clemmons, Colorado
2013: 3rd round, Markus Wheaton, Oregon St.; 6th round, Justin Brown, Oklahoma
2014: 4th round, Martavis Bryant, Clemson
2015: 3rd round, Sammie Coates, Auburn
2016: 7th round, DeMarcus Ayers, Houston
2017: 2nd round, JuJu Smith-Schuster, USC

From 2011 to 2016 the Steelers only had one pick that panned out, Martavis Bryant. And by panned out, it was more like a supernova. An incredibly talented receiver brought down by off the field issues (a common theme?) Eventually shipped off to the Raiders, Bryant is now out of the league. In 2017 the Steelers snagged Smith-Schuster out of USC with their 2nd round pick. An immediate complement to Antonio Brown, Smith-Schuster took off in his sophomore campaign catching 111 passes for 1426 yards and 7 touchdowns. He was so good he was named team MVP, an act which seemed to spark much of the acrimony between Brown and the Steelers.

2018: 2nd round, James Washington, Oklahoma State
2019: 3rd round, Diontae Johnson, Toledo

Both Washington and Johnson have shown flashes of brilliance, but remain works in progress. With Roethlisberger back under center in 2020, a lot will be expected of these two early round picks (as well as JuJu). That’s a lot of talent, but not a lot of experience.

2000-2020 draft wide receiver breakdown

Total selections: 21
Years selecting a WR: 17/20

Selections by round:

1st round: 2
2nd round: 4
3rd round: 5
4th round: 3
5th round: 0
6th round: 3
7th round: 4

Selections by conference:

SEC: 5
ACC: 1
Big 12: 5
Big 10: 3
PAC 10: 3

Power 5: 16
Group of 5: 4

Although they’ve stuck mostly to Power 5 selections at receiver, the Steelers have had a lot of success outside the big conferences getting Antonio Brown (Central Michigan), Mike Wallace (SMU) and Diontae Johnson (Toledo) from non-traditional powers. … The Steelers have selected a receiver in the first four rounds in a majority of the drafts under Colbert.

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