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Steelers Analysis

What Are Steelers Getting in Van Jefferson, Quez Watkins?



Pittsburgh Steelers Quez Watkins
Pittsburgh Steelers WR Quez Watkins

After releasing Allen Robinson prior to free agency and subsequently trading away Diontae Johnson days later, the Pittsburgh Steelers receiving corps is going to look much different in 2024. Overhauling that position room was clearly an emphasis this spring, including the hiring of a new offensive coordinator in Arthur Smith, as well as a new receivers coach in Zach Azzanni. While they haven’t made a splash move just yet, they’ve quietly added a couple of cheaper depth pieces in Van Jefferson and Quez Watkins, both 2020 NFL Draft picks who are now entering their fifth career seasons in the league.

Back in 2021, it looked like the 6-foot-1 Jefferson was set for a breakout sophomore season after he instantly established a strong connection with Rams new quarterback Matt Stafford. He’s a pretty crisp route runner who has a varied release package that has aids him in defeating press coverage. Jefferson has a nice combination of size, length and speed despite not being overwhelming in any one category. Over the course of his career, he’s spent about 36% of his snaps lined up inside so there’s some alignment versatility here as well. 

One of the reasons for his lack of production has been just general inconsistency, particularly with his hands. There’s some drops due to poor focus and catching technique which likely led to him falling out of favor with the coaching staff. Last season, he was traded to the Atalanta Falcons and that’s where the connection with Smith began brewing. Atlanta’s offense was mostly a mess all year and Jefferson’s arrival unsurprisingly did nothing to sway that. However, he possesses the type of frame and competitive mindset, particularly in the blocking department, that Smith covets which explains his addition to the Steelers roster. 

Ironically, 2021 was also Watkins best season as a pro which coincided with quarterback Jalen Hurts leading the offense. On the surface, a receiver that 4.35 40-yard dash teaming up with one of the best young deep throwers in the game had promise. Primarily a slot receiver, he excelled working vertically with 58% of his catches going for first downs. His hands are reliable and he’s shown the ability to extend beyond his frame and high point the football.

Disappointingly, this past season was a total disaster for Watkins.  A hamstring injury sidelined him and Philly continued to add receivers to the mix to upgrade over him which limited his reps. When the former sixth-round selection was in the field, the tape was ugly. His burst was nonexistent and there’s quite a few instances where his effort left more to be desired. His prior kick return experience does give him a better chance to make the roster. But only time will tell which version of the receiver that Pittsburgh will inherit once camp opens. 

At the time of this writing, the Steelers have third-year receiver George Pickens sliding into the alpha role, one that he’s very clearly ready for. After that is where things get pretty murky to say the least. There’s a bunch of WR4-types between the two new additions and Calvin Austin. Of course, these two signings featured no guaranteed money so there’s risk involved here. They’re going to roll the ball out in Latrobe and let these guys battle it out for what will likely be the last spot or two on the teams depth chart. 

If you squint your eyes really hard, you may convince yourself that Van Jefferson is a baseline WR3 in the right environment, particularly one that doesn’t feature a ton of 11 personnel. The realistic take is that Pittsburgh still needs a pair of wide outs, particularly a starting piece on the other side of Pickens. With the free agent options dwindling before their eyes, it’s difficult to imagine those solutions coming from that pool. So that leaves the NFL Draft or potentially, a splash trade?

If we’ve learned anything through the early stages of the Omar Khan era, it’s to never count anything out. The team acknowledged that they still have work to do. The current ensemble of playmakers isn’t all that exciting but there’s still time to get things ironed out over the next month or so. The fate of the Steelers offense partially depends on it.