For a team facing so much adversity in the past season and heading into the next with a litany of questions to address, it’s natural to consider the issues and how they can either go right or wrong, as well as how they will affect the broader dynamics and future success of the team, both heading into this season and into the future.
Though not statistically true, it is technically true that every team enters the offseason with the potential to finish the year as the league champion or as the first team on the clock in the next draft.
Some teams have a wider realistic range than others, and I think the Pittsburgh Steelers are one of those teams. Think of them as Schrödinger’s franchise; in February, they are both future champions and future owners of the top draft pick.
In order to gain a better feel for not only the issues facing the team this year, but how those issues might play out, it’s useful to take the devil’s advocate approach. This is the optimistic side of the coin.
Question: Should the Steelers draft a tall receiver, and what impact could he have on the offense?
This offseason, one of the main narratives regarding the Steelers across the league when it comes to the draft has been whether Pittsburgh would, or should, draft a tall wide receiver for Ben Roethlisberger, which is something he has been lobbying for basically since Plaxico Burress left in free agency after the quarterback’s rookie season.
The speculation was obviously intensified when Gerry Dulac reported for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that the organization had given word to Roethlisberger that they intended to draft him that tall receiver in the early rounds in the draft.
After all, if you had a franchise quarterback who could be argued as being in the prime of his career, wouldn’t you want to appease a wish or two for him, especially after jettisoning some of his best friends in Bruce Arians, Max Starks, and Willie Colon?
Because of this, Mike Evans and Kelvin Benjamin in particular have become household names in and around Pittsburgh and where all Steelers fans reside, as those are far and away the two tall receivers at the top of the draft.
There are others, of course, that could come later, such as Donte Moncrief, Allen Robinson, and Jordan Matthews, but the discussion has understandably been focused around Evans and Benjamin, the two players seemingly most likely to be able to help the offense most immediately and most significantly.
Meanwhile, the defense is on the decline and could use an injection of talented youth—yet the offense seems to be on the precipice of becoming one that can carry a team. Like the Steelers of the late 70s, could this generation be shifting to a more offensive-oriented club that wins by scoring points?
That is the experiment the Steelers will be conducting should they end up taking an impact tall receiver in the first round and forsaking their defensive needs. Given the likely departure of Emmanuel Sanders, in fact, it’s at least feasible that Evans or Benjamin could find themselves in the starting lineup, ahead of the veteran slot receiver Jerricho Cotchery and the second-year Markus Wheaton.
Having a tall wide receiver provides opportunities that teams simply cannot get any other way. If a defense can’t counter with an unusually tall cornerback, then any tall receiver with any leaping ability has a decided advantage—think Randy Moss as a rookie—that is a quarterback’s best friend. Just look at how Andy Dalton or Matthew Stafford flourish when throwing to A.J. Green or Calvin Johnson.
Tall receivers shouldn’t be equated with tight ends simply because they’re of similar height, because defenses do not play them the same way, and thus they offer different matchups. Tight ends are often matched up against taller safeties and linebackers rather than cornerbacks. You can’t do that, at least on a regular basis, with an outside receiver.
A quarterback who knows what he’s doing, like Philip Rivers, could make a Danario Alexander simply by playing to these advantages (over, say, Josh Victorian). Roethlisberger has been looking around the league and seeing this happen on a yearly basis. No wonder he’s been asking for a tall receiver of his own, or at least a tall receiver with some talent beyond what a Derek Moye can offer.