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Jun. 11—Like so many people inside and outside the Pittsburgh Steelers organization, Chase Claypool thought the wide receiver room would have a new leader in 2021.
JuJu Smith-Schuster was a free agent expecting to command top dollar, and the Steelers were trying to remain compliant with the limited finances they had available under the salary cap. But after the new league year commenced, the market softened and Smith-Schuster returned on a one-year deal that counts $2.4 million against this year's cap.
"We knew he wanted to come back," Claypool said. "We didn't know if it would be possible. When he came back, I was excited. Not only is he a good friend, he's a good player and teammate, too. It's always good to have a player like that in the building."
When Smith-Schuster re-signed, it meant the Steelers were bringing back six of their top seven pass-catchers from 2020, the lone departure being running back James Conner. The top five wide receivers — a group that also includes Diontae Johnson, James Washington and Ray-Ray McCloud — and tight end Eric Ebron are all back for another go-round.
"We always say we got the band back together," Smith-Schuster said. "Everyone who put a hand in the pile."
For the first time since 2011, the Steelers didn't use a draft pick on a wide receiver, and it ended a four-year run of the organization using a second-day selection on the position. But for an offense that experienced turnover at center, guard, tackle and running back, the continuity at wide receiver was welcomed.
"That's a really talented group," quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "It's still a young group, too."
Smith-Schuster, who is entering his fifth season, and Johnson are 24. Washington is in his fourth season and the oldest of the group at 25. Claypool is 22.
Pro Football Focus, however, isn't buying into the experience or talent the Steelers receivers have to offer. The website recently ranked the Steelers as having the No. 18 group out of the 32 NFL teams.
"People are going to say what they want to say, but at the end of the day, we've got to do what we do," Washington said. "If that's coming out and dominating and kicking butt all day, that's what we're going to do no matter how young we are. We're going to play to the best of our ability."
The addition of rookies Najee Harris at running back and Pat Freiermuth at tight end — plus the renewed emphasis on improving the running game — could mean a reduced workload for the wide receivers. And with four established mouths to feed at wide receiver, Roethlisberger might not be able to keep everyone nourished.
"People want touches and people want to reach goals," Smith-Schuster said. "But if you win out, win these games, everyone gets paid. ... Everyone gets a chance to eat."
Three receivers got at least 100 targets last season, led by Johnson's 144. Smith-Schuster had 128 passes thrown his direction and Claypool had 109 as a rookie. Ebron was next with 91, with Washington (56) and McCloud (22) rounding out the returning group.
After setting franchise rookie records with 62 receptions and nine receiving touchdowns, Claypool could be poised to make the type of leap forward Smith-Schuster did in 2018, his second season, when he set career highs with 111 catches and 1,426 yards.
Smith-Schuster, however, had All-Pro receiver Antonio Brown on the other side of the field drawing double coverages. Claypool doesn't have that luxury and, in fact, might be the receiver attracting the most interest from opposing defenses this year.
"I think teams started doing that in the second half of last year," Claypool said. "It's good because the other guys can go off. Now, we have Najee in the mix. If they put two on me, I'm fine with that as long as the other guys are eating."
Roles are being redefined in Matt Canada's first season as offensive coordinator. Smith-Schuster wants to play more outside after getting nearly 80% of his snaps last season in the slot. That potential change could mean new locations on the field for Johnson and Washington.
With so many experienced targets available, playing time is another issue. Claypool's emergence in 2020 came at the expense of Washington, who logged just 44% of the snaps. For all of his success, Claypool played 63% of the time, as coach Mike Tomlin monitored his snap count in the Notre Dame product's first foray into a 16-game season. Smith-Schuster led all Steelers receivers by playing 84% of the snaps, and Johnson was on the field for exactly two-thirds of all offensive plays.
"As long as I'm playing a little bit, I'll be all right and make an impact," Claypool said.
Contributions for receivers this season could come in an area that shows up on film but doesn't make it into the game book. With every facet of the running game being under review, the wide receivers will be expected to take on more blocking responsibilities this season under Canada's system.
Claypool noticed as much during the three weeks of organized team activities that the Steelers recently completed.
"We're not just going to be blocking corners," he said. "We're going to be coming down in the box to help out with the run schemes and run fits. I think we're excited about it. Ray-Ray and Diontae (being smaller players) may not be excited to block linebackers, but others are ready to get dirty."
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at email@example.com or via Twitter .