Following their disappointing end to the season, the Pittsburgh Steelers now turn their focus to the free agency, the draft, and, ultimately, next season.
Given their salary cap constraints, the team will look very different next year. The 2020 rookie class will still be in black and gold, though. It was a solid year for the rookies, led by none other than Chase Claypool.
With JuJu Smith-Schuster almost certain to be playing elsewhere in 2021, Claypool will be in for a much bigger role. Based on what we saw in 2020, he’s probably ready for the challenge.
Claypool’s Stat Line: 109 targets, 62 receptions, 873 receiving yards, 11 total touchdowns
Statistically, it was an impressive rookie campaign for Claypool, but it could have been much more. There were some games where Claypool frustratingly didn’t see a high number of targets.
Early in the season, when things were going well, Claypool was one of the biggest reasons for offensive success. The team made it a point to get him the ball, and good things usually happened. But during Pittsburgh’s three-game losing streak following their 11-0 start, Claypool had just 18 total targets and eight receptions. Without that down stretch, “Mapletron” would’ve had an even more impressive rookie campaign.
When evaluating rookies, though, statistics are not the end all be all. Claypool’s flashes of excellence are what make him exciting for 2021 and beyond. His versatility is perhaps his best asset. There are things he needs to work on. He has a full offseason to do that, though, something he didn’t have entering his rookie year.
The first thing that should excite fans about Claypool is his deep threat ability. Of course, a quarterback who can consistently throw the ball deep would help with this, too.
In 2020, Claypool’s average depth of his targets was 13.2 yards downfield, the highest on the team. He led all Steelers wide receivers in both yards before and after the catch per reception, 8.8 and 5.3, respectively. Something else that doesn’t show up in the stat sheet is the yardage that Claypool drew from defensive pass interference calls.
His combination of speed and size make him a real nightmare for cornerbacks deep down the field; many times, their only chance is to interfere to prevent a completion.
Another area in which Claypool surprised was his route running. His 2.5 average yards of separation won’t blow anyone away, but that’s the same number as guys like Michael Thomas and Amari Cooper.
Coming out of college, Claypool’s straight-line speed was well-respected, but scouts weren’t as high on his ability to change directions. For the most part, he ran crisp routes in 2020. His size and strength help him beat press coverage of undersized corners. Further, he has surprisingly quick feet for a guy his size. He gets out of his cuts well.
Those traits should excite fans, too, perhaps more than his home run play ability. When the deep ball isn’t there, Claypool can still be depended upon to get open. It will be especially critical next year if Ben Roethlisberger’s deep ball doesn’t improve.
Something Claypool will be working on in the offseason is his consistency on 50-50 balls. Sometimes, he puts his big frame to good use and overpowers corners to win jump balls. Other times, he gets good position but doesn’t fully extend his arms to highpoint the ball, resulting in incompletions that should be catches.
If the offense isn’t throwing deep again next year, Claypool will be thrown to a lot in traffic. Whether it’s a jump ball along the sideline or in the corner of the end zone, he will need to make the plays more consistently. Claypool will never be covered by a guy as big as him. He uses his body well in those situations but just needs to be more dependable at completing the catch. That will likely be a major point of emphasis this offseason.
The success of using Claypool in the run game early in the season faded as the year went on. With Matt Canada being promoted to offensive coordinator, jet sweeps and the like will likely be a staple in 2021. It’s an effective way to put Claypool’s open-field speed and physicality to good use. Canada will likely try to build off of the motions and sweeps, and Claypool will play an important role in that aspect.
All things considered, 2020 was a promising start to Claypool’s career. Coaching and quarterback play held him back at times. In 2021, there will be no “rookie wall” potentially holding him back. He’ll have a full offseason to really adapt to NFL life and build chemistry with his offensive teammates.
It’s hard to predict what next year will look like for the Steelers. “Prepare for the worst but hope for the best” is probably the best approach for fans. But whatever happens, Chase Claypool will play an important role. That’s for sure.