2019 Steelers by position: WR

By BRYAN DEARDO

Antonio Brown's departure, in terms of on-field production, significantly impacts Pittsburgh's offense heading into the 2019 season. While the soon-to-be 31-year-old Brown wasn't going to dominate opposing defenses forever, one can assume that Brown would have put up similar numbers to the ones he's put up in recent seasons had he stayed with the Steelers in 2019. While his receiving yards (1,297 in 15 games) in 2018 were his lowest output since 2016, he still caught 104 passes in 15 games while also leading the NFL with a career-high 15 touchdowns. That will be hard to replace, along with the attention Brown demanded from opposing defenses every time he stepped onto the field.

The Steelers have countered the loss of Brown by doing their best to strengthen Pittsburgh's receiving corps. The team re-signed veteran wideout Eli Rogers, a tough, dependable secondary option that came on strong near the end of the 2018 season after missing most of the year rehabbing an ACL injury. Pittsburgh also signed veteran receiver Donte Moncrief, who caught 20 touchdown passes during his first five NFL seasons. The Steelers have also (unofficially) parted ways with veteran wideouts Justin Hunter and Darrius Heyward-Bey. Hunter never panned out after signing with the team as a free agent in 2017, while Heyward-Bey, despite being a tremendous team leader and locker room presence, could not be kept on the roster after catching just nine passes over the past three seasons.

Ryan Switzer, a late 2018 offseason acquisition, will return after having a very solid first season in Pittsburgh. Despite joining the team just before the start of the regular season, Switzer caught 36 of his 44 targets while serving as a dependable option in the slot position. Switzer should be even more productive in 2019 as he looks to build on his rapport with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

The Steelers further strengthened their depth at the receiver position by drafting former Toledo wideout Diontae Johnson with the 66th overall pick in the Draft. The 10th receiver taken in the draft, Johnson caught 21 touchdown passes during his final two years with the Rockets. Pittsburgh's receivers coach, Darryl Drake, recently compared him to a young Brown when Brown was coming out of Central Michigan back in 2010.

"As far as a player, yes, no question," Drake said last week when asked about Johnson being similar to Brown. "(Johnson) did an outstanding job at Toledo, not only as a wide receiver but in multi-positions, special teams as a returner. Just a tremendously gifted young man. The most natural catcher that I've seen in a while.

"You need a guy who can get off the ball, and the thing that he does he gets off the ball, gets in and out of his breaks as well as anybody that I've seen in a long time," Drake continued. "He was a guy that I wanted, and I just appreciate Kevin and Mike seeing the same things that I saw in this young man. As you get to be around him, you're going to love his smile and his personality and his style of play. So, again, very excited about the pick. I think he's a guy that Steeler Nation is going to be very, very excited about."

While Johnson looks to make an immediate impact, James Washington, Pittsburgh's second round pick in 2018, is looking to bounce back after catching just 16 passes during his rookie season. Earlier this offseason, he told Steelers.com's Missi Matthews that he will spent his offseason looking on improving his route running and his conditioning.

Washington started showing glimpses of his potential against the Patriots in Week 15. With New England paying extra attention to Brown and team MVP JuJu Smith-Schuster, Washington led Pittsburgh with 65 receiving yards while catching three of his four targets in the Steelers 17-10 victory. Two weeks later, with the Steelers needing a victory to keep their playoff hopes alive, Washington caught all three of his targets for 64 yards that included a key 47-yard catch during Pittsburgh's comeback victory over the Cincinnati Bengals.

Speaking of JuJu, he will now be Pittsburgh's No. 1 receiver moving forward. Smith-Schuster, at times, was the team's No. 1 receiver in 2018. Last season, JuJu led the Steelers with 111 receptions and 1,426 receiving yards. And while he will no longer have the luxury of having Brown on the other side, Pittsburgh's depth at the position should give Smith-Schuster enough room to flourish as the team's premier receiver.

Simply put, you can't replace what Brown provided. Not with one player. Give the Steelers credit for not trying. Instead of trying to sign another Pro Bowl receiver or spending a first or second round pick on the position, Pittsburgh instead decided to complement Smith-Schuster with both proven veterans as well as young, promising wideouts that should help make Pittsburgh's passing attack even more lethal than it was in 2018, when Big Ben led the NFL with 5,129 passing yards.

The Steelers' receiving room, even with the loss of Brown, is better now than it was in 2018. While they no longer have the best WR duo in football, Pittsburgh has the potential to have the deepest and most productive receiving corps in the NFL. And when factoring the culture change the will take place with Brown no longer in the picture, the Steelers' WR position is better off now than it was a year ago.

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