Despite what no doubt will be an impressive stable of wide receivers returning to the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2017, Friday’s three-hour interview session at the NFL Combine revealed the team is at least doing its due diligence on pass-catching options in this draft class.
Washington speedster John Ross told me he met with the Steelers earlier this week, as Pittsburgh looks to address its lack of a deep threat from last season. Martavis Bryant’s expected return would certainly be option No. 1, but the big receiver has yet to be reinstated by the NFL, an organization that has been known to drag its feet in several similar instances.
“I have talked to the Steelers,” said Ross. “Mike Tomlin is great, such a great guy. It was great meeting him and I actually really enjoyed the interview.”
Ross would certainly take care of the lack of a big-play, field-stretcher in the passing game, as the 5-11, 188-pounder has said he expects to run under a 4.3 in the 40-yard dash during today’s workouts. His size and short area quickness have garnered a few comparisons to Antonio Brown, although Ross is a more raw version who doesn’t consistently offer the same dynamic ability after the catch.
“As far as versatility, there are similarities,” Ross said. “I feel like if I keep working, I can get up somewhere near that ability and do some things that he can do. But we’re both about the same height and explosiveness.”
Ross is probably faster than Brown -- maybe much faster -- and while he isn’t close to as refined of a route runner, currently, Ross' short-area explosiveness gives him the tools to eventually become deadly in that area of the game. Where Ross made a living at Washington was winning vertically down the field, detaching from man coverage on nine routes despite having to deal with significant inaccuracy issues from his quarterback, Jake Browning.
“I think versatility (is my biggest strength),” Ross said. “Being able to play more than one position, move around in the offense and play in space. But I have to be able to read deep coverages, I have to be smart and work on my craft every day.”
If there’s a concern with Ross, it’s that he showed an inability to get off press coverage consistently in college, especially when working against longer, stronger corners. Alabama’s secondary took a physical approach with Ross and held the junior receiver to five catches for 28 yards when the two teams met in the semifinal playoff game in January.
“I’ll get stronger,” Ross said. “I played the season with a messed up shoulder, so I’ll get stronger and just continue working in that aspect.”
Of course, Bryant may return to form bigger and better than ever, and the Steelers would be set at their top three wide receiver spots, with Brown and upstart Eli Rogers rounding out the trio. But Sammie Coates has battled injuries, inconsistencies and mental mistakes during his time in Pittsburgh, and Markus Wheaton is a free agent who could be on his way to a new home. Darrius Heyward-Bey and Demarcus Ayers represent solid depth, but considering the uncertainty surrounding Bryant’s situation, the team may be interested in adding a certain contributor at the position in the early rounds.
Texas A&M’s Josh Reynolds also confirmed that he met with the Steelers in what he termed a “laid back interview”. The Aggies deep threat is one of my favorite Day Two receivers in the draft, as he flashed the ability to win big at the catch point, as well as obtain clean releases against press coverage despite his slender build.
South Alabama tight end Gerald Everett is similar in some ways to Ladarius Green, as both are lanky athletic receivers that are going to be much better as flex options in the slot than they will be as in-line blockers. Everett told me he met with Pittsburgh as well, and the team told him they envision him as a downfield vertical threat in their passing game if he ultimately lands in Pittsburgh.
It is clear that the Steelers have no intention of being handicapped offensively heading into the draft, and want to be prepared in case Green is unable to return from injury or Bryant’s issues resurface.