PITTSBURGH — Randy Fichtner has seen many rookie receivers excel with the Steelers over the years. He’s been an assistant coach on Mike Tomlin’s staff since 2007 and has witnessed the development of some of the game’s top playmakers at the position.
Antonio Brown, Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders, Martavis Bryant and JuJu Smith-Schuster are just some of the players he has coached. Brown didn’t blossom until near the end of his rookie year, and he has more receptions and yards than anyone in the league over the past decade. Others, such as Smith-Schuster, made more immediate impacts.
Chase Claypool is the next Steelers receiver Fichtner is tasked to develop, and he knows he will face a challenge none of the others did.
Claypool, the No. 49 overall pick out of Notre Dame, will try to make an impression on his new coaches in the span of 14 padded practices. No preseason games, no scrimmages, no big-stage opportunities to demonstrate how he can help the team.
“When you’re really talking about where they can help you, I’m rooting that they can help us immediately, but I’ll be honest, I’m not counting on it,” said Fichtner, who is entering his third season as offensive coordinator. “I don’t think it’s cool to do that.”
It’s a bad year to be a rookie in the NFL. The COVID-19 pandemic denied rookies of almost 1,000 repetitions in the spring when OTAs and minicamps were canceled. They couldn’t even work out under the supervision of NFL coaches or meet with them in person in many cases until this week.
“I think you can make an impression kind of more than just the practices alone, kind of how you carry yourself,” Claypool said. “I think especially with the limited practices, you kind of have to find ways to maximize the way you make an impression whether it’s being in the weight room or just knowing what to do, maybe even spending some extra time there. That’s kind of my mindset right now.”
Fichtner isn’t planning on Claypool being highly involved in the offense in the early portion of the season — “To be fair, I would hate to put them in that situation,” he said — but there is recent precedent for the Steelers leaning on rookie receivers.
It happened last season with Diontae Johnson, who missed most of the spring with a hamstring injury. Johnson, in a perfect world, would have had more time to develop, but the Steelers needed him after offseason acquisition Donte Moncrief was ineffective and Smith-Schuster was injured late in the season.
“I would have loved to not have played Diontae as early as we even played him last year because he’s growing and developing,” Fichtner said.
But Johnson played and played well, leading all NFL rookies in receptions.
The takeaway is young players develop at different speeds. While Johnson and Smith-Schuster produced with big numbers as rookies, others such as Brown and Sanders grew at different paces.
And sometimes, it’s not about the numbers as much as when the light goes on. For Brown, his best games came during the 2010 playoffs. He had five catches for 90 yards in three playoff games, including a game-changing 58-yard catch in the waning moments of a divisional playoff victory against the Ravens.
“You never know,” Fichtner said. “The development of all young guys takes some time. I saw JuJu when he first got here. I’ve seen Mike Wallace when he first got here, A.B. when he first got here, all those guys. And they all kind of learn and mature at the right time. When it happens, it happens for the good.”
Claypool’s ticket to playing time very likely will hinge on his physicality and his ability to play special teams. He hasn’t had much of a chance to impress the coaches just yet, but Fichtner has already taken note of his size and demeanor.
“I do know at some point through this journey — that look in his eye, he looks intelligent — (it) gives me reason to think it might happen earlier rather than later,” Fichtner said. “He is strong, mature and physical. The physicality is going to show early. I think it is going to lead to a lot of opportunities to help our football team.
“I am excited because I know he is physical, I know he can run, I know he can learn up to this point. That is what is exciting about him. I just see a bright-eyed guy that is committed to doing all the right things, and it couldn’t come at a better time for us.”