Three wide receivers departed in free agency, leaving the Pittsburgh Steelers with two players at the position who had just two years of experience in their offensive system.
Only one decided to show up for organized team activities this week.
“I didn’t want to be at home when all these guys are getting together,” Chase Claypool said Thursday. “I thought that was important.”
Claypool confirmed Diontae Johnson, the longest tenured member of the Steelers pass catchers with three years on their roster, did not attend the first three voluntary sessions.
Johnson has joined a handful of other NFL wide receivers with similar service time who have opted not to attend offseason workouts. Big paydays in free agency await next offseason for receivers entering their fourth seasons, and OTAs provide a risk for injury.
Skipping offseason workouts is nothing new for Steelers veterans. TJ Watt didn’t attend last year while awaiting a mega-contract that was signed shortly before the start of the season.
Claypool, who can earn his riches in two years, doesn’t fault Johnson for missing OTAs.
“I know Diontae is grinding no matter where he is,” he said. “I know a lot of people are looking into it, but I’m not looking into it too much. He’s perfecting his craft, and he’s going to play.”
Johnson’s absence comes after an offseason filled with turnover in his position room in particular and the offense in general. The Steelers replaced wide receivers coach Ike Hilliard with Frisman Jackson. Then, JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Washington and Ray-Ray McCloud left in free agency, and the Steelers replaced them with draft picks George Pickens and Calvin Austin III. And, of course, retired quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, with newcomer Mitch Trubisky potentially taking over the starting job.
“He’s been here for a little bit, and he’s studying his playbook regardless of where he’s at,” Claypool said of Johnson. “I think he’ll be all right. I know we miss him, but he’s going to take his time and perfect his craft.”
After a season he described as having its “ups and downs,” Claypool decided to perfect his craft this week at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex rather than on his own. When he reported, he found himself the senior member of his position group — at least in terms of experience with the Steelers.
Claypool is hoping to transition his service time into more of a leadership role with the team.
“This is the first time on the Steelers where I felt like my voice is being actively heard,” he said. “I’m taking that seriously. I’m trying to help the young guys because I was there last year and two years ago.”
Pickens, a fellow second-round draft pick whose arrival has been met with great expectations, is looking to Claypool for answers.
“I talk to Chase almost every day,” Pickens said. “He really has helped me in terms of getting in the flow of the game, getting the flow of the locker room and the whole facility. He’s getting us acclimated.”
After emerging as one of the NFL’s dominant rookie receivers in 2020 when he totaled 62 catches for 873 yards and nine receiving touchdowns (11 overall), Claypool didn’t take the leap forward in 2021 that coach Mike Tomlin expects from his second-year players .
In terms of receptions (59) and yards (860), Claypool was a tick below his 2020 numbers. But his touchdowns dropped to two, and he went 10 games without finding the end zone until ending that streak in the season finale at Baltimore.
“A lot of people will say I was terrible last year,” Claypool said. “The numbers were similar. I wasn’t happy with last year, but I didn’t take a big step back at all. People are going to freak out and say I did, but I didn’t. I’ll be good this year.”
Claypool said he has spent the offseason working on his timing on contested deep catches. He also worked on breaking his habit of jumping when trying to make a play down the field.
“I need to stay on my feet,” he said. “I need to get a little more (yards after the catch), and I can’t be dropping passes.”
At times, Claypool’s maturity and attention to detail have been questioned, like when he signaled for a first down with precious time winding off the clock in the final minute of a loss at Minnesota.
“I always try to be the best receiver in the league,” Claypool said. “People spin it as I don’t care. I do care. I work my (butt) off every day. I’ll keep doing that until I’m the best receiver in the league.”
Which is another reason he reported to OTAs. He wanted another chance to catch passes from Trubisky. The first occurred in April when Trubisky invited players to his offseason home.
“He’s picked up that momentum throughout the offseason,” Claypool said. “That chemistry is building. It’s building early.”
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