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It wasn’t supposed to happen this early for Canada’s Chase Claypool. Coming out of an offseason of isolated preparation and virtual playbook study, this year’s crop of NFL rookies was expected to struggle early on in their acclimation to the pro game.
That has not been the case for Claypool, who is already staking his claim for the Pittsburgh Steelers as one of the NFL’s most unique receiving threats with his explosive play on the field.
Claypool scored his first career touchdown this past Sunday in just his second game, showing why he was considered one of the most gifted Canadian players ever to reach the NFL. Claypool’s 84-yard receiving touchdown was longer than any Canadian had scored before him at football’s highest level.
Claypool showed the surprising breakaway speed he possesses, given his height, to rip-off the longest touchdown in the entire NFL so far this season. His dreads just barely visible sticking outside his Steelers’ helmet, Claypool was smiling by the time he reached the 10-yard line.
“It was pretty cool because sometimes you hear the play call and you know you’re going to score or you know the ball is coming your way. So, that is one of those plays where I knew I had the chance to get the ball and I had to just kind of win on the route,” Claypool said following the game.
The 22-year-old from Abbotsford, British Columbia has embarked on one of the most unconventional seasons to be a rookie in the history of the NFL. Distanced preparation and empty stadiums have defined the first few months of Claypool’s professional career.
While many of us were picking up quarantine hobbies this summer, Claypool was learning the complexities of a modern NFL offence.
"I look forward to going back to Canada and working out with some of the local high school kids. Maybe when I do that, I will be able to kind of see that impact that I have back home.”
With COVID-19 restrictions in place practically throughout the summer, Claypool could not work in-person with his teammates and coaches until August. All four preseason games were canceled. As he transitioned for his first year of professional football, Claypool was limited to Zoom meetings and remote workouts.
“I like looking, obviously, at the plays and then being able to walk through them. That’s something we would have been able to do at camp, but since that wasn’t the case, we virtually installed [the playbook] each day,” said Claypool on Thursday during a Zoom conference with members of the Canadian media.
“And then I would just go out with my trainer and walk through that and kind of understand why we are doing certain things.”
Part of the learning curve for Claypool was learning the responsibilities of other positions in the offence on specific plays due to the Steelers’ philosophy centering on flexibility and swapping players around the formation. Those walkthroughs helped him learn the playbook and the route combinations of the Steelers’ offence, including how different pass protections affect the routes he runs.
Claypool says he found the jump from high school in BC to the University of Notre Dame more difficult than his transition from college to the NFL. Leaving Canada to live on his own in South Bend helped Claypool develop responsibility over his own life as he committed further to the game of football.
“I think I’m much more responsible and accountable. Back in high school, my mom would wake me up for class and stuff; I would always sleep through the alarm. I know it’s a little thing, but [now] I’m always on top of things.”
However, once he finally hit the field, Claypool impressed his Steelers’ teammates early on. Claypool beat veteran corner Joe Haden in a red zone drill in training camp, earning the Pro Bowl defender’s praise to reporters afterwards.
“He’s just a big, fast receiver and he’s able to adjust to the ball in the air,” Haden said. “I think he’s going to be a problem.”
Clocking in at 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds, Claypool is an oddity as a wide receiver. His size allows him to have an incredibly wide catch radius. Throw in blazing speed and great body control with the ball in the air, and Claypool has the tools to be a defence’s worst nightmare.
Due to his measurables, Claypool has garnered comparisons to Calvin Johnson, the uncoverable former Lions receiver who is nominated for the Pro Football Hall of Fame this year. Johnson’s physical nature earned him the nickname ‘Megatron’—like the Transformers villain—and he used his height and length to bully NFL defensive backs for years in Detroit.
Claypool fits the same physical mould. He showed his virtually peerless athleticism at this year’s NFL combine. Claypool, the draft class’ tallest receiver, ran the 40-yard dash in 4.42 seconds. That time has been matched only by Johnson at his height.
Claypool received the nickname ‘Mapletron’ from fans due to those comparisons along with his Canadian heritage. He just released a Mapletron merchandise line, but says that he might have to come up with a nickname of his own down the line.
“I don’t really want to pigeonhole myself with the nickname Mapletron, but I released some merch for the fans to have because they like that name.”
Claypool says it has been hard to keep up with the number of messages he has received from family and friends the last couple of weeks. He is already becoming something of an icon up north, but that is not something he can entirely comprehend just yet.
“I see some stuff on social media, but I feel like until I go home and see some of the kids or see some of the people, it won’t fully sink in. I look forward to going back to Canada and working out with some of the local high school kids,” Claypool. “Maybe when I do that, I will be able to kind of see that impact that I have back home.”
The NFL world is still fresh to Claypool and the feeling of being a pro athlete has not worn off for him yet.
“There’s moments in the day where I just look around and enjoy it. Because I hear about some of things people are going through and it makes more grateful for what I’m doing.”
There is still much Claypool wants to improve on the field. Flashes of greatness do not make a great receiver. He is still trying to find the route-to-route consistency that will keep him on the field.
“You know, the fast start was great but you want to keep that throughout the season. I think if I can do that, I can do some really big things for the team.”
Expectations are high this year for a Steelers franchise accustomed to winning. Pittsburgh has missed the postseason two years running, a rarity for the six-time Super Bowl champions. Claypool says they are approaching the year on a week-by-week basis but that Steelers’ head coach Mike Tomlin set a clear expectation prior to the season.
“At the start of the season, Coach Tomlin laid down his expectations and we’re going for a world championship. So, he set the bar.”