Steelers, Packers thrive at mining WR gold outside of first round

LATROBE, Pa. -- A team with an elite quarterback has the luxury of spending first-round picks on positions other than wide receiver. Guys such as Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger are star-turners -- stick with me, kid, and I'll get your stats up.

No two teams are better at capitalizing on that luxury -- and spinning some darn good receivers out of it -- than the Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers, who face off at 1 p.m. ET Sunday at Heinz Field.

The New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts employ this strategy too, but those teams seem more reliant on tight end production than Green Bay and Pittsburgh, whose top three receivers were found out of the first round. Rob Gronkowski is New England's No. 1. Tight ends Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen combined for 16 touchdowns in 2014. Yes, Pittsburgh still has Heath Miller, who caught 66 passes the previous season, but he's 10 years in and one of five high-end passing options for the Steelers.

The Packers plucked Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and Davante Adams from the second round. The trio combined for 227 catches, 3,252 yards and 28 touchdowns the past season, with most of those numbers coming from veterans Cobb and Nelson. Adams is entering his second year.

The Steelers managed to threaten those totals without taking a receiver in the first two rounds of the past seven drafts. They haven't done so since Limas Sweed in 2008. That's a major advantage on most teams, and it has allowed the Steelers to rebuild their offensive line and defensive front seven.

Antonio Brown (sixth round), Markus Wheaton (third round) and Martavis Bryant (fourth round) combined for 208 catches for 2,891 yards and 23 touchdowns, with Brown handling more than half that load. But Wheaton and Bryant are considered ascending players. Bryant is a trendy fantasy draft selection this month, after he scored every 3.25 catches his first year.

Speaking of the second round, both clubs located stellar running backs in that round: Green Bay's Eddie Lacy and Pittsburgh's Le'Veon Bell.

"We have a balanced offense," Brown said. "On the nights when defenses might try to double me, that's hard to do because so many other guys can beat you."

The Packers and Steelers value interchangeable parts at receiver. Brown and Wheaton can play inside and out, as can Nelson, Cobb and Adams. Wheaton will technically serve as the Steelers' slot receiver in 2015, but he is also effective lining out wide. Bryant is a natural outside receiver, but the Steelers are expanding his role. In Green Bay, Nelson lines up mostly outside, with Cobb in the slot, but they could switch rather seamlessly if asked to do so.

An unofficial list of the league's top receivers includes top picks everywhere. Demaryius, Dez, Julio, Odell, Calvin, A.J. -- all are first-rounders, including four from the top 11 picks. Brown is arguably the league's best, and Nelson belongs somewhere in the top 10. They are the only non-first-round receivers who without question belong on that list, though maybe T.Y. Hilton, Cobb or Julian Edelman disagree.

A good quarterback lessens the need to reach for a receiver. But he doesn't guarantee receivers will pan out. That requires good drafting.

Of late, the Steelers and Packers are 3-for-3 on their receiver plans.