The hype is real: Canadian Steelers rookie Chase Claypool described as ‘LeBron James playing receiver’

It’s a name known all over the world and synonymous with greatness: LeBron James.

King James is widely revered as one of the greatest athletes of this generation. Comparisons to him are not taken lightly.

That’s why, when long time Pittsburgh Steelers’ cornerback and NFL personality Ike Taylor spoke about Canadian receiver Chase Claypool, it made headlines around North America.

“Claypool is—just style body-wise, so his style and body type—he’s LeBron James playing receiver,” Taylor stated on the Behind the Steel Curtain podcast. “I’m not trying to compare him to LeBron. I’m just saying if you look at his build, because he’s a big guy, he’s really a basketball player playing football. He just so happens to be super aggressive.”

Lofty comparisons are needed to describe the kid from Abbottsford, B.C. At six-foot-four and 238-pounds, Claypool has a build unlike any other receiver in the NFL. When he blazed a 4.42-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine, he proved himself to be a rare athletic marvel. The only other player in NFL history to be clocked that fast at that size was three-time All-Pro receiver Calvin ‘Megatron’ Johnson.

Even with his unique athletic skill set, the kid now dubbed ‘Mapletron’ had to wait until the second round on draft day. Pittsburgh took him 49th overall, the eleventh receiver selected. Without a regular off-season program to prepare for the jump to the NFL, expectations were set low for the rookie. The Steelers were not lacking receivers and Claypool’s role was expected to be minimal.

Then training camp started and the hype began to build.

It started in earnest. His receiver coach Ike Hilliard said he was expecting Claypool to see the field early and stated his impact would be like Terry McLaurin, a third round rookie who became Washington’s top pass catcher last year. The chemistry with Ben Roethlisberger began to form. Highlight reel catches started to seep out online. Then, Joe Haden let people know.

The Pro Bowl cornerback has seen more than a few top receivers over his 10-year career but, like most veterans, he doesn’t spend a lot of time singing the praises of rookies until they’ve earned their accolades. After another spectacular Claypool catch made the rounds on Twitter, Haden couldn’t help himself.

“He’s going to be a PROBLEM! You heard it first from me!,” the veteran defender tweeted.

When asked about it the next day, Haden opened up.

“He’s impressed me for sure. His size, his speed, his ability to adjust to the ball in the air. He’s been doing a really good job. I think he’s a great young talent, and his work ethic shows that he wants to be great,” Haden raved.

“He’s been able to be a big body, a big deep threat, with soft hands that can jump up and get it. As long as he keeps going, staying healthy, he’s going to be a problem.”

Comments like those hold a lot of weight and are why Taylor felt the need to bring James into the equation.

“Heck with the coaches, listen to how players talk about other players. When I heard Joe Haden say this man is going to be a problem, he sees him every day. This is Joe’s tenth or eleventh year, Joe knows what he’s talking about,” Taylor explained. “As soon as I heard that, I said, if Joe said he is going to be a problem, he’s the real deal.”

Haden was not the last Steelers’ player to offer unprompted praise to the rookie either. Veteran tight end Eric Ebron sent out his own tweet.

“Today showed me Chase Claypool will be a PROBLEM in this league. #BigStepper,” he predicted.

From Taylor’s perspective, all the praise is a product of Claypool’s mentality, something that truly shines through when he’s blocking.

“If you watch how he blocks, that’s an attitude,” Taylor said. “That’s a ‘want to.’ This man blocks like he’s either trying to block you out the play, block you out the screen or the videotape that they’re taping, or he’s trying to block you to make you understand he ain’t got time for you. It’s something like saying ‘little boy.’ That’s the mentality.”

That LeBron-like attitude may be why he’s building trust with Big Ben.

“By the way, I can go up on the rim,” Taylor said, imitating Claypool. “If you want me to jump 46 inches, I can go up and get this ball up top of the backboard and catch it for you No. 7. I’ve been watching some of the highlights and most of the time they’ve been highballs that No. 7 has been throwing to him.”

Roethlisberger agrees. The veteran quarterback usually stays mum on how rookies perform to gain a competitive advantage but for Claypool he’s made an exception.

“I want [rookies] to sneak up on other people, but it doesn’t look like Chase is going to be able to sneak up on anybody right now because people are talking about him and deservedly so. He’s just making plays. I think the plays that he’s making are impressive, but I think to me, the more impressive is that he doesn’t ask a lot of questions, which means he knows this stuff,” he said.

“I can change a play with a hand signal or call a different play at the line of scrimmage and I always check with him, like, ‘Are you good?’ And he’s like, ‘I got it.’ And so, I think that is just very, very impressive from a quarterback perspective that as much as we’ve thrown at him, he’s able to digest it.”

When established NFL stars are already raving about the big-bodied target, it’s no surprise that members of the media are jumping on board. NBC Sports’ analyst Chris Simms has followed Claypool since he was the top receiver at the University of Notre Dame and the former NFL quarterback tweeted his own lofty comparison for Claypool.

“Love the buzz on Chase Claypool from Steelers camp. Very few WRs I’ve ever seen look like he does with the physical ability that he has,” Simms tweeted. “Built like Brandon Marshall, but faster & more explosive. Superstar potential.”

The former University of Texas quarterback isn’t alone with his praise. Media in Pittsburgh and across the NFL have taken notice and the chatter surrounding Claypool is palpable. The Athletic’s Mark Kaboly wrote that if fans wanted him to stop over-hyping Claypool they should tell the rookie to stop “making non-rookie-like plays after running non-rookie-like routes and making non-rookie-like catches.”

Coaches, while more even keel, have jumped on board too. When asked about a spectacular catch Claypool made in practice, head coach Mike Tomlin was confused.

“I really don’t know which specific play you are talking about because he made a couple of them, which is a good thing,” he said.

Offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner called the rapport built between the rookie and Roethlisberger “unique”. Defensive coordinator Keith Butler went further when praising Claypool’s red zone ability.

“If we had to play him, I’m sure we’d find a way to double him, try to take him out [of the game plan] if we could.”

From Abbottsford Secondary to a four-year impact player at the University of Notre Dame and now being one of the most talked about players in NFL training camp, Claypool’s rise has been meteoric. There will be no hiding from the spotlight once NFL games roll around and the Canadian will be front and centre on Sundays.

Is the hype merited? Will a Canadian LeBron James at receiver have success more akin to Steve Nash or flop like Anthony Bennett? Just like the NBA superstar, Claypool knows you’ve got to perform to silence the doubters and as long as he keeps posterizing defenders he’ll be on the right track.

J.C. Abbott is a University of British Columbia graduate and high school football coach. He covers the CFL, B.C. Lions, CFL Draft and the three-down league's Global initiative.