In a preparation for the start of training camp and subsequently the kickoff of football season we're taking a look at what should be hotly contested position battles. Yesterday we looked at the #2 corner back spot that should be up for grabs between Deshea Townsend and Bryant McFadden, but today we switch gears to the offensive side of the ball. Heading into the draft, the top three spots at the wide receiver position looked nearly set in stone with Ward and Holmes as the 1 and 1a and Nate Washington as the third option. April 26th might have thrown a monkey wrench into the depth chart at wide receiver though when Limas Sweed fell to the Steelers in the second round. While it may be hard for rookie wideouts to make an immediate impact, Sweed should keep Washington looking over his shoulder.
The Incumbent Starter: Nate Washington wasn't supposed to make it in this league. He was undrafted out of tiny Tiffin University, in fact he's the first Tiffin alumni to play in the modern era of the NFL. He's had an up and down career during his three seasons in the league. He's often criticized for having bad hands and at times his maddening inconsistency will lead to him making an acrobatic catch followed by a routine dropped pass. To his credit though, he's got the speed to stretch defenses (10 receptions of 30+ yards in last two seasons) and he's still incredibly young (soon to be 25) for a guy with three years of experience (played in 33 games and added 6 starts). Inconsistency isn't uncommon in young players and Nate showed signs of becoming a better player in 2007, even though he caught fewer than the previous season. His catch percentage actually went up in 2007 from 2006 so hopefully he's growing into a more consistent player. Plus, Nate has the motivation of being in a contract year. He signed a one year tender this offseason and if he gets relegated to the 4th receiver, whatever contract hopes he might have had, could be gone quickly.
The Challlenger: The Steelers got a stroke of luck when Limas Sweed fell into their laps at the 53rd overall pick. Sweed struggled with a wrist injury his senior season and it prevented him from playing in the Senior Bowl, but that could end up being a blessing in disguise for the Steelers. Had Sweed played his senior season he'd likely have continued to improve on his career numbers and would have jumped to the top of the prospective wide receivers in the draft. He's a tall, athletic, complete wide receiver who could end up being the go-to receiver once Ward hangs it up. He doesn't have elite speed but he works the middle of the field, has excellent body control, great leaping ability and has knack for making the big play when his team needs it most. He's also a willing blocker for a receiver just out of college and with work from player/coach Hines Ward, Sweed could grow into a great blocker given his size (6'4 212). Sweed could be an immediate threat in the red zone and his sticky hands could be more valuable on third down situations than Washington's inconsistent nature.
We know that Coach Tomlin preferred to play veterans over promising rookies last year but Nate doesn't really fit the definition of an accomplished, reliable veteran. Washington does have the advantage of knowing the offense inside and out and he's already developed chemistry with Big Ben, but he'll have to have a career year if he wants to hold off Sweed. No one has been a bigger defender of Nate Washington than myself, but even I can read the writing on the wall at this point.
Teams don't draft second rounders to sit in waiting for three or four years. Sweed may not seriously push Washington until the middle of the season or so, but it'll happen eventually. With Washington only being under contract for one more season, they should have even more motivation to get Sweed into the mix early and often. Thoughts/Predictions/Concerns? Is Washington on a one year audition for other teams or will Pittsburgh try and bring him back? Who will end up with the better season?