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Let's continue our series of positional breakdowns in anticipation of training camp. All three of the first posts were offensive positions (QB, RB, TE), so let's just stay on that side of the football and take a look at the situation at wide receiver.
When the Pittsburgh Steelers 2010 season kicks off in early September, the depth chart at wide receiver may look like a misprint to those who haven't been following the offseason news.The Steelers made headlines just weeks before the draft when they traded Santonio Holmes to the New York Jets in exchange for a mere fifth round pick. The deal occurred just one day after news broke that Holmes had violated the league's substance abuse policy and would be suspended for the first four games of the 2010 season. Saying goodbye to Santonio might be a case of addition by subtraction, at least in the long run, but the Steelers are still going to have to find a way to fill the considerable void in production created by Holmes' departure.
Marching on to Canton?
Hard to believe it, but Hines Ward enters his 13th NFL season as 'the man' once more. Actually, no, that's not that hard to believe. Ward is one of the game's truly special competitors, and he's found a way to will himself to remarkably productive seasons in '08 and '09 at the age of 31 and 32 respectively.
First, a look at his updated career numbers...
|Year||Games||Rec||Yards||Yards/Rec||Yards/G||TDs||10+ Rec Gs/100+ Y Gs
Career Totals: 895 receptions, 10,947 yards, 78 TDs
Could Hines possibly make it all the way to the 1,000 reception marker this coming season? Most likely not, but I wouldn't put it entirely outside the realm of possibility, particularly if he's somewhere within say 25-30 with two or three games remaining. A safer bet is Ward passing Art Monk (940) and Andre Reed (951) and sliding into the top 10 in career receptions in the process. With 7 more TDs, Ward would also move into the top 15 in receiving TDs. We'll see how effective the passing game is to start the year, as well as how long it takes Big Ben to find his rhythm when he does return after four or six games. Then there's the question about just how much more committed Bruce Arians and the Steelers offense will be to running the football more consistently. All will have some effect on Ward's statistical output in 2010. But if he can stay healthy for the third year in a row, Ward should once again be everything Coach Tomlin and the organization could ever hope for in a No. 1 receiver and veteran leader.
No Time For A Sophomore Slump
Even if Ward is able to stay healthy and continue producing, the Steelers will still need second year WR Mike Wallace to step up and be a legitimate No. 2 option. Wallace had a sensational rookie campaign, finishing with 39 receptions for 756 yards and six touchdowns. Rookie WRs typically don't contribute so significantly in Pittsburgh - even the great ones like Hines Ward, John Stallworth and Lynn Swann. Wallace averaged a robust 19.4 yards per reception in 2009, making him the first Steelers rookie to ever lead the league in that category.
The challenge for Wallace will be adjusting to life as a No. 2 guy. He'll face tougher caliber cornerbacks and will be focused on more heavily in the film room by opposing defensive coordinators. He'll also be asked to do more than use his world class speed to stretch the field - though he'll still be deployed in that fashion plenty. That's not to say that Wallace was just a one-trick pony last season. He showed some versatility in the medium range passing game, including some toughness over the middle of the field and in traffic. He'll just have to do even more this year as a more focal part of Arians' sets, and that means more preparation from a mental standpoint. If Ward were to sustain an injury, even more responsibility will fall on the young Wallace's shoulders. As I said, there's no room for error here - the Steelers can't afford a sophomore slump from him.
Rounding Out The Depth Chart
Antwaan Randle El - the decision to bring back the fan favorite looked mighty prescient after Holmes' situation. Then following the draft during the team's first set of mini-camps, Limas Sweed was lost for the year with an Achilles injury. Not that anybody in the Steelers front office was banking on Sweed stepping up, but still, he was definitely going to be in the mix during training camp and the preseason at the least. Now it's up to ARE to be a jack-of-all-trades type of guy this season. By that I mean - Randle El could conceivably be asked to shoulder some No. 1 responsibilities in the event of an injury; he could also slide down to No. 4 in some situations throughout the year if one of the team's two rookie WRs were to emerge as a big-time play maker. That's the beauty of the signing in my opinion. ARE is a pro's pro: he can be counted on to fill any number of roles adequately. There may not be much huge 'upside' to his game anymore, but he's a proven winner, not afraid of big moments, and will bring out the best in everybody around him just because of how competitive he is.
- Antonio Brown - early reports out of Steelers headquarters in May had Antonio Brown turning heads with his workouts. Not surprising. This kid is a football player. He was a star quarterback in high school in the Miami area, who was forced to walk on to the Central Michigan squad after a year in junior college. All he did was finish with an astounding 305 receptions and nearly 3,200 receiving yards in just three seasons. We'll see what happens when the pads go on, but I am quite high on Brown. I like his ball skills, I like his potential as a kick and punt returner, and I like the fact that he punched out Keenan Lewis during one chippy day at OTAs. Something tells me that Coach Tomlin didn't mind seeing that type of intensity from his young players either.
- Emmanuel Sanders - Sanders too had a ridiculously productive collegiate career. He graduated as SMU's all-time leader in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. Of course, he benefited from the wide open style of play that June Jones favors, but he did more than just catch slants, bubble screens, etc. He too offers some intrigue as a KR/PR because of his top-shelf speed. He's a step or two faster than Brown, but I'm not convinced as natural in open space or as instinctual.
In the case of both, Tomlin summed it up nicely: "We drafted two wide receivers that have had good offseasons, but they did it in shorts," Tomlin said Thursday. "We'll know more about those guys as we get into training camp."
- Arnaz Battle - If Sanders and/or Brown are overwhelmed during camp and don't look ready to be trusted when the games count, Arnaz Battle might come in more handy than most probably thought would be the case when he was signed during free agency. Battle, who was previously with the 49ers, could either be an important asset this year or he could play a nondescript role, if any at all. It's all about the health of Ward and ARE and the development of Brown and Sanders. If the two veterans can stay healthy and look sharp, Battle's veteran understanding of what's expected of him becomes less important. And if Sanders or Brown looks ready to go, than it might make more sense to get them live game exposure over the 29-year old Battle, who's demonstrated over his career that he's not much more than a complimentary No. 3/4 type option. Battle does however possess above average special teams acumen, so there's definitely a way for him to carve out a niche on the squad without being a regular part of the rotation at WR. In fact, if he shows himself nicely on ST during camp and the preseason, he may just bump Sanders or Brown to the practice squad for the time being.
- Tyler Grisham - Running long here, but Grisham emerged out of nowhere to earn a helmet as a reserve WR during the later stages of last year. The former Clemson product hauled in one pass for 14 yards. Consider him in the mix once more for a No. 5 type role. More likely though he heads to the practice squad.
- Brandon London - London survived the first round of cuts this spring and could actually shock Steeler Nation by making the squad if he had a monster camp. He's the tallest WR on the depth chart at 6'4", and could establish himself as one of the WR corps' best redzone threats.