The Wide Receiver position was somewhat of a question mark heading into 2006. Nobody was pleased to see Antwaan Randle-El go, especially after his incredible play in last year's playoffs. We all knew we'd miss the spark (and dependability) he brought to special teams, but, we also knew he was somewhat limited as a #2 receiver.
We were cautiously optimistic that Nate Washington (who we kept hearing wonderful things about in training camp), Santonio Holmes, Cedrick Wilson, and perhaps even Willie Reid (he did play well in preseason after all)would fill the void left by Randle-El's departure.
And while the group improved over the course of the season, no one player had a big year, and all but Hines Ward struggled significantly at one point or another.
The preseason hamstring injury to Hines Ward disrupted our offensive flow early in the season. It was easy to forget that Ward was injured because you never hear him complaining. He simply goes out on Sundays and gives maximum effort no matter the circumstances. We truly are fortunate he's a Steeler, and like Cowher, I'll have a hard time believing he's not there when he finally does move on or retire.
Ward finished the year with 74 catches in just 14 games. He had 975 receiving yards and 6 TDs. His receiving yardage was coincidentally the exact same as his 2005 totals. I still believe Ward is one of the best YAC receivers in the NFL. After making a catch, Ward typically finds a way to pick up tough extra yards, and is quick enough to go the distance if he makes a man or two miss in the secondary. He came up huge in the 2nd Cleveland game. In fact, his efforts in the 4th quarter were largely responsible for us even having a shot at the playoffs down the stretch. But, even Ward had his struggles this year. In the Denver game, Ward fumbled at the half-yard line trying to dive over the top of John Lynch for a score.
Hines wasn't the question mark heading into this year though. We were all perfectly happy with him as our #1 guy; the question was who would play beside him? Was Cedrick Wilson ready to become a bonafide #2 option? Could Santonio Holmes get ready to play quick enough to become a consistent threat? What about Nate Washington? Could the little man from Tiffin College really duplicate what he was doing in practice during actual games?
Throughout the season, these questions were only partly answered. At times, Wilson did look like a legitimate #2 receiver. At other times, he looked terrible, and deserving of only several looks in a 5-WR package. Wilson did average 17.8 yards per catch , which was tops on the team, but he dropped passes, was not very physical (especially in the running game), and really didn't cause opposing defenses to really plan for him whatsoever. Hopefully Santonio Holmes will continue his development this offseason and will relegate Wilson to his more natural position as a #3 or #4 option next year.
Speaking of Santonio, many categorized Holmes as a bust halfway through this year. He did struggle early, that's undeniable. But by the time it was all said and done, Holmes turned in a fairly solid rookie campaign. He finished the year with the second most catches on the Steelers with 49. His 824 yards were also 2nd best, as was his 16.8 yards per catch. Holmes made a couple of errors playing special teams, before eventually proving why he was put back there to return punts in Week 15 when he ran one back 64 yards for a score against Carolina.
I'm excited about Holmes' future in Pittsburgh. He came into camp with a bit of a chip on his shoulder; perhaps a minor case of `I'm too cool and talented to work hard' Syndrome. That disappeared. It also took awhile for Big Ben to adjust to Holmes' deceptive speed. Big Ben said so himself on multiple occasions. Throw in the fact that Roeth was in-and-out of training camp and the lineup and you can understand why it took some time for Santonio to make a significant impact. The important thing though is that they did mesh towards the end of the season. If we're going to be an explosive offense in 2007, it's imperative Holmes takes an even bigger step forward this offseason. Fingers crossed here.
Our review of the 2006 receiving corps ends with Nate Washington. Like so many of the Steelers, Washington too had his ups and downs. He dropped a critical touchdown against the Bengals, yet made big plays at other times throughout the season. It was his first full season as a professional, so it's to be expected I suppose that he had his peaks and valleys. Washington falls somewhere between Wilson and Holmes in my mind. On the one hand, I'm convinced Washington has more upside than Wilson. On the other hand, his ceiling seems to be a bit lower than Holmes'. So, the question is whether or not he can be consistent enough for us to keep him around. I think he can, but it's no slam dunk. He seems like a good kid, and he's obviously had to work his butt off to get from Tiffin College to Heinz Field, but can he take the next step? Can he emulate his spectacular practice peformances on Sundays?
Let's see what happens next year if Ward can start the year healthy; if Washington and Holmes can continue to get in synch with a healthy Roethlisberger this season. Will these guys be able to adjust to a new offensive scheme with the departure of Cowher and Whisenhunt? Ward is still in his prime, albeit the backend of it, Holmes and Washington should be even better with a summer of practice and film under their belt, and who knows who we may bring in to play along side these guys. 2007 will begin with plenty of questions in the WR department...much like this year.