Sunday, February 11, 2007

Getting Draft Ready -- Assessing the
Wide Receivers

In 2006 the Steelers' passing game grew by nearly 23% over the previous season (2006: 4,026 receiving yards, 2005: 3,104), and for the first time since 2001 the top four pass catchers on the team were all wide receivers. So as is the case with the team's running backs, the wide receiver corp would also appear to be an area of strength for the 2007 Steelers.

Leading the way again next season will be Hines Ward; and though his touchdowns in 2006 were nearly half of his total in 2005 (6 v. 11), has not had a 1,000 yard season receving since 2004, will turn 31-years old early next month, andhis salary cap number will be $5,918,000 (and escalates from there in 2008 and 2009) Mr. Ward is every bit the heart and soul of the Steelers as Jerome Bettis was in their most recent Super Bowl season.

The second leading receiver in 2006 was rookie Santonio Holmes, and the magnitude of that achievement cannot be overstated, especially considering the tempestuous period between his selection by the Steelers in last year's draft and the beginning of training camp. After a slow start (i.e. 5 receptions for 73 yards in the team's first four games) Mr. Holmes came up strong as the season progressed -- his yardage per catch improved by nearly four yards per catch over the final eight games of the season as opposed to the first eight -- becoming the first #2 receiver on the Steelers to accumulate more than 800 yards receiving since Plaxico Burress did so in 2003.

Cedric Wilson was #3 in receiving on the team, after being #4 in 2005. Despite the improvement in standing his receiving yardage increased by only 53 yards (459 v. 504); and the view from here is that his production so far into his tenure with the Steelers does not justify the $2,900,000 salary cap hit that the team will take if he is retained for 2007, especially considering that -- despite his late season foot injury -- Willie Reid is waiting in the wings.

Finally, at the #4 receiving spot was Nate Washington. Considering that Mr. Washington has one career catch coming into 2006 it is dificult to judge 2006 as anything but a success -- 35 catches for 624 yards is a good first season (inconsistent though he may have been). Mr. Washington, who was a bargain last season at $350,000, is a restricted free agent.

Continuity amongst the skill position players is one important factor in offensive success. For example, the more time together a quarterback and his receivers have the more effective the passing game will be. The view here was that some of Ben Roethlisberger's struggles during the first half of the season were the result of miscommunication(s)/misunderstanding(s) between the quarterback and his young receivers (combined with double coverage for Hines Ward). While Cedric Wilson may be vulnerable to being released, as the result of his high cap figure (relative to his performance), it appears that another season with the same group of receivers will certainly serve the Steelers well.

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