Because sooner or later, we’ll all be trying to predict the final 53…
Likely Roster Spots: 5-6
Projected Starters: Hines Ward, Mike Wallace
Key Training Camp Battles: Antwaan Randle El vs. Emmanuel Sanders for No. 3 WR; Antonio Brown vs. players from other positions for spot on 53-man roster.
Projected for 53-Man Roster: (6) Ward, Wallace, Randle El, Aranz Battle, Sanders, Brown
Analysis: Is Hines Ward ever going to start showing his age? Despite probably putting more wear-and-tear on his body than any receiver in modern NFL history, the 34-year-old Ward is coming off a 2009 season in which he recorded a team-high 95 receptions for 1,167 yards and 6 TDs.
But Ward’s contributions are far more than just the consistent production he provides in statistics, where he owns nearly every Steeler receiving record over Hall of Famers Lynn Swann and John Stallworth. Ward is undoubtedly the finest blocking and most physical wide out in the NFL.
Over the last two years, the Steelers have also used Ward often as an H-back in motion, who is assigned to block defensive ends and linebackers. Somehow, the 6-foot, 205-pound University of Georgia graduate regularly seals off defenders who occasionally are 5 inches taller and outweigh him by up to 60 pounds.
If Ward is not inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his first two years of eligibility, the pompous old fools who dominate the PFWA Hall of Fame-voting block should be publicly tarred and feathered. He is the epitome of a complete football player.
At this stage, though, Ward is no longer physically able to be a No. 1 receiver. Much of his success in 2009 came from the emergence of Santonio Holmes as a legitimate, all-star receiver.
Before the Steelers ridiculously gave away Holmes this offseason for a 5th-round pick from the Jets due to his off-field problems, Holmes was the Steelers’ top playmaker in the 2008 NFL playoffs and Super Bowl XLIII, followed up by his recording 79 catches for a team-high 1,248 yards in 2009. That marked the most receiving yards by any Steelers since Ward in 2002.
Even more difficult to replace than Holmes’ production was that he was Ben Roethlisberger’s top target when plays broke down and the Steelers’ offense turned into sandlot football, where both Roethlisberger and Holmes are at their best. The two were regularly in sync.
Now, second-year speedster Mike Wallace steps into Holmes’ role after a splendid rookie season in which he caught 39 passes for 756 yards and 6 TDs, while compiling an amazing 19.4-yards per reception average.
Wallace has all the skills to be a dominant No. 1 receiver in 2010. But does he have the instincts and big-play capabilities of Holmes in crunch time? Time will tell, but Steeler fans are justifiably optimistic about Wallace’s potential as shown by J.J. in this analysis.
The bigger concern for offensive coordinator Bruce Arians will be in replacing Wallace and the downfield, athletic threat he offered as the No. 3 receiver. The favorite to assume the No. 3 receiver is Antwaan Randle El, who returned to Pittsburgh this offseason after four unimpressive seasons in Washington, where he showed he is not a starting-caliber receiver in the NFL despite being paid as one by the free-spending Redskins.
Randle El, however, was a very good No. 3 receiver in Pittsburgh and was a serviceable No. 2 starter on the 2005 Super Bowl championship squad. The problem is that Randle El, who will turn 31 before opening day, was never a speed-burner and has lost a step since his time in the Steel City.
Randle El and Ward are both most comfortable running short and intermediate routes, and those areas may be more clogged this season with opponents stacking the box, since the Steelers offensive line should be worse without Willie Colon and Pittsburgh now only has one downfield threat in Wallace, as opposed to two last season with Holmes and Wallace.
Therefore, there is a chance that the rookie Emmanuel Sanders could replace El as the No. 3 receiver, although that likely would not happen until later in the season. Steeler fans should be elated if Sanders is able to beat out Randle El, because Randle El is a solid, dependable veteran. In other words, the 3rd-round pick would have to be very impressive for the veteran-friendly Steeler coaches to play him over Randle El.
Sanders tallied huge numbers in SMU’s run-and-shoot-offense. However, he worked primarily out of the slot the last two years. Any playing time he earns in Pittsburgh this fall will have to be as an outside receiver, although he has plenty of speed to play that spot.
But if Sanders does not win the No. 3 receiver job, he may not dress on gamedays. Rookie 6th-round pick Antonio Brown appears to have more qualifications as a return specialist and will likely battle Stefan Logan for those duties, although Sanders will also be given a chance at kick returns as well. If Brown dresses, Sanders will likely be in street clothes on game day, assuming everyone is healthy.
Brown was also very impressive in the Steelers’ OTAs this offseason, although he lacks the homerun speed of Sanders. Brown will have to continue to play well in fall camp to secure a roster spot and may not make the team if he does not showcase himself as a viable return man. However, he is favored to make the team, particularly after his strong showings in the OTAs.
One guy who will make the team and dress on game days is Aranz Battle, a solid veteran free agent from the 49ers who excels on special teams and has shown himself to be a serviceable option at receiver, although one lacking in downfield speed. Battle’s ability to play multiple special teams, including as a gunner on punts, should enable the Steelers to dress five receivers on gamedays, something the Steelers have rarely done in the past.
If Wallace emerges as a true No. 1 receiver, this unit has the potential, depth, and a nice mix of veterans and youngsters to be one of the league’s better receiving corps. But it could have been the league’s best with Holmes.