Picking a Wideout Would Be Nice, But Not Necessary

It happens every year and the weeks and months leading up to the 2011 NFL Draft is no different; there has been a lot of discussion about where the Steelers’ needs are the greatest. It may be cornerback (especially with Ike Taylor slated to be a free agent) or you could argue offensive tackle (especially considering the situation for 2012).

I haven’t seen anyone claim that wide receiver is the Steelers’ biggest need, but I have seen several writers state that it is one of Pittsburgh’s main secondary needs. Most recently, Michael Bean, the editor of Behind The Steel Curtain, made that point in a post Tuesday morning.

What about ’12 and beyond? Hines Ward is the man, my favorite player, a guy who might still catch 60-70 balls when he’s 36-38 years old. But he might also hit a wall here in ’11 or ’12 and be approaching the twilight of his career. Then what? That leaves us with three guys all under 6′ — Wallace, Sanders, and Brown . . . The Steelers are going to have to invest heavily in a blue chip talent at WR at some point in the near future. They’ve got great weapons as is, but will all the parts compliment each other if Hines Ward isn’t in the equation?

I in no way mean it as a personal criticism of Bean, who I think does excellent work. But in this case, I can’t agree.

Could the Steelers use another mid-round wide receiver, with the hope of landing a sleeper? Absolutely. But I’d argue that the Steelers are in as good a shape at wide receiver as they have been in years.

In Hines Ward, Pittsburgh has the most productive receiver in team history. But if we’re talking about 2012 and beyond, lets not even include him in this discussion. There’s always a chance that Ward could retire after the 2011 season (hopefully after hoisting his third Lombardi Trophy).

But that would still leave Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown (as well as the ever-present hope of a Limas Sweed turnaround). Yes, none of them are taller than 6-0, as Bean notes. But this includes Hines Ward, so it’s not like losing Ward will make the Steelers’ shorter. Santonio Holmes is 5-foot-10, but that didn’t make the Cardinals’ job any easier in Super Bowl XLIII.

Pittsburgh has had two successful receivers taller than 6-foot in the past decade: Plaxico Burress and Nate Washington. The Steelers have succeeded with a slew of smaller receivers (Ward, Randle El, Bobby Shaw, Cedrick Wilson, Sanders, and Holmes, f0r example).

As much as we may all love big receivers, we’ve covered here at the Lounge before how it really is a false expectation. Yes, if you can land Andre Johnson, Calvin Johnson or a Larry Fitzgerald in the draft, you snag them. But there’s a common thread for big, tall and fast receivers — you often have to draft them early in the first round.

As you fall further down the draft list, you often get big and tall but slow (think Walter Young) or big and tall but with hands of stone (think Limas Sweed). And as Ryan Wilson’s study showed, there was no significant correlation between size and success among wide receivers in 2010.

So the second question really revolves around whether you believe Emmanuel Sanders or Antonio Brown can develop into a solid No. 2 receiver.

No one can fully predict how Sanders and Brown’s careers will turn out, but I will argue that everything we’ve seen up to now would appear to indicate that Sanders will eventually be a successful starter for the Steelers.

A year ago, the same questions were being asked about Mike Wallace, coming off of an outstanding rookie season as the Steelers’ No. 3 receiver. Wallace was much easier to project as a starter — he was a devastating deep threat as a rookie — and despite his status as a No. 3 receiver, he had spent the entire season largely beating starting cornerbacks (even if that wasn’t always apparent to everyone).

I haven’t gone back and charted every pass thrown to Sanders (yet) like I did Wallace last year. But I have spot checked it. Sanders did face more nickel and dime backs than Wallace because he did line up in the slot at times. But like last year, a lot of Ward’s success came against slot corners as well – -if you work over the middle, you’re more likely to be beating linebackers and nickel backs than the receivers that work near the sidelines.

But whoever he faced, Sanders was productive. He didn’t really become a regular part of the offense until midseason (he played 41 snaps in the first eight games), but from the day he passed Randle El to be the team’s No. 3 receiver, Sanders became one of Ben Roethlisberger’s most reliable targets. Five times Roethlisberger looked for Sanders on third and 11 or more. On all five times Sanders converted for a first down. In the final eight regular season games (when he moved up to No. 3 receiver), Sanders had 24 catches for 300 yards.

Among Steelers rookie receivers since 1990, Sanders ranks seventh in catches (28) and yards (376). By comparison, Burress ranks eighth, Ward ninth. In fact, of the top nine Steelers rookie receivers (everyone with 200+ yards), Troy Edwards and Bobby Shaw were the only ones who did not develop into productive starters.

So statistically, Sanders passes the smell test. His performance as a rookie offers signs that he can get open against NFL defenses (five third-and-long conversions come against defenses geared to stop the pass). But what about physically, does he have the tools to become a starter?

Physically, the knock on Sanders coming out of college was that he may not be physical enough to handle cornerbacks who jam him at the line. The Steelers’ use of stack and bunch formations helps alleviate that concern, because it’s nearly impossible to play bump and run in those situations. But Sanders actually proved to also be more physical than expected, as well as a willing blocker (by my tape review, he was Pittsburgh’s second best blocking receiver behind Ward).

But does he have the speed? Sanders’ 13.4 yards per catch average wasn’t bad on a team that already had Wallace as the main deep threat. He projects more as an intermediate route runner (which makes sense since he’s Ward’s eventual replacement), but it’s also worth remembering that Sanders turned in the third fastest 40-yard dash time among wide receivers at the 2010 NFL combine.

Add it up and there is no reason to think Sanders won’t eventually supplant Ward. If he can handle that job then Pittsburgh is already in good shape. It also means that, down the line, Antonio Brown only has to step into the No. 3 receiver role. He showed signs of being capable of handling that role last year, but even if he falls flat, it’s easy to fill a need at No. 3 receiver. For one, the ranks of veteran receivers willing to step in on the cheap to that role (think Randle El, Wilson, Courtney Hawkins) is often long, especially if you are considered a playoff team. And No. 3 receivers are also much easier to find in the draft than starters — Nate Washington was an undrafted free agent, Bobby Shaw was a waiver pickup, Sanders was a third-round pick.

So while I would be happy to see Pittsburgh take a mid-round receiver this weekend, it’s because he could eventually be a solid contributor. The Steelers already have Hines Ward’s replacement on the roster.

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  • Cols714

    Why fans feel the constant need to draft big tall receivers is beyond me. We’ve been having this same conversation since Burress left.

    This feels like the Matt Kranchick and Jason Capizzi conversations all over again.

  • http://www.google.com/profiles/100857546184516732260 Dr Obvious

    I generally agree. Some combination of good scouting and good coaching (I think it’s Arians, personally) has given us depth at WR without having to spend more than a 3rd rounder. Why waste a first or second rounder when you don’t need to.

  • Steel_bull

    Totally agree. Think Sanders is total underrated. He seems to have the best timing with Ben as well. When Ben got the ball out quickly it was usually going to Sanders. Which meant he was either getting open early in his routes or Ben trusted his route running. I want to see him and Ben after a training camp with the starters.

  • Behindthesteelcurtain

    Good article JJ. Liked your point about trips/bunch formations helping alleviate concerns about Sanders getting jammed. I will say though that those concerns about his physicality at the line of scrimmage really showed up in the SB — with Mike Wallace as well.

    Anyway, I’d also say that I’m not advocating for a 6’4″ type guy necessarily, just someone who’s over 6′ and a more dangerous red zone weapon.

  • t1mmy10

    nice article & great job on finding some interesting research