This is part 5 in our position-by-position review of the 2011 Pittsburgh Steelers. If you haven’t read the previous installments, please click below:
If you haven’t read Part 1 (offensive tackles), click here.
If you haven’t read Part 2 (guards), click here.
If you haven’t read Part 3 (centers), click here.
If you haven’t read Part 4 (tight ends), click here.
Today we will be looking at the Steelers’ wide receivers.
The wide receivers emerged as arguably the Steelers’ greatest strength in 2011. The Steelers have always been known for having great linebackers, but the current crop of wide receivers may actually outshine the linebackers. In fact, they may be the most talented group of wide receivers in the NFL.
What other team can boast two 1,000 yard receivers, a future Hall-of-Famer, another young wide receiver who has the potential to be a 1,000 yard receiver, and a veteran receiver who would start on some NFL teams? That’s exactly what the Steelers have on their wide receiving corps.
Let’s take a look at them individually, starting with…….
Going into the year, we knew that Mike Wallace was going to have a great season. He had already established himself as one of the fastest wide receivers in the NFL, and he was building great chemistry with Ben Roethlisberger. By the end of the 2010 season, Wallace had already become Big Ben’s favorite target.
Wallace had another 1,000 yard season in 2011, and he is a player who should play a significant role in the Steelers’ future. The only problem is that Wallace is a restricted free agent this season. Because of his incredible speed, Wallace will draw a lot of attention as a free agent. The Steelers have said that signing him to a long-term contract is one of their highest priorities. However, doing so is going to be expensive, and the Steelers are already over the salary cap.
The Steelers could slap the franchise tag on Wallace, but that will cost them almost $14 million. So that’s not a very appealing option. So the team has to hope that they can get even more veteran players to restructure their contracts. LaMarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons have already restructured theirs. But the team will need to find far more money than that.
Antonio Brown came into training camp as the #4 receiver on the depth chart. Hines Ward and Mike Wallace were established veteran starters, and Emmanuel Sanders had performed better than him during the previous season and was #3 on the depth chart. But injuries among the wide receivers made Antonio Brown the primary wide receiver during the preseason.
By mid-season, Brown had supplanted Mike Wallace as Big Ben’s favorite target. In fact, for long stretches it seemed like Roethlisberger had forgotten that Mike Wallace was even on the team. That speaks volumes about how much talent Brown has.
Brown is probably the Steelers’ most talented receiver when it comes to gaining yards after the catch. It’s those running skills that also made Brown a Pro Bowl kick returner.
Did I mention that Brown’s teammates voted him the team’s MVP? Pretty impressive for a young guy. I think this kid has a future with the team.
Hines Ward is clearly one of the all-time Pittsburgh Steelers. He holds just about every receiving record, and he’s basically been the face of the franchise since Jerome Bettis retired. Ward’s place is Steelers lore is assured.
However, Ward is no longer the most talented receiver on the Steelers’ roster. After a brilliant career 14 year career, Ward will be 36 years old during the 2012 season. By NFL standards, that’s ancient. Moreover, Ward ended the 2011 season as the #5 wide receiver on the depth chart. Even Jericho Cotchery had surpassed Ward.
Ward’s current contract pays him too much money to be a #5 wide receiver. Moreover, a #5 wide receiver would have to play special teams, and it would be insulting to Ward to ask him to do that.
Ward has said that he wants to play another season for the Steelers, and that he’s willing to play for the league minimum for veterans. But frankly, I don’t want to see Ward do that. I love and respect Hines too much to see him sitting the bench behind younger, faster, wide receivers.
2011 was basically a lost season for Emmanuel Sanders. He struggled with injuries, and was only a shadow of the player that we saw in 2010. Unlike Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown, Sanders isn’t a speedster. He’s more quick than fast. He specializes on finding gaps in the defense. That makes him an ideal slot receiver.
Sanders’ future is going to depend largely on how successful he can be at remaining healthy. But if he can put the foot injuries behind him, then he will be a part of one of the most dynamic receiving trios in Steelers history.
Cotchery ended the 2011 season as the #4 wide receiver on the Steelers’ depth chart. Cotchery is an unrestricted free agent, and I would assume that he’d like to be a starter. That’s just not going to happen with the Steelers.
I really liked what I saw from Cotchery last year. He didn’t really get much playing time until the second half of the season. But once he did, he showed that he could be a reliable target for Big Ben.
I’d love to see Cotchery return to the Steelers in 2012. However, I doubt that’s going to happen.