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Steelers wide receiver update

August 19, 2010 By: Admin Category: training camp

Training camp is starting to wind down, so it’s time to start reviewing what I’ve seen here at St. Vincent College.

Most Steelers fans thought that the wide receiver position was going to be a glaring weakness for the team after the loss of Santonio Holmes.  But surprisingly, I think that the exact opposite is true.  In my opinion, the wide receiver position is going to be one of the team’s greatest strengths this year.

Don’t get me wrong.  The loss of Santonio Holmes definitely hurts.  Holmes was our best receiver after the catch last year.  Holmes was the receiver who was the most elusive after getting the ball in his hands.  Holmes also seemed to be the receiver who worked best with Ben Roethlisberger when Big Ben was scrambling and playing “sandlot football”.

But the Steelers drafted two receivers in the NFL Draft, and then they brought in several free agents, and suddenly, a weakness is looking like a strength.  In fact, I think that this is the position that is going to give coaches the most difficult time when it comes time to decide who will make the final 53-man roster.

Let’s look at the receivers.

Hines Ward - Everyone knows who Hines Ward is.  He holds just about every Steelers receiving record.  This will be Ward’s 13th season in the NFL.  James Farrior is the only Steelers player who has been in the league longer.  However, Ward’s game has never depended on speed or athleticism, so age seems to affect him less than it would other receivers.  Ward will probably lead the team in receiving this year too.

Mike Wallace - This is the player that I am more excited about than anyone else on the Steelers’ roster.  Wallace was amazing last year.  And Santonio Holmes’ departure will mean even more opportunities for Wallace.  Wallace led the entire NFL in yards/catch.  That’s pretty good for a rookie.  Oh yeah, and he also had more touchdowns than a certain receiver who now plays for the NY Jets.  Santonio who?

Wallace was able to rely strictly on his speed last year, since he was typically facing the opposition’s #3 cornerback.  This year, he will be facing the opponent’s top cornerback, so he is going to have to be much more precise in his route running and in his receiving technique.  Wallace has been focusing on this throughout training camp.

Antwaan Randle El - Like Santonio Holmes, Randle El is best remembered for one heroic play in a Steelers’ Super Bowl victory.  But aside from that one play, Randle El’s career as a wide receiver has been rather ordinary.  He has never come close to having 1,000 receiving yards in a season.  He has never scored more than 4 touchdowns in a season.  Last season, he didn’t score a single touchdown despite playing in all 16 games for the Redskins.

When they signed him, I was pretty certain that Randle El was going to be the #3 receiver for the Steelers this season.  But now, after watching all of the receivers in training camp, I am not 100% certain that Randle El will make the final 53-man roster.

Tyler Grisham - I was probably the biggest advocate of Tyler Grisham last season.  I was the first media outlet to write about him.  Moreover, I predicted that the Steelers would keep him on the practice squad before most people had even heard of him.

Tyler Grisham at training camp.

Grisham is still the same gritty, “give it 110%” player that I saw last year.  However, the Steelers have so much talent at wide receiver this year, that I don’t think Grisham has any chance of making the team.  He may be kept on the practice squad like he was last year.  But the Steelers have some VERY TALENTED young players in training camp.  I just don’t see Grisham being able to beat them out for a roster spot.

Emmanuel Sanders - This kid has been the star of Steelers Training Camp.  Take my word for it.  He’s good.  Very good.  If you didn’t read my review of him following the NFL Draft, please click here.

Emmanuel Sanders lines up.

Sanders is both fast and quick.  He has great hands, and he has a knack for getting open.  The impressive thing is that I have seen him catch quite a few passes from Ben Roethlisberger and Byron Leftwich during training camp.  That means that the coaches have been playing him with the first team at times.  Not many rookies get that opportunity.  If I were picking the Steelers’ final roster right now, I would take Emmanuel Sanders ahead of Antwaan Randle El.

Isaiah Williams - Williams is the only wide receiver on the Steelers roster who did not play in the preseason game against the Detroit Lions.  That probably says a lot.  I have been impressed by Williams during training camp.  However, there is so much talent at the wide receiver position, that he has just not been able to separate himself from the crowd.  Sorry Isaiah, but you chose the wrong year to be in Steelers Training Camp.

Brandon London - This kid has been the Tyler Grisham of this year’s training camp.  He has played with incredible consistency.  He’s not the fastest receiver on the field, but he is clearly the tallest wide receiver in training camp.  At 6’4″, he towers over all of the other receivers.  And we all know that Big Ben prefers tall receivers, so this may work in London’s favor.

I really like what I’ve seen from London.  But I don’t think that he’s done enough to beat out all of the competition at his position.  He’s too good to simply let him go, but he’s not quite ready for prime time.  I’m going to predict that the Steelers will keep him on the practice squad.  However, because this is technically London’s 3rd year in the league (he was on the Miami Dolphin’s roster in 2008, but was out of the league in 2009), I will have to check the rules to see if he is eligible for the practice squad.

Arnaz Battle - Arnaz Battle’s primary value to the Steelers is as a special teams player.  However, fans got to see what Battle can do as a receiver in the preseason game against the Lions.  Battle caught a 51 yard reception that definitely caught the attention of Steelers fans.

Fans tend to get overly excited about individual plays that are made during preseason.  So to bring them back to earth, I have to mention that this is Battle’s 8th season in the NFL.  He spent the last 7 years with the San Francisco 49ers.  He is a seasoned veteran, but his best years are behind him.

Antonio Brown - Like Emmanuel Sanders, this rookie has been lighting it up at Steelers Training Camp.  I don’t think that he is a well-regarded as Sanders is, because I have rarely seen him practicing on the same unit as Ben Roethlisberger.  Instead, Brown almost always practices with Dennis Dixon.  But this may work to his advantage.  Brown has clearly become Dennis Dixon’s favorite target.  And with the impressive showing that Dixon had against the Lions, there is a possibility that Dixon may actually be the starting quarterback for the Steelers’ first 4 games.  If that is the case, then being his favorite receiver should work in Brown’s favor.

Antonio Brown works with Dennis Dixon.

If you didn’t read my review of Antonio Brown following the NFL Draft, please click here.

As I said earlier, the Steelers are going to have a lot of talent at wide receiver this year.  However, they are not going to have a lot of experience at the position.  It should be interesting.  Stay tuned.


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Wallace is our man

November 12, 2009 By: Admin Category: Players

Steelers rookie wide receiver Mike Wallace wasn’t drafted until the third round of the 2009 NFL draft.  He was actually the 10th wide receiver taken in the draft.  That’s right, 10th!  I’ll bet a lot of NFL general managers wish they could have a “do over”.

If you listen to NFL analysts, you’d think that Minnesota’s rookie wide receiver Percy Harvin was the runaway star of the wide receiver class of 2009.  In fact, by listening to them, you’d think that Harvin was the ONLY member of the class.

Admittedly, Harvin has been pretty good in the kick return game.  He has 860 return yards, and is leading all rookies by a long way.  But if we eliminate kick returns and look exclusively at their production as wide receivers, I’d argue that Wallace has been the best in the class so far.  Wallace is in the top 5 in almost all statistical categories among rookie receivers, and he leads in many of them.

Steelers WR Mike Wallace

Steelers rookie WR Mike Wallace

Wallace is tied for 4th in total number of receptions.

Name Team Receptions
Austin Collie IND 32
Percy Harvin MIN 28
Johnny Knox CHI 28
Jeremy Maclin PHI 25
Mike Wallace PIT 25

A more important statistic, in my opinion, is receiving yardage. That statistic shows how effective the receiver has been in actually moving the ball down the field. In this area, Mike Wallace is tops among rookie receivers.

Name Team Yards
Mike Wallace PIT 437
Hakeem Nicks NYG 407
Percy Harvin MIN 369
Austin Collie IND 356
Johnny Knox CHI 340

The reason Wallace has been able to accumulate so many yards is not primarily due to his number of receptions. Rather it is how effective he has been at getting LONG receptions.

To put it simply, Wallace has been much more effective than his rookie peers at burning NFL cornerbacks for long gains.  I projected that this would be the case coming out of Steelers training camp after watching Wallace burn Steelers cornerbacks just about every day.

Wallace leads all rookie wide receivers in receptions of 20 yards or more.

Name Team 20+ yards
Mike Wallace PIT 9
Hakeem Nicks NYG 6
Percy Harvin MIN 6
Mohamed Mossaquoi CLE 6
Jeremy Maclin PHI 4

In fact, Wallace is tied for third in the entire NFL in receptions of 20 yards or more.  That’s pretty impressive for a rookie.

Wallace is also tied With Jeremy Maclin and Percy Harvin for second in touchdowns among rookie wide receiver with 3. The key difference is that Maclin and Harvin were both 1st round draft picks, while Wallace was a 3rd rounder.

Noticeably absent from all of these lists of rookie statistical leaders is Darius Heyward-Bey, the first wide receiver selected in the draft.  Heyward-Bey has accumulated a whopping 5 receptions for a total of 74 yards.  Way to go, Al Davis!

Mike Wallace has already shown himself to be as good as any rookie wide receiver from the 2009 draft.  His statistics prove that.  He is just another example of the superior scouting of Kevin Colbert and the Steelers organization.

Steeler Nation already knows how good Mike Wallace is.  I just wish that NFL analysts and other “experts” would come to the same realization.  When they do, Mike Wallace will start being included in the discussions about potential  offensive rookie of the year award winners.

Percy Harvin may ultimately win the award, but Mike Wallace won’t make it easy on him.


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Steelers Training Camp: Wide Receivers

August 15, 2009 By: Admin Category: training camp

August 15, 2009
By Donald Starver

This is Part 7 in a series.  If you haven’t read the previous installments, please click below:

Part 1:  Defensive linemen

Part 2:  Linebackers

Part 3:  Safeties

Part 4: Cornerbacks

Part 5: Quarterbacks

Part 6: Running backs

The wide receiver battle is probably the most intriguing story at Steelers training camp.  The Steelers have a good mix of high draft picks, veteran free agents, and undrafted free agents all battling to make the 53-man roster.  Regardless of who makes the team, I think it is safe to say that Big Ben is going to have some pretty exciting weapons at his disposal.

No other team can boast having two Super Bowl MVPs at wide receiver.  Yet that is exactly what the Steelers have in Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes.  Their contribution to the team is well-documented, and their places on the roster are guaranteed.  So we really don’t need to spend much time talking about those two.  The real question is “who will take up the other wide receiver roster slots?”

Since becoming Steelers head coach, Mike Tomlin has always carried 5 wide receivers on the Steelers’ roster.  Thus, I am going to assume that 5 is the number of wide receivers that Tomlin is looking for in training camp.

Let’s take a look at all of the wide receiver candidates and see if we can predict who will make the final roster.

Hines Ward- As we mentioned earlier, the jaw breaker’s roster spot is guaranteed.  He’s the Steelers’ all-time leading receiver.  He’s a multi-time Pro Bowl participant.  He’s the best blocking wide receiver in the NFL.  He’s clearly a leader on the team, and has the respect of his teammates.  And he probably personifies what the Pittsburgh Steelers are all about better than any other current player.

Santonio Holmes- Everybody remembers that final catch in the Super Bowl.  However, it was Santonio’s earlier catches, and his yards after the catch that put the Steelers in the position to be able to pull out a last second win.  That Super Bowl performance will define Holmes for the rest of his career.  His elevated status is already evident at Steelers training camp where the fans cheer any time Holmes makes a catch.  Like Ward, Holmes doesn’t have to worry about making the roster.

Limas Sweed- After getting few chances to make plays during the regular season, Limas Sweed blew his first big opportunity when he dropped a critical pass in the AFC Championship game against Baltimore last year.  That play, along with the fact that he faked an injury afterwards, made many Steelers fans lose faith in Sweed.

Academy award winning performance.

Academy award winning performance.

Fortunately, Sweed has used that as motivation, and has had a very impressive training camp so far.  Moreover, he had two nice catches in the Steelers’ pre-season win over the Arizona Cardinals.

Sweed is a big, fast receiver who is in the mold that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger seems to like.  Roethlisberger actively lobbied for a tall receiver, and the Steelers answered him by drafting Sweed.  At 6’4″, Sweed is an easy target for Roethlisberger.  Sweed is the favorite to win the #3 receiver position that was vacated by Nate Washington when he signed with the Tennessee Titans.

Shaun McDonald- Because they were uncertain of what they had in Limas Sweed, the Steelers brought in Shaun McDonald to add an experienced veteran to the wide receiver competition.  McDonald led the Detroit Lions with 79 receptions for 943 yards in 2007.  McDonald lost his position as the Lions’ primary receiving target when they drafted super-human receiver Calvin Johnson.  However, that doesn’t negate the fact that McDonald is a proven NFL receiver.

McDonald has looked consistent but unspectacular so far in Steelers training camp.  But isn’t that exactly what a team needs from their #3 receiver?  After all, if he were spectacular, he would be the #1 or #2 receiver.  When you add in the fact that he can also return punts, I believe that gives McDonald a good chance of making the team.

Dallas Baker- “The touchdown maker” has been anything but since joining the Steelers.  He has scored a grand total of zero touchdowns for the black and gold.  At 6’3″, Baker is a big receiver, so that is a plus.  However, he just hasn’t done anything to catapult himself onto the roster.  Baker spent 2008 on the practice squad, so that says that the Steelers’ coaches believe he has potential.  He has an outside chance of winning the #5 receiver spot, but I don’t foresee that happening.

Touchdown maker?

Touchdown maker?

Martin Nance- At 6’3″, Martin Nance is another big receiver.  He was Ben Roethlisberger’s favorite receiver at Miami of Ohio, so that relationship is probably why he is in Steelers training camp in the first place.  Nance has been very inconsistent in my opinion, and has dropped far too many passes at training camp.  While he is big, he is not particularly fast, and doesn’t get good separation.  He will not make the team.

Steven Black- Going into Steelers training camp I had never heard of the rookie wide receiver from Memphis.  He is 6’3″ and is another big target.  He has caught my attention a few times at training camp.  He has good hands, and is willing to dive for the ball.  However, with all of the competition at WR this year, he has little chance of making the team.

Brandon Williams- Williams is another experienced receiver that the Steelers brought into training camp.  The 3rd year player has been with both the St. Louis Rams and the San Francisco 49ers.  He has never caught a pass in the NFL, and unless an asteroid falls to Earth and kills all of the other wide receivers in training camp, he won’t be catching any for the Steelers this year either.

Tyler Grisham - This kid caught my eyes on the second day of training camp.  I first noticed him because he was so small compared to the other receivers.  But by the end of camp, I was asking “who is that little white guy who keeps diving all over the field catching everything that comes his way?”  When he started putting hard blocks on people, he really caught my eyes.  Some people have said that he reminds them of Wes Welker, but he reminds me of another wide receiver who isn’t big enough, or fast enough, but who is willing to block and manages to catch everything that’s thrown his way.  Has anyone ever heard of a guy named Hines Ward?

Grisham won’t make the team, but this rookie from Clemson has done himself proud in his time at Steelers training camp.  I won’t be the least bit surprised if he makes the Steelers’ practice squad.

Mike Wallace - You probably thought that I forgot about the 3rd round pick out of Mississippi.  Nope, I just saved him for last.  This kid has impressed me more than any other receiver in Steelers training camp.  First of all, he is FAST.  I don’t mean “Santonio Holmes fast”.  Nope, I mean “Willie Parker fast”.  He ran the second fastest time at last year’s NFL combine.  Not only is Wallace fast, but he also has good hands.  I’ve seen him make sliding catches and diving catches at training camp.

Mike Wallace

There is seldom a day at training camp where Wallace doesn’t beat a defensive back…..badly.  He even burns Ike Taylor.  Not many receivers can do that.  I keep having dreams of Big Ben firing long bombs to Wallace.  Each time I have this dream, I wake up with a big smile on my face.

There is a very good chance that this kid could actually come out of training camp as the #3 receiver.  That’s right, I said it.  Mike Wallace might actually win the #3 receiver position.  He’s THAT good.  Even if he doesn’t, he is very likely to become the primary kick returner.  This kid is going to make the team.  No doubt.

Stefan Logans- Logans is primarily a kick returner, but the Steelers have been working him with the wide receivers, so I’ll mention him here.  Logans has NO CHANCE of making the team as a wide receiver.  He will either win a spot as a punt returner, or he will not be wearing black and gold.

So in summary, I believe the 5 receivers who will make the Steelers’ roster will be Hines Ward, Santonio Holmes, Limas Sweed, Shaun McDonald, and Mike Wallace.

I’ll leave you with one final thought about the Steelers’ wide receivers.  Just picture how exciting the Steelers are going to be in 2-3 years when the starting wide receivers are Santonio Holmes, Limas Sweed, and Mike Wallace.  Yeah, the idea puts a big smile on my face too.

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Pick #84: Steelers select Mike Wallace

April 26, 2009 By: Admin Category: Draft/Free Agency

April 26, 2009
By Donald Starver

With their second pick in the 3rd round, the Steelers selected Mike Wallace.  Wallace is a 6’0, 180 pound wide receiver out of Mississippi.


This pick came as a surprise.  Few (if any) scouting reports had Wallace rated this high.  Most had him listed as being between the 25th - 34th best wide receiver in the draft.

When you talk about Mike Wallace, the first word that comes to mind is speed.  Wallace is one of the fastest players available in the draft.  He ran a 4.3 in the 40 yard dash.  Former Tampa Bay coach John Gruden said that they timed him at a blazing 4.28 seconds.  The kid is fast.  Super fast.  He is much faster than Nate Washington, Santonio Holmes, or Limas Sweed.  He is immediately the fastest receiver on the Steelers, and will challenge Willie Parker for team honors.

Wallace is capable of impacting the game in a number of ways.  He was one of the most dangerous kick returners in the country last year, and the Steelers will be able to utilize this aspect of his game immediately.  He averaged 23.2 yards per kickoff return, and returned two kickoffs for touchdowns.

Wallace’s speed was also apparent at the wide receiver position, where he led the SEC in yards/catch for two consecutive seasons.  He averaged 18.8 yards/catch during his junior year, and improved it to 20.1 yards/catch last year.

Despite his blazing speed, Wallace is more of a track star than a football player.  His hands are suspect, and he is very thinly built.  He has mostly straight line speed, and is not particularly good at changing directions.

Wallace catches the ball with his body, and is going to have to learn to extend his arms and catch with his hands.  More importantly, Wallace is going to have to eliminate drops.  His speed will get him separation, but he has to hold onto the ball.  Moreover, he won’t be able to rely on pure speed at the next level.  Wallace will have to run crisper routes to elude savvy NFL defenders.

Wallace will also have to become more physical.  He is easily jammed at the line, and shows little desire to fight through it.  He also is not a willing blocker. However, spending time with Hines Ward will surely change this.

“He’s a burner”, said Steelers’ offensive coordinator Bruce Arians.  “He hasn’t gone over the middle a lot, but he’s an outside speed guy who’s an excellent return guy.  We really, really like him”.

Wallace will have an immediate impact in the Steelers return game.  However, his impact on the passing game may not be felt until year 2 or 3.  He must develop better hands and better route running skills.  But he has speed to burn, and that can’t be taught.

To read about the Steelers’ previous pick, click here.

To read about the Steelers’ next pick, click here.

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The offense and the Steelers’ draft (part 5)

April 24, 2009 By: Admin Category: Draft/Free Agency

April 24, 2009
By Donald Starver

This is part 4 in a series.  If you haven’t read  the previous installments, please click below.

part 1

part 2

part 3

part 4

In the previous installments in this series, we’ve looked at all of the offensive line positions and the tight end.  Now we’re going to take a look at the wide receiver position.

The wide receiver position is one of the glamour positions on the football team.  When we think of wide receivers, we think of players like Randy Moss, Terrell Owens, Larry Fitzgerald, Steve Smith, and Chad Johnson.  A game-breaking wide receiver can change the course of a game in one play.  Think about Santonio Holmes’ game-winning catch in Super Bowl XLIII, or David Tyree’s catch in Super Bowl XLII.

Typically, teams will use two wide receivers.  One is referred to as the X receiver or split end, and the other is called a Z receiver or flanker.  The split end lines up on the weak side (the side opposite the tight end) of the offensive formation.  He is usually lined up at least 10 yards away from the rest of his teammates on the line of scrimmage.  Because he is split from his teammates, he is called a split end.  The second receiver, the flanker, actually lines up behind the line of scrimmage.  While the split end and tight end must line up on the line of scrimmage, the flanker will draw a penalty for lining up on the line of scrimmage.

Some teams will actually use 3 or even 4 wide receivers in some formations.  However, since these formations are not typical, we will not look closely at them.  The one thing that is worth noting is that the slot position used to be the stepchild wide receiver position, and was usually manned by a player who was smaller and slower than the flanker or split end.  However, Wes Welker has done a lot to redefine the slot position.  Welker makes more catches and gains more yards from the slot position than most split ends produce.

When looking for wide receivers, scouts look for a number of attributes.  First and foremost, a wide receiver must have good hands.  He must also have good speed, be strong enough to beat press coverage, and have the size and leaping ability to be a threat in the red zone.  Few receivers have all of these attributes, but ideally, you’d like a receiver to have as many of them as possible.  But even if a wide receiver were 6’6″, ran the 40 in 4.2 seconds, and had a 40 inch vertical leap, it would all be for naught if he didn’t have good hands. 

We often see teams fall in love with a player at the combine because he has blazing speed in the 40.  I believe that teams need to pay much more attention to his game speed, and his ability to get separation from his defenders.  Hines Ward is a great example of this.  Ward has very average speed.  However, he has good game speed.  He also runs precise routes and has great hands.

Another attribute that teams often over-value is height.  Steve Smith was the most dominant receiver in the NFL for several seasons, and he is only 5’9″ tall.  Meanwhile, the Steelers’ Dallas Baker is a 6’4″ practice squad player.  So just how important is height?

The Steelers lost Nate Washington in free agency, so they are likely to select a wide receiver at some point during the draft.  They selected Limas Sweed in the second round last year.  Hopefully, he will step up and produce this year.  But even if he does, the Steelers will still need to add another receiver for depth. 

The class of 2009 has a number of talented wide receivers.  While no wide receivers were drafted in the first round in 2007, there will probably be at least 3 taken in the first round this year.  Lets take a look at a few of the wide receivers in this year’s draft class.   

Wide Receivers:

Michael Crabtree (6’3″, 208 lbs.), Texas Tech.  Crabtree is not a speed burner, but he is a big, strong receiver who catches anything that comes his way.  He is not afraid to make catches in traffic, and he holds onto the ball even after taking a hard hit.

Jeremy Maclin (6’1″, 200 lbs.), Missouri.  Maclin was highly productive as both a receiver and a return man.  He has speed to burn.  He is a threat everytime he touches the ball.

Darrius Heyward-Bey (6’2″, 206 lbs.), Maryland.  Heyward-Bey has great size.  He was also the fastest player at the NFL combine.  Heyward is so fast that he tends to rely purely on speed rather than developing good route running skills.   That probably won’t work at the next level.  He is going to have to work on his route running in the NFL.

Percy Harvin(5’11″, 195 lbs.), Florida.  Harvin is one of the most elusive players in this draft.  Anytime he played this year, he was the most electric player on the field.  He also excels as a return man.  Many scouts say that he is reminiscent of Steve Smith.

Kenny Britt (6’4″, 205 lbs.), Rutgers.  Britt became the Big East’s all-time leading receiver despite leaving after his junior year.  He has great height and runs good routes.  He will have to work on eliminating dropped passes, but his height will be too much for teams to pass on.

Hakeem Nicks (6’1″, 210 lbs.), North Carolina.  A very good athlete who had a very productive college career.  He displays excellent body control and good hands.  He has all of the tools to be productive at the next level.  He didn’t run a great time at the combine, but just watch film of him.  The guy can play.

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