Time to Find Ward's Replacement?

Jim Wexell begins his draft series by examining the Steelers' needs and potential wants at wide receiver.

Hines Ward has taken questions about his usefulness and turned them into motivational fodder in the past. But the hard truth awaits Steelers' all-time receiving leader, and it likely will come sooner rather than later.

Last season, Ward caught less than two-thirds of the passes he'd caught the previous season. In fact, his 59 catches were the lowest since 2000, his third year in the league. He was targeted only 94 times, or one time less than his catches in 2009.

At 35, Ward may still be able to dance but his remaining time as an NFL wide receiver must be closely examined. That and the rest of the group's poor and confused performance in the last Super Bowl might be cause for the Steelers to consider wide receiver in the first round of the coming draft.

Then again, logic says otherwise. The Steelers list nine receivers on their roster and none of them are eligible for free agency. The man who would replace Ward, Emmanuel Sanders, was one of Ben Roethlisberger's favorite targets down the stretch and in the playoffs. Another rookie, Antonio Brown, made clutch catches to seal playoff wins against the Baltimore Ravens and New York Jets. Antwaan Randle El turns 32 in August but he showed in the Super Bowl that he can still make the big catch. Arnaz Battle, Tyler Grisham and Limas Sweed will fight for the No. 5 job while 6-foot-8 Wes Lyons vies for a spot in the pipeline.

So on paper all is well. But the Steelers have never let the depth chart stand in the way of drafting value at this position.

Since the Steelers' modern era started with Chuck Noll in 1969, the Steelers have drafted more wide receivers (7) in the first round than any other position. That's somewhat surprising for a franchise that prides itself on defense and the running game. And those picks were often made based on value instead of need.

There's really only one player who might represent value to the Steelers at pick 31 this year. Kevin Colbert was certain when he said at the combine that Pitt's Jon Baldwin (6-4.3, 228, 4.51) will be drafted in the middle of the first round. Colbert cited Baldwin's freakish size and athleticism as the reason and dismissed concerns about his character.

Baldwin has big, soft hands and a work ethic to match, but worries about his quickness into and out of cuts are supported by a dreadful time of 4.44 in the short shuttle.

Is Baldwin just a deep threat? And if so, don't the Steelers already have that in Wallace?

Baldwin seems an unlikely fit, particularly with the lack of need at the position on paper. But Colbert likes him, so don't be surprised if a guy who drafted the similarly styled Plaxico Burress eighth in 2000 drafts Baldwin 31st this year.

As far away as Baldwin's style is from Ward's, Greg Little's is that close.

Like Ward, Little (6-2.4, 231, 4.53) is a converted running back who's had only one season of college experience as a full-time wide receiver, and that came in 2009. Little was suspended last season for accepting improper gifts from an agent. He's considered a diva, but with his strength and athleticism (27 reps, 40½ vertical jump, 10-9 broad jump), his run-after-catch ability, and his physical blocking, Little could be a fit physically while learning to become a team player from Ward and the rest of the Steelers' locker room.

The Steelers have shown interest in Austin Pettis, the possession receiver opposite Titus Young. The Boise State duo is reminiscent of the 1-2 punch that came out of Oregon State in 2001 – Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh – but Pettis (6-2.5, 209, 4.62) isn't likely to stick around until the seventh round as Houshmandzadeh did. Pettis is a certified red-zone threat, as his 39 career touchdown grabs attest.

The Steelers have also shown interest in Auburn's Darvin Adams (6-2.1, 190, 4.56), a lanky deep threat who also blocks and shows toughness over the middle.

VALUE BOARD

1st round – Jon Baldwin, Pitt.

2nd round – Greg Little, North Carolina.

3rd round – Austin Pettis, Boise State.

6th round – Darvin Adams, Auburn.

Favorite sleeper: Dwayne Harris, East Carolina.


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