Steelers free agency primer: WRs

As the reigning Super Bowl champions, the Pittsburgh Steelers figure to be raided in free agency. It's just a fact of life in today's NFL.

As the reigning Super Bowl champions, the Pittsburgh Steelers figure to be raided in free agency. It's just a fact of life in today's NFL.

The Steelers have 13 players scheduled to become unrestricted free agents when the signing period opens Feb. 27. Over the next few weeks, we'll look at the Steelers position-by-position as they head into the period and what direction they may go.

Today: The wide receivers

Santonio Holmes was supposed to have his breakout season in 2008, his third NFL season. It may have taken a little longer than anticipated, but Holmes was a major player for the Steelers in the postseason. And that was before he caught the game-winning pass in the Super Bowl.

The Steelers are expecting big things from Holmes in 2009 and the reality is that they need them in the worst way.

Hines Ward turns 33 next month and though he is coming off of his first 1,000-yard season since 2004, he can't last forever and the Steelers would be smart to start planning for life without him.

No. 3 receiver Nate Washington is an unrestricted free agent and though the team would like to have him back, it isn't going to break the bank to do so. Given its other priorities, unless Washington really wants to return and is willing to give a hometown discount, he's likely gone.

That leaves 2008 second-round draft pick Limas Sweed and 2007 seventh-rounder Dallas Baker as the only receivers with NFL experience behind Holmes and Ward, and that experience is spotty at best.

The Steelers expect better production out of Sweed, who's shown the ability to get open against NFL defenses. They just need him to do a better job of holding onto the ball.

Baker has good size, but doesn't do anything remarkably. He's an end-of-the-roster receiver at best.

That's a lot of ifs behind Ward and Holmes, leaving an obvious need at the position if Washington leaves. And it's not something that can be solved by simply selecting a wide receiver in the draft.

Getting somebody to serve as a return man would also be a plus considering the team's struggles in that regard the past two seasons.

New Orleans' Devery Henderson is a speedster in the mold of Washington who could help the Steelers stretch the field. Thirty-nine of his career 109 receptions have gone for more than 20 yards, with 18 of those going for 40 or more yards, putting his career yards per catch average at a lofty 21.6.

Despite his speed, however, he's never been used as a return man.

San Francisco's Bryant Johnson, like Henderson, has some starting experience and has also dabbled in kick and punt returns throughout his career. He's never been good enough at it to be a team's full-time return man, but considering the Steelers' lack of success in both areas, he could do it in Pittsburgh.

Detroit's duo of Shaun McDonald and Mike Furrey could give the Steelers some veteran help, but each has his warts. McDonald is only 5-10, 180 pounds, while Furrey is 32 years old. They could help out on a one-year basis until the Steelers are sure Sweed is ready to contribute.

After a breakout season as a rookie in 2004, when he caught 80 passes for 1,193 yards and seven scores, Michael Clayton fell off the map. But he's coming off a 38-catch season with Tampa Bay and Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin should know plenty about him from his days as a Bucs assistant coach. He could be a nice No. 3 option behind Ward and Holmes.

Dale Lolley appears courtesy of the Observer-Reporter.

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