Steelers Draft Prospectus: Wide Receiver

Frank Tursic offers up the first installment of his position-by-position Steelers Draft Series. Today: A needs analysis of the wide receiver position and the draft's potential answers.

It was no surprise that Nate Washington took his 40 catches and 630 yards to the Tennessee Titans in free agency. It was expected that Washington would move on when the free agency period started. Washington was the Steelers deep threat, averaging over 16 yards a catch during his four years with the team. That speaks volumes for the progress made by the undrafted free agent from tiny Tiffin University.

However, for all of Nate's talent, he was wildly inconsistent, only catching passes at little better than a 50% completion rate. In the end, with only so much cap space to keep the nucleus of a returning Super Bowl champion together, Nate became expendable to the organization.

Ultimately, number 3 wide receivers are supposed to be replaceable, as Limas Sweed is already penciled in as his replacement.

Replacing Washington is not the only concern at wide receiver, however, as the organization still has not groomed an eventual replacement for Hines Ward. Ward had a tremendous 2008 season, finishing among league leaders in numerous receiving categories. This comes on the heels of two down years, by his standards, and rising questions on his ability to remain healthy. Hines will be 33 before next season starts, so it's only a matter of time before Father Time catches up to him. Hopefully, we'll get at least another very good year from Hines.

Taking a closer look at some key stats for the Steelers wide receivers this past season:

Player Catches Catch % YPC TDs Inside 20 1st Downs 3rd & > 6 +30 yards
Ward 81 65 12.9 7 10 / 6 TDs 55/81 15 1
Holmes 55 48 14.9 5 4 / 2 TDs 40/55 14 2
Washington 40 51 15.8 3 1 / 0 TDs N/A 6 5

Nate Washington was normally used as a deep threat, with 30 of his 40 receptions occurring on 1st or 2nd down. He was not a player that moved the chains or someone who was relied upon in scoring situations inside the 20. Nate was credited with only one catch over the middle of the field and one catch inside the 20. Instead he was used to stretch the field, with Ben taking early shots to him along the sidelines. He had 5 of the 8 receptions of more than 30 yards credited to Steelers wide receivers.

Hines Ward, on the other hand, was the guy who moved the chains with 55 of his 81 receptions going for 1st downs. He also was a clutch performer, leading the team with receptions in 3rd and long situations (15), and catches inside the 20 (10) for 6 TDs. Ward was also the most reliable receiver on the team hauling in passes at a very good 65% success rate.

Santonio Holmes is the most physically talented wide receiver on the team, but didn't really have the break out year expected until the playoffs. It's naturally better to be great in the playoffs, but a lot will be riding on Santonio carrying this level of play into next year.

From a schematic viewpoint, the Steelers use 3 wide receivers as their primary passing formation 47% of the time. This is very similar to 2007 when they passed out of 3-WR sets 49% of the time, ranking 17th in the NFL according to Football Outsider metrics. The Steelers also ranked 8th in 4-WR sets at 21%. So, it's not hard to deduce that Nate saw significant playing time, taking part in 67% (avg.) of the offensive snaps.

With Nate's departure, a lot will depend on Limas Sweed developing into a suitable replacement as the 3rd wide receiver. Nate was also the backup flanker to Ward, so finding another receiver is probably 2nd only to upgrading the lines in the 2009 draft. You simply can't go into the regular season with an unproven player, or other talented options, for a team that relies so heavily on multiple receiver sets.

Moving on to the NFL draft, the 2009 crop of wide receivers is looking very strong at the top thanks to the addition of elite junior talent. The top 5 rated wide receivers are all underclassmen, turning what would have been a substandard crop into a position of strength.

For comparison, I'll profile this year's receiver talent against the five previous draft classes as measured in 5 key statistical areas. As a note, KEI will not apply as many receivers don't participate in the bench press drill. Instead, prospects will be measured in other drills by establishing demanding benchmarks, as noted in the table below. The total in each column represents the number of prospects surpassing the target benchmark. The aggregate then provides the comparative data for establishing a wide receiver class profile.

Year 40 VJ BJ SS 3C Prospects
2009 11 13 8 8 13 5
2008 7 3* 11 6 14 5
2007 9 9 16 8 21 6
2006 5 14 7 18 19 2
2005 6 11 7 12 6 6
2004 4 8 10 14 10 7
Average 7.0 9.2 9.8 11.0 13.8 5.2

Targets: 40 <4.4 sec, Vertical Jump >37 in., Broad Jump > 10'3", Short Shuttle < 7.2 sec, 3-Cone < 7.0sec.
* - There was an issue with how VJ was measured causing inaccuracies in tested results.
Data compiled from NFLDraftScout.com including players

Because speed goes early, the top of this year's draft class looks to be on par with 2007, which featured the likes of Calvin Johnson, Robert Meachem and Ted Ginn Jr. And while the other draft classes don't have the pure speed of the current WR crop, they made up for it in other areas of athletic talent, most notably in agility (SS/3C) and explosiveness (VJ/BJ). This type of talent can also usually be found later in the draft. As an example, the 2006 class, devoid of top tier talent, more than made up for this in the number of high upside players found later in the draft--Brandon Marshall, Marques Colston and Devin Hester. This is reflected by the high totals found in VJ, SS and 3C.

It appears then, that this year's crop has talent early on, but fizzles out on talent as the middle rounds approach.

Examining the prospects more closely, I'll tabularize them into Steelers areas of need. As filters, players that have questionable hands, a medical history, character issues, perceived problems with toughness, or didn't make the grade in at least 3 out of 5 performance areas will usually not show up in the tables as potential draft prospects.

First, here is a table of prospects who fit the Hines Ward profile:

Player Height Weight Star Rating Projected Round Comments
Hakeem Nicks 6-1 212 N/A 1 Did not participate (DNP) in all combine drills due to injuring hamstring. Great size and very physical. Good body control and leaping ability. Questionable deep speed. First round talent.
Brian Robiskie 6-2 209 3 Stars 2 Coach's son. Runs great routes and caught everything at the combine. Will make the tough catch in a crowd.  Very good but not great in any one area.
Mohamed Massaquoi 6-2 210 2 Stars 3 Prototypical size & build. Explosive and good leaper (37" VJ/ 10.7 BJ). Willing blocker & catches in traffic. Game speed and got better each yr. (Hines 2.0). DNP in all combine drills due to ankle.
Brandon Gibson 6-1 210 N/A 4 DNP at combine due to hamstring. Legitimate NFL size. Will fight through arm tackles. Cognizant blocker, good red-zone threat and great body control. Marginal deep speed and elusiveness in the open field.

Notes: Star Rating denotes number of benchmarks player exceeds in 5 measured statistical areas (see above table for details).  Projected round and most comments provided by NFLDraftScout.com.  

Next, moving onto potential replacements for Nate Washington:

Player Height Weight Star Rating Projected Round Comments
Darrius Heyward-Bey 6-2 210 5 Stars 1 Elite athlete testing above the benchmark in all 5 statistical areas (5 Stars), and not just a home run threat. Needs polish to improve his route running skills.
Kenny McKinley 6-1 190 4 Stars 3 Bigger & faster than expected and lightning quick in the short drills. A go-to target against SEC competition. Could impact early. Needs to get stronger.
Mike Wallace 6-1 199 4 Stars 4 Rare straight line speed and tested well in other drills (4 Stars). Developing into a reliable route runner and pass catcher. Added value as a KR. Still a work in progress.
Johnny Knox 6-0 185 3 Stars 5 Superior small school receiver. Top flight speed and agility. Reliable pass catcher. Elusive in the open field and experienced PR. Lacks size and strength, easily tackled.
Tiquan Underwood 6-1 184 5 Stars 6 Off the charts measurables (5 Stars). Reliable hands with long arms. Good vision and valuable ST performer. Very wiry build and long-strider. Reluctant to go over the middle.

And finally, some other receivers of interest:

Player Height Weight Star Rating Projected Round Comments
Mike Thomas 5-8 195 4 Stars 2 or 3 Ran a 4.3 forty with VJ over 40". Tested well in other areas as well (4 Stars). Tough for his size & hard worker. Accomplished WR. Small & pushed his coach.
Jarett Dillard 5-10 191 2 Stars 3 Superior college production. Elite VJ (42.5") and BJ (10.8"). Catches everything and a scoring machine. RZ threat. Lacks elite speed and needs to improve routes.

SUMMARY

With concerns on both sides of the line, I don't see the Steelers drafting a WR in the first round. However, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Hakeem Nicks would certainly represent BPA if either dropped to 1.32. Keep in mind that Kevin Colbert has been known to surprise in the past.

Instead, WR value exists in rounds 3 and 4 where talented prospects such as Mohamed Massaquoi, Brandon Gibson, Mike Wallace, Kenny McKinley, and Jarett Dillard can be drafted to fill Steelers needs.

After round 4 the receiver well runs dry, being filled with mostly special teamers (ST) and raw prospects like Tiquan Underwood and Johnny Knox. Both players would have large learning curves.

Adding a veteran free agent such as Joey Galloway is a possibility, but I expect the Steelers to pull the trigger and draft a WR in rounds 3 or 4. Since Limas Sweed is now only one injury away from being a starter, and due to the lack of talented depth for the 4th WR spot, the front office needs to address this area before the start of the 2009 season.


Steel City Insider Top Stories