Are Steelers prepared to replace Ward?

He's been a rock of not only the Pittsburgh offense, but the city's blue-collar attitude. Yet, Hines Ward is nearing the end of the line, and the Steelers will soon need to replace him. They have a couple of interesting choices this draft.

The coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers' defensive line needs young talent, but doesn't see how the offensive line won't garner the team's first draft pick.

But the O-line coach looks at the Steelers' only lost starter and believes the first pick has to be a cornerback.

The DB coach, though, he believes that old draft axiom whereby those who score touchdowns will always get the attention in the first round.

So, since the Steelers are stocked at running back, this winding road leads us to the wide receiver position, where the Steelers not only lack depth there, but could be without Hines Ward following the 2009 season.

Ward's contract will be up and he'll be 34 at this time next year, and he'll be a well-worn 34. He's won two rings, holds all the team's important receiving records, put up Hall of Fame numbers, and has told friends he has little more to accomplish. If Ward does opt to come back following 2009, it'll be at a reduced rate and likely a reduced role, much like Jerome Bettis in his latter years.

So the Steelers and Ben Roethlisberger – considering the lack of depth behind Ward and Santonio Holmes – need another weapon, and there's a Ward-like performer who could last until the bottom of the first round.

Hakeem Nicks (6-0¾, 212) of North Carolina has drawn comparisons to Ward and Anquan Boldin by draft analyst Mike Mayock, and to Michael Irvin by Pro Football Weekly, and Nicks looked like all three players in his bowl game against West Virginia. Nicks ran great routes, showed "wow" hands, and flashed as much strength before and after the catch as Ward. Nicks finished the game with 217 receiving yards and three touchdowns. Yet, the junior doesn't have the scary speed of a Michael Crabtree or a Jeremy Maclin and is projected to be a late first-rounder, even though he ripped off a 4.49 40 at the combine.

That time was lost in the aftereffects of a strained hamstring. Nicks stopped working out and gained 14 pounds by his Pro Day. It brought up whispers of off-the-field character problems, which's senior scout, Tom Marino, brushes off.

"Hakeem is a good kid," said Marino, a North Carolina resident who has followed Nicks's career. "He's quiet by nature and mature beyond his years. He stays away from people who push the envelope."

And on the field?

"He is smart," Marino said. "He can play any of the positions without a problem. He made in-game adjustments in their pro style offense. I like his mental toughness. He's a good practice player and a very competitive game day performer."

Marino likes Nicks's strength, explosiveness, leaping ability, timing, ability to wrest the ball from defenders, suddenness in and out of breaks, hands, concentration, route-running and blocking.

As for Nicks's deep speed, Marino compared his tracking skills to those of legendary Baltimore center fielder Paul Blair. Marino watched all of the tape and saw Nicks drop one ball last season.

"He should be able to make a strong early impact and quickly develop into a club's number one receiver," Marino said.

The New York Giants are reportedly interested in trading for Braylon Edwards on draft day. If they don't, they'll take Nicks with pick 29. That would possibly leave Ohio State's Brian Robiskie as a candidate for the Steelers at pick 32.

A coach's son with size and speed (6-3, 209, 4.54), the disciplined and team-oriented Robiskie would be another worthy successor to Ward. He's been labeled as a second-rounder, probably because of the struggles Ohio State endured last season with a run-first freshman quarterback. But scouts believe Robiskie's polished enough to develop into a starter in his first or second season.

The Steelers are also considering Arizona slot receiver Mike Thomas and Florida split end Louis Murphy, who both visited the South Side facility. They're second to fourth-rounders.

The Steelers also showed interest in a couple of late-round speedsters, Jeron Cherry of Louisiana-Lafayette and Travis Shelton of Temple. Shelton is a cousin of Devin Hester and has been clocked at 4.2+ in the 40.

At tight end, the Steelers need blocking help, so they brought in North Carolina's Richard Quinn for a visit. Scouts agree that Quinn is one of the few "combination" tight ends in the draft, and some are calling him a third-rounder, even though he caught only eight passes last season.

But then again, North Carolina had a few receivers more deserving of the attention. One of them could replace a Pittsburgh legend in the not-too-distant future.

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