Latrobe is coming quick and today we focus on the wide receiver position in our Steelers 2010 training camp preview.
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Overview: The wide receiver position received quite a shakeup during the offseason as Santonio Holmes was traded prior to the draft to the New York Jets and former Steelers receiver Antwaan Randle El was brought back after being released by the Washington Redskins. Throw in the fact that the Steelers also spent 2 draft picks on receivers and also signed Arnaz Battle via free agency, you can see how the position shuffled quite a bit.
Hines Ward: Trying to tell Steeler Nation how important Hines Ward is to the Steelers is like preaching to the choir every Sunday in church. Ward enters his 13th season in NFL and is coming off one of his best seasons in 2009. He is a team leader, role model and teacher all rolled into one. With age comes the nagging injuries and Ward has been slowed this offseason with bad hamstrings. It is not expected to be serious, but you can bet he will be brought along slowly early in camp and will not see much time in the pre-season as well. Ward continues to be a vicious blocker and that will be needed more than ever in a season that figures to see the Steelers return more to the run. While 90 catches is not out the question for Ward in 2010, it is highly unlikely. The biggest key is staying healthy and contributing in key situations. Ward remains a dangerous red zone threat as well. His production in 2010 will depend mostly on how well second year receiver Mike Wallace can adapt to the No.2 receiver position left vacated when Holmes was traded. While Hines is signed through the 2013 season, it would not be out of the question for 2010 to be his final season, especially if the Steelers were to win their 7th Lombardi Trophy. Realistically though, Ward will play in 2011 barring a lockout.
Mike Wallace: Wallace did exactly what was expected of him as a rookie in 2009 and caught 39 balls for 756 yards and 6 touchdowns. He certainly eased the loss of Nate Washington via free agency and only got better as the year wore on. In 2010 the responsibilities of Wallace will expand even more as he will be saddled with filling the shoes of Santonio Holmes. Wallace will now be faced with tougher coverage and will need to be spot on with his route running, especially across the middle and in the short passing game. In addition, Wallace will need to improve on his blocking, a pre-requisite for any Steeler wide receiver. Wallace also will be looked upon to mentor both of the rookie wide receivers as well in 2010. As one if not both look to be paired with him for the next several years. If things indeed go well, Wallace could have a Pro-Bowl type year. Even in a run first offense, he should get his looks and is able to take any reception all the way to the house for a score. He will play a major role in getting the Steelers back to the playoffs in 2010.
Antwaan Randle El: After a short stay in Washington, Randle El is coming back to Pittsburgh to the delight of Steeler fans everywhere. While it was a lot to expect him to be a number one receiver in the league, he makes a fantastic number 3 as he did with the Steelers prior to him leaving via free agency. He knows the system and exactly what his role on this team is. His athleticism also brings back several options to the Steelers play book and he knows every receiver position on the field. El signed a three year contract with the Steelers in March and has a great chance of playing out the entire deal if he stays healthy and productive. He too will be relied upon to tutor the rookies as well as making sure he pushes Mike Wallace ahead of him on the depth chart. 40 catches is not out of the question for El and I expect many of his catches to help move the chains in 2010.
Arnaz Battle: At around the same time the Steelers signed back Randle El, Arnaz Battle was signed via free agency from the 49ers. At 30 years old he has his work ahead of him to make the 53 man roster, but is a jack of all trades type reciver. He will have to be able to contribute on special teams and show he can handle returns if called upon in the kicking game. He is considered a good blocker and that will be to his advantage early on. At the start of camp, Battle will look to make himself the number 4 on the depth chart by standing head and toes over both rookies and Tyler Grisham. It is not unthinkable that Battle could be a final cut down casualty as well although not likely. He is this years Shaun McDonald so to speak and hopefully will not be relied upon too much in 2010. Any contribution he can make to special teams will be considered golden.
Tyler Grisham: Grisham turned quite a few heads during training camp last year after being signed as an undrafted free agent. He reportedly caught everything thrown to him in practices and impressed enough to earn a spot on the practice squad for most of the year. He finally got called to the active roster in December and caught his first NFL pass in week 16 versus Baltimore and also dropped another in the same game. The Steelers will certainly keep at least 5 receivers on the 53 man roster this year and there is an outside chance they could keep 6. Grisham must beat out Arnaz Battle and both rookies by a long shot to make this roster. He is not much of a special teams player and his blocking is suspect, so in all likelihood his future in the NFL depends on his pre-season play. I have a feeling though that Grisham will be on another team come week 1 of the NFL season.
Emmanuel Sanders: The Steelers drafted Sanders in the 3rd round of the 2010 NFL draft in hopes of catching lighting in a bottle again as they did with Mike Wallace. Sanders played for June Jones, a former NFL head coach, at SMU but looks to make the transition from a slot receiver to an outside receiver spot in the NFL. By all accounts Sanders has done well in shorts this offseason, but the true test will come in Latrobe when the hitting starts. The Steelers have enough invested in Sanders that he should make the 53 man roster as he will also look to contribute on special teams as a return man. He is fast and needs to learn the little details of the game such as reading coverages as well as blocking. Barring injury, Sanders will likely be a guy that starts the season on the weekly inactive list, but could buck for a gameday hat very quickly. Anything over 30 catches in 2010 for Sanders means he progressed fastly enough to push Randle El out of his spot or an injury has occurred. Sanders will be brought along slowly otherwise.
Antonio Brown: In addition to Sanders, the Steelers also drafted small school receiver Antonio Brown in the 6th round of the 2010 NFL draft. Brown was a quarterback before earning a scholarship with Central Michigan as a walk on receiver. Like most smallish receivers, he is a burner and also an accomplished return man. Brown accounted for touchdowns five different ways during his college career via receiving, rushing, passing, kick return and punt return. He too has had a good Spring and Summer as well for the Steelers, but remains a long shot to make the 53 man roster although it is not out of the question. Look for Brown to get lots of late time in preseason games at the slot position as well as returning kicks. He will likely be a prospect for the Steelers 2010 practice squad, but could make himself un-cuttable if he has an outstanding camp. He is what he is and that is a sixth round, small school wide receiver prospect. He should be fun to watch at Latrobe regardless.
Brandon London: At 6-4, Brandon London is the tallest wide receiver on the team now that Limas Sweed was placed on injured reserve. He has spent time with the Giants and Dolphins, but never really has shown enough to stick. He heads into Latrobe with the task of trying get enough reps to get a chance on another NFL team. He is the son of Mike London, currently the head coach of the Virginia Cavaliers. London is a camp body right now and it will take a minor miracle to make the Steelers 53 man roster.
Isaiah Williams: Isaiah Williams is another tall receiver and was signed when Limas Sweed was placed on injured reserve. Williams spent the 2009 pre-season with the Ravens after going undrafted and played his college ball at Maryland. At best he is auditioning for a practice squad spot and should only be considered a camp body for now. In all likelihood he will be one of the first players cut when the Steelers need to get down to 75 players on the first cut down deadline.
Likely Training Camp Depth Chart:
WR1 Hines Ward
WR2 Mike Wallace
WR3 Antwaan Randle El
WR4 Arnaz Battle
WR5 Emmanuel Sanders
WR6 Tyler Grisham
WR7 Antonio Brown
WR8 Brandon London
WR9 Isaiah Williams
Summation: The Steelers have a great mix of veterans and youngsters on this roster, but the biggest question is how well Wallace can do replacing Holmes. Wallace had a fantastic season as the #3 guy, but jumping into the role of Holmes is no easy task. If Ward and El stay healthy, the group should fair well. I would not expect the type numbers the top 3 put up in 2009 because the absence of Ben Roethlisberger early on will force the Steelers into more of a ball control, run first offense. Sanders will be fun to watch compete for the number 4 or 5 spot and it is not unthinkable that 6 of the top 7 on the depth chart could make the 53 man roster. Hopefully the Steelers can bring Sanders and Brown along slowly and even stash the later on the practice squad. Ward is the unquestioned leader of this group and the team and needs to stay healthy and involved if the Steelers make a run for number 7. As it stands right now, I like the looks of the future of this group as well.