Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward will remain a hot talking point until a decision is made about his 2012 status with team. It resurfaced as a hot topic Friday night after a report by Jason La Canfora stated that Ward will not be back with Steelers next season according to his sources.
Since that time, Ward has taken to Facebook to reiterate that he wants to return to the Steelers in 2012 and is willing to work with them to restructure his contract to make sure this happens. This morning I posted several of the options that the Steelers likely have in regards to the contract of Ward and we can pretty much assume at this point he will not return with his $4 million base salary and cap hit of $4.61 million. Outside of the money issues, several other factors are likely to play into the decision to keep him or let him go.
First off there is unrestricted free agent Jerricho Cotchery, who stated after the season that he would love to return to Pittsburgh in 2012. Cotchery is much in the mold of Ward and 6 years younger as well. While Cotchery is a better than average blocker, he is nowhere close to being as accomplished as Ward is in that phase of his game though. Ward may be 35 years old, but showed last season that he can still get it done in the running game blocking department. Cotchery however will likely demand a higher price tag than Ward in 2012 and the chances seem remote that the Steelers will retain both.
Another factor that could play in the decision to keep Ward is the Steelers possible concerns with the feet of Emmanuel Sanders. Sanders had surgery done on both feet following Super Bowl XLV against the Green Bay Packers, and while he was ready by week 1 last season, he did miss time late in the season due to issues with one of those feet. He was back in the lineup for the regular season finale against the Cleveland Browns and played very well in the AFC Wild Card game against the Denver Broncos in addition. The fact remains though that you never like to hear about young receivers having problems with their feet early on in their careers, and while all signs point to him being fully recovered now, you have to wonder if the Steelers are convinced he can hold up for a full season. Mere speculation on my part though I must admit.
If both Ward and Cotchery are not back in 2012 and Sanders has issues with his feet again, the Steelers would have no depth at the wide receiver position outside of a few receivers they have signed to future contracts since the season ended. Veteran Arnaz Battle has already been released, but he was mostly known for his special teams play and in no way was ever considered as a legitimate 3rd or 4th receiver since the Steelers signed him a few years ago. The Steelers may possibly address the position in the upcoming draft, but they would be lucky to get any considerable contributions from that player as a rookie, especially early on in the 2012 season.
Lastly there is new offensive coordinator Todd Haley and what he has in store as far as the offense goes next year. Does Haley perceive Ward as being able to fit into that offense as a number 3 or number 4 receiver? Does he think Ward still possesses the skills to play still? Normally a team likes its receivers on the bottom of the depth chart to play special teams in addition, but that is something you can rule out for Ward and it has been that way now for several, several years.
The Steelers could certainly end up carrying six receivers again in 2012, but that would likely end up forcing them to carry just three running backs again should they go that route. With Rashard Mendenhall, Baron Batch and Jonathan Dwyer all coming off season ending injuries last season, and Isaac Redman certainly already penciled in at one of the running back roster spots, that makes for a hell of a log jam at the position when you throw in John Clay to the mix as well. All of those running backs except for Mendenhall can likely play special teams in addition, but not all of them will make the 53 man roster. What about the tight position or if Haley thinks the offense needs a true fullback? You have to remember that Weslye Saunders will likely mix the first four games due to suspension and David Johnson is not close to being considered a legitimate number two backup to Heath Miller. Keeping 5 receivers looks the most likeliest scenario at this juncture and that means Ward would be the number 4 most likely if they do not opt to keep Cotchery instead. The numbers can work out that way in favor of Ward if Haley wants him.
The 53 man roster fills up quick when you start projecting out what it might look like in mid February and it could be a combination of several things I mentioned above that may play a bigger part in the decision to keep Ward another season or set him free. While it is easy to point to contract numbers as a reason that Ward may or may not return in 2012, it is more likely that the roster numbers, the status of Cotchery or the feet of Sanders will play the biggest part in the decision to keep him or terminate his contract.
All we can do is speculate until that decision is made and we should know what it is in a matter of two or three weeks.