The Pittsburgh Steelers withstood their sixth free agent loss of the offseason thus far when veteran wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery elected to accept an offer with the wideout-starved Carolina Panthers rather than return to Pittsburgh.
Before him were the departures of defensive linemen Ziggy Hood and Al Woods, running back Jonathan Dwyer, tight end David Johnson, and wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders.
The on-field production can be replaced. The football aspects of a free agent departure can always be replicated, albeit not always easily.
It’s the other, less tangible qualities that are more difficult to replace, and that is the bigger issue when it comes to the Steelers losing out on Cotchery, who is returning ‘home’ to where he played his college ball and met his wife.
He only spent three years in Pittsburgh, but Cotchery was still a presence on the team, particularly among the wide receivers, and he helped bridge a substantial gap in leadership with the retirement of Hines Ward after his first season with the team.
Cotchery, of course, shared many of the same characteristics that Ward was loved for.
From his blue-collar mentality to his willingness to take the big hit to make the tough catch, from getting his nose dirty blocking on screens or running plays to taking the younger receivers under his wing and teaching them what he knows, Cotchery and Ward were of the same mentality, and from the same breed.
And their presence came at a critical time, when the Steelers were turning over the wide receiver room to the next generation of players, starting with Mike Wallace, and then adding in Sanders and Antonio Brown.
It wasn’t long before Ward was getting passed on the depth chart, and Cotchery spent his entire tenure in Pittsburgh behind at least two of them.
But in many ways they remained the heart of the unit. They were the old guard, the carriers of wisdom and life lessons. The influence that “Uncle” Cotchery had on the young Markus Wheaton in his rookie season last year has been documented on a number of occasions, for example, describing himself as Cotchery’s shadow in reference to how he was constantly in his ear soaking up his words.
That certainly is an intangible that can’t simply be replaced. But perhaps it’s time to pass the torch.
This is now Antonio Brown’s wide receiver room. It’s his time to become the leader, to become the example, the carrier of wisdom for the young receiving corps taking shape behind him with Wheaton, Derek Moye, Justin Brown, and likely a new draft pick or two.
He may be just turning 26-years old, but he is a two-time Pro Bowl wide receiver. He has twice made league history in his first four seasons in the league. He already works harder at his craft than anybody else in the locker room.
After a 110-reception, 1499-yard, eight-touchdown All-Pro season, is he ready to transfer some of the lessons that he’s learned, both through his own experience and through the experience of others, to those below him on the depth chart? Can he be the leader that Jerricho Cotchery, that Hines Ward was for him? I think it’s about time to find out the answer.