Steelers likely to dive into rich, deep pool of WRs

April 18, 2013
By Ed Bouchette / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Hines Ward is one of two wide receivers drafted since the 1990s who received another contract from the Steelers after their rookie deals expired. Ward retired after the 2011 season.

Labels can stick to football teams as surely as the colors they wear, such as the NFL team that wears black and gold with its long-standing identity of great linebacker players and Hall of Fame centers.

Then, there also is the Steelers' personality when it comes to their history at wide receiver. It's been a split personality. They've put receivers in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and used first-round draft picks on receivers. They are the only team to have two receivers earn Super Bowl MVP.

Yet, somehow, they long have had an air about them that they really don't place all that much importance in the position, that they can find them anywhere and always will be able to line up with wide receivers who will get the job done.

Tom Donahoe, when he was their director of football operations, once said receivers were a dime a dozen, and that's pretty much how they've operated for years.

Oh, Donahoe and his successor, Kevin Colbert, drafted wide receivers in the first round with Charles Johnson (1994) and Troy Edwards (1999) on Donahoe's watch and continuing with Plaxico Burress (2000) and Santonio Holmes (2006) under Colbert.

None of those four received a second contract from the Steelers (except for Burress upon his return in 2012). Other than Hines Ward and Ernie Mills, no wide receiver they've drafted since the 1990s has been able to elicit two consecutive contracts from them, not counting the one-year tenders they gave in restricted free agency.

That continued when they did not come to terms with Mike Wallace, debated long and hard before matching Sunday the one-year contract Emmanuel Sanders signed as an restricted free agent with New England.

Other than Ward, every Steelers wide receiver of note over the past 20 years has wound up with another team, either through trade (such as Holmes, Edwards and Jeff Graham) or free agency. The Steelers let a string of them go in free agency before Wallace left -- Johnson, Burress, Yancey Thigpen, Nate Washington, Antwaan Randle El, Mills, Andre Hastings and more.

They will enter the draft next week on the hunt for more wide receivers because of the departure of Wallace, because Sanders could leave in a year and only Antonio Brown is under contract beyond this season.

That does not mean they will draft Cordarrelle Patterson of Tennessee or Tavon Austin of West Virginia in the first round. If the Steelers do have when it comes to wide receivers, it's their ability to find them in rounds three and beyond.

The third round has brought them Ward, Wallace, Sanders, Mills and Hastings. They found Brown in the sixth and Washington as an undrafted rookie. Their success -- even stronger recently -- from the third round and beyond could prompt them to wait again until that round to refill the position, especially in a 2013 draft that looks stocked with quality receivers headed for the third round and beyond.

"I think it's a deep receiver draft, a lot of really good players," said Gil Brandt, senior analyst and draft expert for after spending 29 years as a personnel man with the Dallas Cowboys. "I think there are guys you're going to get in the fourth, fifth, sixth rounds who are very good guys."

Brandt likes receivers after the first round such as WVU's Stedman Bailey, Robert Woods of Southern California and Justin Hunter of Tennessee.

"They won't be interested in Austin, as high as he'll go, but ... there are just a bunch of big, fast guys who are out there," Brandt said of the Steelers.

"The nice thing about this draft class, there are a number of guys after Round 1 who can come in and give you the skill set they're going to develop," said Rob Rang of CBS and Rang believes good receivers such as Woods, Hunter and Clemson's DeAndre Hopkins can be taken after the first round.

"Those are guys I could see going in the second round and could be as productive as Patterson and Austin."

Said Joe Hortiz, Baltimore's director of college scouting about receivers: "There is a really solid core group of guys in the middle rounds that I think will go in the second or third round that will be solid, dependable starters in the NFL."

That does not mean the Steelers won't take either Patterson or Austin in the first round. Each has the speed that would put them in Wallace's range. But this is a draft that has plenty of quality at wide receiver after that. And, as they have shown many times, the Steelers can find ones who fit them by waiting until the third round -- and beyond.

NOTE -- Former Steelers running back Merril Hoge will announce the team's second-round draft choice April 26 from New York's Radio City Music Hall draft center.