Another receiver bolsters a thin spot for Steelers; college prospects visit

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Like Pittsburgh Public Works trucks scurrying to patch potholes, the Steelers have kept busy filling out the gaps in their roster for another season this spring.

Wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey is the latest patchwork job they hope can provide them with enough to help make up for their losses at the position. They signed the former first-round draft choice Wednesday to a one-year contract. He is the seventh free agent they’ve signed from elsewhere in an unusually busy first three weeks of free agency for them.

Once, Heyward-Bey was no fill-in. He was the seventh overall player drafted in 2009, by the Oakland Raiders, and he was the first wide receiver to go that year. Blessed with size and speed, Heyward-Bey never quite fulfilled the expectations the Raiders had for him as a deep threat, and they released him a year ago.

He landed a one-year contract in 2013 with the Indianapolis Colts, where he started 11 games but was benched later in the season. He caught only 29 passes and dropped nine, according to analysis kept by Pro Football Focus.

Dropped passes have dogged a career in which he nevertheless has had some success and started 63 of his 72 games in his five NFL seasons.

His best season came for Oakland in 2011 when he had 64 receptions for 975 yards, an average of 15.2 yards per catch.

Heyward-Bey has 169 career receptions for 2,380 yards (14.1 average) and 12 touchdowns.

He has two things every football team covets in a wide receiver, — size and speed. He stands 6 feet 2 and was clocked running the 40 at the 2009 combine in 4.23 seconds. Those two qualities no doubt are what encouraged Oakland to draft him so high in the first round from the University of Maryland.

Yet, despite his speed, he has never returned kickoffs or punts in the NFL.

He joins the Steelers one day after they signed another veteran to a one-year contract to add depth to a thin position, cornerback Brice McCain, formerly with the Houston Texans.

Heyward-Bey, 27, is the second veteran wide receiver the Steelers have signed over the past two weeks. Lance Moore, 30, cut by the New Orleans Saints, signed a two-year deal March 21.

Between Moore (346 career receptions) and Heyward-Bey (169), the Steelers added depth and experience to a position that had only eight career receptions behind Antonio Brown. Markus Wheaton caught six passes as a rookie in 2013 and Derek Moye has two career receptions, both last season.

The Steelers lost two of their top three wide receivers, Emmanuel Sanders (Denver Broncos) and Jerricho Cotchery (Carolina Panthers), since free agency began March 11.

Heyward-Bey will compete for a roster spot and whatever role he can find if he makes the team.

The Steelers also entertained two more college prospects Wednesday: Cornerback Darqueze Dennard of Michigan State and defensive tackle Stephon Tuitt of Notre Dame.

The Steelers have now signed seven free agents who played elsewhere last season: Heyward-Bey, McCain, Moore, halfback LeGarrette Blount, linebacker Arthur Moats, safety Mike Mitchell and defensive lineman Cam Thomas.

They also re-signed a number of their own free agents: linebacker Jason Worilds to the transition tender they put on him, safety Will Allen, long-snapper Greg Warren, offensive linemen Cody Wallace and Guy Whimper and tight end Michael Palmer. They also extended the contracts of Troy Polamalu and Heath Miller.

In free agency, they lost Cotchery, Sanders, halfback Jonathan Dwyer (Arizona Cardinals), tight end David Johnson (San Diego Chargers), safety Ryan Clark (Washington Redskins) and defensive end Al Woods (Tennessee Titans). They released linebackers LaMarr Woodley (who signed with the Raiders) and Larry Foote, cornerback Curtis Brown and offensive tackle Levi Brown.

Ed Bouchette: and Twitter @EdBouchette.

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