Hines Ward will not be the only receiver in danger of leaving the Steelers before the 2012 season begins.
One of the Young Money trio's contract expires, and, whether Mike Wallace returns, could depend on several factors inside and outside the organization.
Wallace becomes a restricted free agent in March, and, while the Steelers partially can protect their rights to him by offering him a one-year tender, there is no guarantee another team might see more value in him and try to sign him.
The Steelers likely will tender him a contract high enough -- those numbers have yet to be determined by the league -- to guarantee that, if someone else signs him, the Steelers would receive a first-round draft choice in return or be able to match the contract and keep him. They also could negotiate a long-term deal with Wallace before he becomes a restricted free agent.
Veteran Jerricho Cotchery, who signed a one-year contract with the Steelers in August after asking for and receiving his release from the New York Jets, is a different case. Cotchery will be an unrestricted free agent and, while the Steelers would like him back, they will not offer him big money, and he could look for a team on which he could start.
Losing Ward, Wallace and Cotchery would be a blow to a receiving corps that blossomed in its transition over the past two seasons. Chances are good, however, that they will be able to keep Wallace. Antonio Brown, whose unexpected and phenomenal season earned him the MVP vote from his teammates, will return along with Emmanuel Sanders for their third seasons.
"We know the direction in which we are going with the receiving corps," Sanders said.
Sanders, who began the season as the No. 3 receiver, had a tough year with foot and knee injuries, but he finished strong and led them in receiving Sunday in Denver with six receptions for 81 yards.
Wallace and Brown each produced 1,000-yard seasons, both made the Pro Bowl, but they did it in very different ways.
Wallace had 377 receiving yards in his first three games, but slumped badly in the second half of the season with only 395 yards in the final eight. Brown began no better than No. 4 to start the season, but came on in a big way in the second half and was promoted to starter.
He was asked the other day if he reached his expectations in 2011.
"I think I surpassed them," Brown said. "I came into training camp as the No. 4 receiver. I was prepared to get extra opportunities. I got a lot of opportunities and I took advantage of them. I continued to get better as the season progressed."
Brown made the Pro Bowl as a return man after becoming the first player in NFL history to have a 1,000-yard season in both receiving and returns. He also received the fifth-most votes among receivers for the Pro Bowl.
If the Steelers keep Wallace and Sanders can shake the injuries that dogged him this season, they will have one of the best young receiving corps in the league. Counting veteran tight end Heath Miller, third on the team with 51 receptions, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger again will have targets both big, fast and quick.
"We could be a lot better," Brown proclaimed. "One aspect of our game is to get better in the red zone. We have to take that approach and mentality of wanting to be better into the offseason."
For more on the Steelers, read the blog Ed Bouchette on the Steelers at www.post-gazette.com/plus . Ed Bouchette: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @EdBouchette . First Published January 12, 2012 5:00 AM