Antonio Brown replaced Hines Ward in the starting lineup last season. Now the talented third-year player from Central Michigan is replacing Ward in the locker room. Sort of.
Brown has Ward's old locker inside the team's training facility on the South Side. Whether anyone on the coaching staff or front office orchestrated the change of address remains a mystery, but Brown knows it won't be nearly as easy replacing Ward off the field.
"He was a great player around here for so long," Brown said. "I just hope and pray I can keep the tradition going."
The Steelers completed a month of OTAs and a mini-camp last week and have almost six weeks off before reporting to training camp in Latrobe. When they show up at Saint Vincent College July 25, they'll do so for the first time in 14 years without No. 86.
Ward, a four-time Pro Bowl selection and the franchise's all-time leader in receptions and receiving yards, retired this spring after the club elected not to bring him back for a 15th season. His new role will be as a television analyst for NBC.
"It's going to be weird," said veteran receiver Jerricho Cotchery, who was signed as a free agent last season. "He's a guy that I always admired the way he played. Even if he wasn't getting the ball in the passing game, he was going to lay it on the line in the run game. You always saw him sacrifice. It was an honor to be in the same room with him and line up with him."
Ward's departure has created a void in the team as it prepares for the 2012 season. His production dipped last season and the offense marched on fine without him. Ward's worth to the club was always more than statistics, though. Younger players looked to him for leadership.
Ward's absence has brought on a transition period within the receiving corps. The longest-tenured receiver is fourth-year pro Mike Wallace, who wasn't around this spring as the others learned a new offense under first-year coordinator Todd Haley.
Wallace did not participate in the voluntary OTAs or the mandatory mini-camp. He might not show up to training camp on time, either. And if a long-term contract cannot be completed before the start of the season, it's hard to picture Wallace embracing any type of leadership role. That has left it to Cotchery, Brown and fellow third-year pro Emmanuel Sanders to take on different roles.
"Hines was a big part of this organization for a long time," Cotchery said. "A lot of guys looked up to him, especially a lot of the younger guys. The way he carried himself every day and the way he showed up on Sundays, The guys have to put in their work, make sure we're on top of everything and ready to go for the season because you lose a lot when you lose a guy like him."
Wallace, Brown and Sanders don't have as many years in the league combined compared to Ward, but youth, they said, is a relative term in the NFL.
"Time definitely flies by," Sanders said. "I remember just yesterday I was a rookie and now I'm going into my third year. I'm one of the oldest guys in the room. That's just the transition into the NFL. I'm more than capable of becoming a leader."
It's also helped the group that they learned the new offense together for the past month. They were tried at different positions, auditioned every day for Haley and pushed each other to make sure the standard set in previous seasons remains high.
Wallace and Brown had 1,000-yard receiving seasons in the final season under former coordinator Bruce Arians. Injuries held back Cotchery and Sanders.
Cotchery was a late addition to the squad, got hurt early and finished with 16 receptions for 237 yards and two touchdowns. Sanders missed five games and finished with 22 catches for 288 yards and two touchdowns.
Cotchery believes the new wrinkles in the offense have the potential to make the passing game even more dangerous.
"For me, with coach Haley coming in, I can move around," Cotchery said. "He's saying, 'Let's try him here. Let's see if he can do this.' If I can do those things, it will help me get a role established.
"Emmanuel can do a lot of things. He's not just an outside guy. He can move around and play all three positions. Antonio can move around a lot. Mike is smart as well. He'll pick it up."
The transition will continue into next month. Brown and the others are attempting to make it as smooth as possible heading into training camp.
"In this business, the older guys fizzle out, and the younger guys have to step up," he said. "We have to set the pace for the wideouts, let them know what we learned from Hines and lead the way."Steelers
Ray Fittipaldo: email@example.com and Twitter @rayfitt1. First Published June 17, 2012 4:00 AM