Steelers have doubts at wide receiver with Holmes' departure
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To use a hockey phrase, the Steelers are even in the plus-minus column on wide receivers since the day before the NFL draft, plus-2 since free agency began.
They traded Santonio Holmes to the Jets, drafted two wide receivers and lost Limas Sweed, who had surgery Monday to repair an Achilles tendon injury. They signed free agent wide receivers Antwaan Randle El and Arnaz Battle in March.
So, where does that leave them as a group?
"I don't know. We'll see this season," Hines Ward said, then laughed. "Can we do it? Yes. It's to be determined, really. We won a Super Bowl with Randle El, myself and Cedric Wilson. So, it's not like it can't be done."
Those were not ringing words of confidence from the leader of the wide receivers. No one knows how the loss of Holmes will affect the passing game. Sweed did little in his first two seasons so his injury will not have much effect other than the fading hope he would develop into the kind of productive receiver he was at Texas.
Little will be known about the two rookie draft picks, Emmanuel Sanders (third round) and Antonio Brown (sixth), for a while. Sanders could be another Wallace or another Willie Reid, both drafted in the third round.
"It's much too early to tell because no one got hit this weekend," coach Mike Tomlin said at the conclusion of his three-day minicamp. "And that's a pretty big element of the game, particularly from a receiving standpoint. Everyone looks courageous in shorts. But we got plenty of time for that to sort itself out."
Wallace is vital to that process. He led the NFL with a 19.4-yard average per catch his rookie season, when he caught 39 passes for 756 yards and tied for the team lead with six touchdown receptions. He moves into Santonio Holmes' spot as the split end and while many assume his production will rise in his second season and as a starter, more is expected of him as well.
"It's just how defenses see me now will be different," Wallace said. "I have to be ready for that. I've been on the outside the whole time. I'm at a different position now. Now I'm on the backside by myself. It's a little harder, but I'm up for the challenge."
The difference in positions means when the Steelers use three wide receivers, the split end usually is alone on one side with Ward in the slot and another receiver next to him on the outside, Wallace's position last season. Unless one of the rookies comes on quickly, that third receiver won't have the big-play ability of Wallace or Holmes. It means defenses can concentrate on one deep receiver, Wallace.
"A lot of pressure wasn't put on him last year, he just fell into it and had a phenomenal rookie season," Ward said. "I told him he's getting his opportunity and that's all you ever ask for. That's why you come into this league, an opportunity to start and right now he's doing well.
"We have high expectations for him this year. I think we'll be fine. We added El, and Arnaz adds depth, but I really like Mike. He's really come along. The sky's the limit with him. If he can continue to get better each day, I look for big things from him.
Tight end Heath Miller had his most productive season as a receiver, too, catching 76 passes for 789 yards and six touchdowns.
"Heath's a valuable weapon," Ward said. "Of course losing Santonio hurts us depth-wise, but I still think we have some great talent. Mike is still the fastest guy on this team. He's going to blow the coverage off. He's going to make defenses play cover 2, play honest. Heath, myself and Antwaan are pretty good after the catch."
With Battle and possibly one of the rookies, that would give them five wide receivers, their usual number.