Hines Ward's 10 Possible Landing Spots If the Pittsburgh Steelers Release Him

Mike Batista@Steel_TweetsContributor IFebruary 18, 2012

Hines Ward's 10 Possible Landing Spots If the Pittsburgh Steelers Release Him

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    Hines Ward has said he wants to finish his career with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

    It would have been nice if the Steelers' all-time leading wide receiver could get the Jerome Bettis treatment and play one more year in Pittsburgh as a sort of farewell tour.

    Oh, Ward can retire as a Steeler, but the ceremony is likely to come in the form of the farcical one-day contract that so many other NFL players have signed so they can say they retired with their most beloved team.

    In the meantime, there are other teams that want Ward more than the Steelers do at this point.

    In 14 seasons with the Steelers, Ward has won two Super Bowls, earning the MVP award in one of them. He's epitomized the Steelers' trademark grit while remaining likeable.

    It will be hard to stomach the sight of Ward in another uniform next season, but it would be no different than the sight of Franco Harris in a Seahawks uniform or Mike Webster in a Chiefs uniform.

    If Ward's playing days in Pittsburgh are over, here are the 10 teams most likely to sign him.

No. 10: San Francisco 49ers

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    Ward's reliable hands and ability to catch the tough balls in traffic could help the 49ers in the red zone, where they had trouble scoring last season. David Akers set an NFL record by making 44 field goals because of the 49ers' difficulty scoring touchdowns from inside the 20-yard line.

    San Francisco is fairly thin at wide receiver. A lot of mock drafts have them taking South Carolina's Alshon Jeffery in the first round, although based on an article on Pro Football Talk, I doubt the NFL Network's Mike Mayock has Jeffery going in the first round of his mock draft.

    I'm guessing, too, that 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh has heard horror stories from his brother about playing against Ward, enough for the younger Harbaugh to want Ward on his side.

    Don't worry, though. The Baltimore Ravens are not on this list, but one bitter rival of the Steelers does make this list.

No. 9: Cleveland Browns

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    Hines Ward in a Cleveland Browns uniform?

    This blasphemous thought might earn me a one-way ticket to Steeler Fan Hell, where you only can watch Steelers games from the 1980s, but here's how it could happen.

    First, the Browns need wide receivers. Greg Little led the team with 61 receptions in 2011. Josh Cribbs was next with 41. No one else caught more than 40 passes.

    Second, I put the Browns (4-12 in 2011) in the category of teams that are so bad that bringing in a veteran like Ward, who has two Super Bowl rings, couldn't hurt.

    Third, I think Browns president Mike Holmgren still has a bug up his backside over Super Bowl XL, when he coached a Seahawks team that lost to the Steelers in a game that might not have been officiated all that well.

    Holmgren might want to see if Ward, the MVP of that Super Bowl, has anything left. If he does, Holmgren can ruffle the Steelers' feathers by proving them wrong or, even better, beating them with Ward's help.

    If the Steelers release Ward, I don't think he'll let the rivalry with the Browns stand in the way if Cleveland makes him the best offer. A 36-year-old wide receiver looking for a job can't be picky anyway.

No. 8: Houston Texans

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    The Texans don't have much at receiver beyond Andre Johnson, and Johnson missed nine games in 2011 because of hamstring injuries.

    No Houston receiver caught 40 passes last season. Owen Daniels, a tight end, led the team with 54 receptions, and running back Arian Foster was second with 53.

    Kevin Walter caught 39 passes to lead Texans receivers in that category.

    Houston cleared a hurdle by making the playoffs for the first time in franchise history and reached the Divisional Round. The next step is becoming a championship-caliber team.

    Having Ward in the locker room flashing those Super Bowl rings might make the Texans want it that much more.

No. 7: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    I look at the Buccaneers' receivers and think, "Who are these guys?"

    Of course I've heard of Kellen Winslow, who led Tampa Bay with 75 receptions in 2011, but he's a tight end.

    Mike Williams led the Bucs with 771 receiving yards and caught 65 passes. Preston Parker was the Bucs' second-leading pass-catcher among receivers with 40 receptions.

    Tampa Bay (4-12 in 2011) is another team that was so bad last season that Ward can only make them better.

    The Bucs, who were blacked out five times in 2011, desperately need to sell tickets. New coach Greg Schiano certainly isn't going to put fans in the seats after going 68-67 in 11 seasons at Rutgers.

    I'm not saying Ward would automatically get fans to come to Buccaneers games, but the Bucs have very little to lose by taking a shot.

No. 6: St. Louis Rams

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    New Rams coach Jeff Fisher knows a little bit about Hines Ward from his days coaching the Tennessee Titans.

    Fisher has spoken highly in recent days about Randy Moss, who said he wants to return to the NFL. Moss is a year younger than Ward, but has been out of football for a year.

    However little Ward has left in the tank, it's more than Moss has.

    Brandon Lloyd, the Rams' leading receiver last season with 51 catches for 683 yards, could be gone in free agency.

    St. Louis has the No. 2 pick in the NFL draft. Even if they trade down a few slots, they still could be in position to draft Oklahoma State's Justin Blackmon. Ward would be a better mentor for the rookie receiver than Moss.

No. 5: New York Jets

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    Since Rex Ryan took over as head coach in 2009, the Jets have been fighting with the Giants for headlines in New York.

    That's became a lot harder with the Giants winning the Super Bowl.

    If the Jets get Ward, they'd return to the back of the New York tabloids at least for a day or two.

    There could be three former Steelers catching passes for the Jets if Ward comes on board, but it might only be two if Plaxico Burress leaves in free agency.

    If the Jets lose Burress and gain Ward, they'd come out ahead in terms of leadership in the locker room, something, it seems, they could have used in 2011.

    We know Ward would be re-joining fellow Super Bowl MVP Santonio Holmes if he came to New York.

    And Ward might be better captain material.

No. 4: Oakland Raiders

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    Could Ward go from the black and gold to the silver and black?

    The Raiders make this list because nothing this organization does surprises me. They've historically taken in guys nearing the end of their careers, most recently Carson Palmer in 2011.

    I didn't even realize T.J. Houshmandzadeh was on the Raiders in 2011 until I researched this article. He only had 11 catches, so he's kind of been in NFL oblivion.

    Jerry Rice was productive for the Raiders between 2001 and 2004 after he left the 49ers. Randy Moss' days with the Vikings and Patriots were bridged by two years in Oakland (2005 and 2006).

    It's not out of the realm of possibility that Ward is the latest 30-something receiver the Raiders take a chance on.

    In a 2009 Sports Illustrated poll, NFL players voted Ward the league's dirtiest player, so he would fit in well with the Raiders' renegade reputation. He'd be a Black Hole favorite.

No. 3: Chicago Bears

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    Even in his diminished role with the Steelers last season, Ward still caught 46 passes, which is nine more than any Bears receiver.

    Running back Matt Forte led the Bears with 52 catches. Johnny Knox and Roy Williams both caught 37 balls.

    Several mock drafts have the Bears picking a wide receiver in the first round of the NFL draft. Rob Rang of The Sports Xchange (via CBSSports.com) has them picking Michael Floyd of Notre Dame. Dane Brugler of NFL Draft Scout (via CBSSports.com) has them picking Kendall Wright of Baylor.

    Whether the Bears choose one of those players or someone else, Ward would make a good mentor for the rookie receiver.

    I know Steelers fans hate to picture Ward in any other uniform, but I almost can picture Ward in a Bears uniform.

    Like the Steelers, the Bears historically have been one of the NFL's pillar franchises. Like Ward, there's nothing flashy about the Bears. They're just a solid organization.

No. 2: Jacksonville Jaguars

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    The Jaguars ranked dead last in the NFL in passing yards in 2011.

    Mike Thomas led Jacksonville with 44 receptions—Ward caught 46 passes for the Steelers.

    Jacksonville has the seventh overall pick in the NFL draft. That probably will be too late to draft Oklahoma State receiver Justin Blackmon, but too early to pick the second-best receiver.

    If Ward came to Jacksonville, he'd be reunited with Mike Mularkey. The Jaguars' new head coach was the Steelers' offensive coordinator from 2001-2003 before becoming head coach of the Buffalo Bills.

    Ward could easily be a starting receiver on this team if he has anything left.

No. 1: Arizona Cardinals

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    Was there ever any doubt which team would top this list?

    After all, Glendale, Ariz., is Pittsburgh West.

    The Cardinals had four former Steelers on their 2011 roster, including Joey Porter.

    Since taking over as Cardinals head coach in 2007, Ken Whisenhunt has had 12 former Steelers on his team at one time or another.

    Whisenhunt's Pittsburgh pipeline also includes coaches. Both of his coordinators in 2011, Mike Miller on offense and Ray Horton on defense, have the Steelers on their resumes.

    Ward could be reunited with a more recent offensive coordinator. Whisenhunt ran the Steelers' offense from 2004-2006, which includes Ward's Super Bowl MVP year in 2005.

    Arizona already has a deep threat in Larry Fitzgerald. If Ward goes to Arizona, it might be because the Cardinals can actually use a possession receiver and not just Whisenhunt's penchant for hoarding former Steelers.