There is really only one position battle entering Steelers camp that has intriguing depth, important future implications, immediate consequences and undeniable fan attention.
The open competition for all 3 non-starting Wide Receiver spots should be the most intense competition in training camp. It also might have the largest effect on the team.
The last time the Steelers lost a key pass catcher was after Super Bowl XL when Antwaan Randle El left for a big contract in Washington.
His shoes were filled by veteran free agent pickup Cedric Wilson, unexpected up-and-comer Nate Washington, and speedy rookie Santonio Holmes. While Randle El’s presence was still missed the Steelers made smart choices regarding their pass catchers and the result was another Super Bowl.
Now that Washington has once again exceeded expectations, Pittsburgh is stuck in a familiar spot: five Wide Receiver Spots and only two of them filled.
This time around the three players who need to fill some shoes are veteran free agent pick-up Shaun McDonald, the promising but worry-some Limas Sweed, and the speedy rookie Mike Wallace.
Sounds kind of familiar.
But the question remains, can the 2009 group of pass-catchers follow the example of their 2005 predecessors?
Just like former first round pick Holmes, 2008’s second-round selection Limas Sweed is garnering the most fan interest.
The 6’4” Sweed, a former Texas Longhorn, was highly touted after being selected 53rd overall. While most fans expected Sweed to be the long-awaited replacement for the tall but often incompetent Plaxico Burress, his performance paled in comparison, catching only 6 balls for 63 yards in his rookie season.
Sweed caped off the disappointment by dropping the most important pass of his career, in the AFC championship game against that Baltimore Ravens.
Still, Sweed is incredibly gifted and although disappointing at times he showed some flashes of brilliance in his first year as well. Also, coaches and peers alike say that Sweed has improved greatly from year one to year two.
The organization, along with the fans, hopes and expects Sweed to be the solution as the teams slot receiver. He is the tall target Ben Roethlisberger has been asking for and Pittsburgh would rather not have wasted their money and pick on someone who can’t even play the slot position.
If Sweed disappoints, or even if he doesn’t, seven-year veteran Shaun McDonald could make his performance significantly less important.
McDonald’s career statistics are both confusing and inconsistent. 2006 found him catching only 13 passes for only 136 yards and one touchdown, while the very next year showed him to be a receiver of great skill as he amassed 79 receptions, 943 yards, and six scores.
The possible reasons for these fluctuations are many, ranging from mere chance to organizational problems, and also rather speculative in nature. What is not speculative is his potential to be a valuable and productive slot receiver.
The former Detroit Lion and St. Louis Ram is a veteran who although possibly inconsistent is still proven while retaining an element of upside. If he can perform anywhere close to his 2007 self he will dwarf the need for Sweed and make Pittsburgh fans forget all about Nate Washington.
Sweed and McDonald are both question marks to a degree but the true x-factor in this three-way battle is rookie Mike Wallace.
Wallace, a third-round selection out of Ole Miss, has been added to the team to be a deep threat with average expectations but great potential. As quite easily the least experienced and largest unknown of the group Wallace could sink, swim, or merely float along in his rookie year.
As the second fasted receiver in the 2009 combine and the leader in yards per catch average in the SEC in 2007 Wallace has a knack for the big play but big plays are not enough to with the slot or fourth WR spot for the Steelers.
Consistency is the key to life in this battle, not just for Wallace but for all three pass catchers. Good hands, crisp routes, and dedication will win the job.
General football knowledge says the veteran McDonald will display those desired qualities but Sweed has the raw ability to dominate and enough untested ability to make him the favorite.