This is the fourth in a series of articles exploring each position and the battles going on in Pittsburgh Steelers training camp and the preseason. Today we look at receivers and tight ends.
The Steelers begin 2009 with two solid starters in Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes.
Ward, the all-time leading receiver in franchise history, is still one of the best in the league even as he enters his 12th NFL campaign.
Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin has given Ward a number of days off during training camp to keep him fresh and in good spirits.
The strategy is already paying dividends.
Ward had a great camp. He looks sharp and is unquestionably a team leader. The veteran works with the younger guys on a regular basis giving advice and demonstrating proper technique. It's really a two-for-one deal for the Steelers. Ward is not only a player; He's a coach as well.
Santonio Holmes came to camp with a swagger after being named MVP of Super Bowl XLIII. Look for the Ohio State product to be even more productive this season. He's getting more and more comfortable in Bruce Arians' offense, so expect Holmes to emerge as the go-to guy with Ward settling into a more of a No. 2 role.
The Pittsburgh starters are among the best in the NFL. It's a different story with the backups.
The team hopes Limas Sweed will take over the role. He's big and has all the skills to thrive in the job. The problem is not his body it's his head.
Sweed is the poster child for frustrating coaches and fans with his inconsistent play. One minute he looks like a future All-Pro, making amazingly difficult grabs. The next, he looks like he couldn't catch a cold let alone a football.
No matter the inconsistencies in his game, Tomlin and company are giving him every chance to take the job and run with it.
Veteran Shaun McDonald escaped the prison known as Detroit and has shined in the preseason. He's leading the team in receptions and unlike Sweed, McDonald catches everything thrown his way.
Versatility is another strong point. McDonald returns punts, can play the slot, and work on the edge. The seven-year pro should have a spot locked up.
Another roster slot will be occupied by speedster Mike Wallace. The rookie had a decent camp, showcasing his blazing 4.3 speed and surprisingly good hands. He was inconsistent at times, most rookies are, but Wallace earned his way on the 53 and could be a force once he gains experience.
Wallace even worked with the first unit in three receiver sets against Washington last week, replacing Sweed. That should tell you how much the Pittsburgh coaching staff likes him. Throw in his ability to return kicks and you have a potential draft-day steal in the making
If the Steelers decide to keep a sixth receiver it will be between Dallas Baker, Brandon Williams, or Martin Nance.
Undrafted rookie Tyler Grisham doesn't have great size, but has soft hands and could land on the practice squad.
The Steelers are blessed with two solid tight ends in Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth.
Miller had sports hernia surgery in the offseason, but by the end of camp, looked in mid-season form. With the No. 3 receiver situation so cloudy, look for Miller to improve on his numbers (48 receptions, 514 yards) from last year.
Spaeth has always had decent hands, but his blocking skills were suspect. The Minnesota standout focused on blocking during the offseason and it showed in camp. He's exploding off the ball with good leg drive and solid positioning.
With his new-found skills Spaeth should see even more playing time in 2009.
The battle for the third tight end spot is between veteran Sean McHugh and seventh-round pick David Johnson.
McHugh came to camp with a new contract and the favorite to make the team. Someone forget to tell Johnson.
The Arkansas State product is a devastating blocker, he even knocked James Harrison back a step during drills, with good receiving skills.
And while he'll never be known as a great pass-catching tight end, Johnson's blocking is first rate. The Steelers have used him as a fullback on goal-line situations in camp.
Despite McHugh's contract and six years in the league, Johnson is ahead right now on the depth chart. McHugh's hamstring issues in camp hurt him as well. The battle should go down to the final preseason game before a decision is made.
The Steelers have a solid group of tight ends and a great starting duo at wide receiver. Someone from the list of Sweed, McDonald, and Wallace must emerge as the No. 3 receiver. If not, Miller and Spaeth will have to increase production in a hurry.