During the 2011 NFL offseason, otherwise known as the lockout, I received a lot of criticism for placing the Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiving corps second among all 32 NFL teams.
Nine games and one personnel change later, the Steelers have not only shown that their doubters were wrong, but they have arguably established themselves as the best in the league.
To this point in the season, the team's receivers have accounted for 134 receptions, or 14.9 per game, and 1,963 yards, 218 yards per game.
So what? Big deal—they're receivers, that's what they are supposed to do.
That's very true, and anyone that has read my articles before will know statistics mean nothing to me, but the Steelers' passing success can be seen on the field also.
Long gone are the days when Hines Ward was the team's only threat on the outside. Ward is still a good receiver—those outside of Pittsburgh believe he has lost a step significantly, but those watching Ward on a weekly basis understand that he is still good enough to start for most teams in the league.
Ward has played in eight games this year but has only started six. His involvement in the offense is still vital, as he represents a safety net for Ben Roethlisberger, particularly on third down, whenever a sure completion is needed.
However, the Super Bowl XL MVP realistically is the fourth, arguably fifth, most talented receiver on the team today.
Mike Wallace is not only an elite receiver in the NFL, he is separating himself as one of the elite players also. Emmanuel Sanders is a matchup nightmare whose only struggles have come in developing a better understanding with his quarterback. Antonio Brown has exploded into a big-play receiver who also knows how to sniff out first downs. Jerricho Cotchery's only issues have been finding a way on the field, as some have described him as a 27-year-old Hines Ward.
Individually, each of these receivers are stars—collectively, they are unstoppable.
The biggest limitation on the Pittsburgh Steelers receivers is the same limitation that hinders every offensive player for the Steelers—their offensive coordinator.
It is no coincidence that the offense had its most impressive game of the season against the New England Patriots when Bruce Arians, said coordinator, had his finest game since becoming the team's coordinator after the departure of Ken Whisenhunt.
Of the five receivers (not to discount Arnaz Battle, who is a capable receiver that is lost on the offensive depth chart but a star on special teams), Hines Ward is the only truly limited option.
Ward's lack of pace has reduced him to a possession receiver who excels from the slot rather than playing on the outside. He is the only receiver on the team averaging less than 10 yards per reception, because that is the role that he is now filling.
Ward is playing a similar role to the league's leading receiver (Wes Welker for the Patriots), but Ward is actually in a better position with more talent around him.
Welker was shut down by the Steelers when Ike Taylor played a stellar game in coverage. However, he could only do so because the Patriots had no other threats to break man coverage elsewhere.
The Patriots receiving corps is average at best despite the fact that Welker is obviously much better than Ward right now.
One thing that is often overlooked on offenses is how well receivers complement each other.
For example, the Baltimore Ravens last year supposedly had a more talented bunch of receivers than they have this year, but this year's speed around Anquan Boldin allows him as well as Joe Flacco to excel.
Finding complementary pieces to your best receivers is a great thing to aim for, but finding receivers that can do everything and grouping them together is an even better goal.
The best example of this over the past few years was the Packers receivers from last year.
If you pressed any of those receivers in single coverage, you would get beaten deep by any one of James Jones, Jordy Nelson, Donald Driver or Greg Jennings. Similarly, if you played zone coverage, every single on of them had the intelligence, strength and hands to punish the defense.
This year's group of Steelers not only emulates that group but potentially surpasses them.
Mike Wallace is seen as a deep threat by most NFL analysts, but he has proven in the past, before he was being double-teamed on every snap, that he can catch the ball over the middle and make the difficult receptions for the first down.
Just look back to his rookie season, when he excelled as the team's third receiver, often in clutch situations.
Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown have shown the ability to catch the ball over the middle, go deep or run good intermediate routes.
Sanders in particular cannot be played straight up by one corner. His combination of size and speed with his soft hands and huge wingspan makes him a major problem—it is the reason Darrelle Revis shadowed him a lot during last season's AFC championship game and why he entered the Super Bowl as a focal point of the Steelers' game plan.
His season has been slow as far as productivity because of an offseason filled with injury. It is noticeable that he and Roethlisberger are not yet on the same page, as their breakdowns are often due to each player reading the situation differently.
Antonio Brown proved he was explosive as a rookie with a kick return against Tennessee and a huge reception against the Ravens in the playoffs. The reception against the Ravens didn't require Brown to run a route, but so far this year, he has shown that his route-running isn't an issue.
Thirty of Brown's 39 receptions have gone for first downs this year, and his repertoire of routes has developed from just a deep receiver who also catches screen passes into an all -playmaker who doesn't just rely on his speed or YAC ability to get yards.
The Steelers' strength in depth at the position has been tested this year with the loss of Ward, Cotchery and Sanders at times. Mike Tomlin is lucky to have one of the best tight ends in the game to slot right in as a receiver, as Heath Miller is third on the team in receiving.
With Sanders and Ward suffering injuries entering the AFC North clash with the Bengals, however, the team still has no reason not to rely on the trio of Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown and Jericho Cotchery.
Cotchery wasn't a huge addition during the offseason, coming over from the Jets after offseason surgery, but as far as talent went, he would have been at worst a third-choice receiver for most teams in the league.
Yet he arrived in Pittsburgh as the team's fifth, arguably sixth (considering Arnaz Battle is no slouch) choice receiver. Cotchery is a reliable possession receiver who is missed in New York. He has only four receptions on the year but has rarely seen the field.
The eight-year veteran and four-year starter brings a wealth of experience to a mostly youthful group, but at 29 years of age, he still has a lot to offer.
Cotchery is the perfect backup to play in Ward's role on the field and arguably—because of his added athleticism and ability to outrun defenders—could be challenging Ward for his place.
The Steelers' depth is being tested significantly on defense and, in what is seemingly becoming a ritual, on the offensive line. Yet you wouldn't even notice Hines Ward's absence this year if it wasn't for his beaming smile constantly attracting the camera's attention his way.
A lot of teams have very talented receivers in the NFL, such as Roddy White and Julio Jones in Atlanta or Calvin Johnson and Nate Burleson in Detroit. But outside of Green Bay, no other group can even be considered in the same class as far as depth and complementing each other than the Pittsburgh Steelers receivers.