The Great 18: Unit Evaluation of the 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers

RealFootball365.comSenior Writer IFebruary 17, 2008

The NFL's free agency period, set to commence Feb. 29, is looming. Here at, we are in the process of setting the Pittsburgh Steelers' priorities before they delve into the free-agent market.

Eight through 18 have been discussed, leaving the seven most important positions the Steelers will have to address this offseason.

Here are the links for 8-18.

8. Cornerback
9. Outside linebacker; 10. Inside linebacker.
11. Nose tackle; 12. Strong safety.
13. Quarterback; 14. Running back.
15. Tight end; 16. Punter; 17. Kicker; 18. Long snapper.

Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger drew a definitive line in the sand of Heinz Field this offseason, mentioning his desire to have a "tall receiver." Understandably, the receiver who is in the process of rewriting Pittsburgh's receptions record book, 6 foot Hines Ward, is slightly miffed at the idea of size mattering at that position. With Ward on the negative side of 30 years, and Nate Washington not at all likely to earn much in Pittsburgh past his restricted free agent season of 2008, will the Steelers throw a bone to their franchise signal-caller?

Perhaps the most intriguing positional situation the Steelers have this year, at No. 7...

7. Wide receiver

Hines Ward, 11th season; Santonio Holmes, third season; Nate Washington, fourth season; Cedrick Wilson, eighth season; Willie Reid, third season; Jeremy Bloom, third season; Dallas Baker (PS), second season; Gerran Warren (PS), second year.

In case you didn't notice (and judging by Ward's record-breaking season in 2007, you didn't), Santonio Holmes became the first Steeler since Plaxico Burress in 2001 to out-gain Ward in receiving yards and lead the team. Holmes' 18.1 yards per catch was the highest in the NFL, and he missed three games. He's poised to have an elite-level season in 2008, regardless of the fact he stands 5-11 and not 6-4.

Ward wasn't a chump last year, either. He led the team with 71 catches and seven touchdowns while playing most of the season with a sprained knee. He's had surgery this offseason, and is supposed to recover in time for mini-camp in May.

After those two, however, the picture gets a bit more muddled. Not for a lack of talent, mind you, but for issues in priority. Veteran Nate Washington is expected to receive a mid-level tender offer from the Steelers before he enters restricted free agency Feb. 29. That means the Steelers will have to make a qualifying offer on a one-year deal or give him a long-term extension, or he will become an unrestricted free agent. If the Steelers make Washington a mid-level tender offer (a one-year deal for around $780,000, which is guaranteed), they would receive a third-round pick if another team signed Washington to an offer sheet and Pittsburgh elected not to match it.

Has Washington earned more than that? Probably not. While he had a career-high five touchdowns in 2007 - three over the last three regular-season games - Washington has had suspect hands during his NFL stint, and even with an incredible amount of athletic ability, he hasn't played consistently well enough to get much past the "potentially good" label.

Along with Washington, Cedrick Wilson could be in his final year with the Steelers. With one year left on the four-year contract he signed with the Steelers before the 2005 season, Wilson's tenure is probably best described as "disgruntled." He publicly complained about not getting the ball on multiple occasions in multiple seasons, and he'll turn 30 before the end of next season. He had 18 catches in 2007 - the same amount as second-string running back Najeh Davenport.

With two strong starters and two unsigned receivers after 2008, the Steelers have to ask themselves whether the lack of a known third wideout is something they should address high and early in this year's draft. Consider this: The Steelers took pass-catching tight ends (Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth) on the first day of the draft in 2005 and 2007.

There are some sizable receiver prospects that could be available at the 23rd pick in this year's draft. Oklahoma's Malcolm Kelly (6-4) and Indiana's James Hardy (6-6) are the two best WR prospects likely to go in the first round. Keep an eye on what the Steelers could do in the second round at the position, considering they haven't looked that way since drafting Antwaan Randle-El in the second round in 2002. They took Dallas Baker in the seventh round last year, and he spent the 2007 season on the practice squad.

They also signed KR/WR Jeremy Bloom for the 2008 season, but he isn't likely to assume a receiving role. If Bloom can show some ability in the return game, third-year man Willie Reid is not the odd man out. Reid has done very little to show the Steelers he should stick around, which is another reason why the team could look for a receiver on Day 1 of the draft.