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Old 06-09-2005, 02:39 PM   #4
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Default Re: Steelers WR group shaping up nicely...

By Bob Labriola

It?s one of the few areas on the team where an offseason loss created an opening in the starting lineup, but ironically it?s also one of the deepest areas on the depth chart.

Plaxico Burress was a starting wide receiver dating back to his rookie season of 2000, but he?s now employed by the New York Giants. That means the spot opposite Hines Ward is available, and the competition for that job will be fierce. But so will the competition for each of the roster spots to be allocated to wide receivers during the 2005 season.

How many receivers will be on the final roster? Figure on five for sure, maybe six. But this is only the off-season, and a roster?s configuration can be affected by a variety of factors between now and the day the Steelers have to cut down to 53 players.

?I don?t think there?s any doubt this is a highly competitive group right now,? said wide receivers coach Bruce Arians. ?To say who gets to stay from (roster spots) four to six, we?ll have to cut some guys who can play in this league. Zamir Cobb?s coming back, and he had an outstanding camp last year.?

When Arians refers to the competition for the Nos. 4, 5 and 6 spots on the depth chart, he?s assuming that the first three spots will go to Hines Ward, Antwaan Randle El and Cedrick Wilson; their performances in minicamp and coaching sessions have reinforced that opinion.

Ward is the only receiver in franchise history to post four 1,000-yard seasons and to be voted to four Pro Bowls. As has been his history, Ward is a fixture at all offseason workouts, and he has done so this year as negotiations for a contract extension continue.

Randle El has made an amazingly smooth and quick transformation from being a one-man offense as an option quarterback at Indiana to an NFL wide receiver. Because he was a slot receiver during each of his first two NFL seasons, there were questions whether Randle El could be productive as a starter. But in the four games Burress missed with a hamstring injury last year, Randle El averaged 20.6 yards on each of his 13 receptions; during coaching sessions Randle El punctuated the session by making a fine grab of a pass 40 yards downfield from Ben Roethlisberger.

Wilson was the most significant veteran addition of this offseason, and he has had his impressive moments already. When he signed with the Steelers, Wilson said his ability to get deep comes from stop-and-start quickness, and he has flashed that at times, to go along with sure hands and crisp route-running.

Those three guys have starting NFL experience, and that serves to separate them from the pack. But for the Steelers this year, that pack has some talent.

?There are a lot of guys. It?s going to be interesting,? said Coach Bill Cowher. ?There are some positions open, and there are people who have some opportunities to show themselves. Antwaan Randle El is looking for an expanded role; Cedrick Wilson has some experience coming from San Francisco. Lee Mays is much further along in terms of his development. There?s a good group of young guys. Sean Morey is getting his first chance to go through a training camp with us; Walter Young, a guy from our practice squad last year, is someone we picked up late.

?There are some guys who were with us last year but hadn?t been through a training camp, and couple that with Fred Gibson and a couple of the free agents we signed, there are some numbers there. We?ll see how those guys separate from each other. There?s going to be some healthy competition.?

In addition to those Cowher mentioned, Cobb has come back from a season on injured reserve with the same burst, the same combination of quickness and speed that had him on the cusp of making the 53-man roster last summer. A serious leg injury ruined Cobb?s bid last year, but he?s back and looking like a more experienced version of the same player.

?He was impressive last year. He had a great camp,? said Arians. ?It might have been a blessing that he broke his leg and got to sit around and watch good players for a year.?

Cobb made his run at a roster spot last summer as an undrafted rookie, and Nate Washington is another player with similar pedigree and interesting raw skills. During his career at Division II Tiffin, Washington scored 47 touchdowns.

And even though NFL teams don?t have to make their final cuts until Sept. 4, the off-season was an important time for this group of receivers.

?What?s become more apparent to me as I?ve been around this longer is the chemistry that evolves between the quarterback and those receivers, and when you develop that chemistry is this time of year,? said offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt.

?After being in the Pro Bowl, and having a chance to work with Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison, you could see them talk about how they work together in the offseason and develop that chemistry. And I think that?s what we can get done here. That?s where you get an understanding of how they?re going to break the route off, what they?re going to see, how you anticipate the throws, how they feel comfortable with what they?re doing. That?s where I think we?ll make the biggest strides.?
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