Steelers may look WR with first-round pick
One of the last players to leave the field following both Steelers' Organized Team Activity practices this week, Limas Sweed spent extra time catching balls from a Jugs machine and working with coaches.
There is no doubting his commitment following a rookie season known more for what he didn't do — Sweed botched what would have been a sure touchdown catch against the Ravens in the AFC title game — than for what he did do.
How much confidence coach Mike Tomlin has that Sweed can handle a more prominent role this season is one factor that could shape the Steelers' draft.
The Steelers lost Nate Washington, last year's No. 3 wide receiver to free agency, and there is nothing in the way of proven depth behind starters Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes.
The Steelers could also have a long-term need at wide receiver since Ward is 33 and going into his 12th NFL season, not to mention the final year of his contract.
The position, ultimately, is one the team could address with its first-round pick (No. 32 overall) even though the Steelers also have needs on both lines as well as at cornerback.
In 2008, no wide receivers were selected in the first round of the draft. This year, there could be "three to six" wide receivers taken in the first round, said NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock.
"This year's class has more quality at the top," Mayock said, "and I think a little more depth throughout."
If a wide receiver that the Steelers covet falls to the bottom of the first round, one question they will have to ask themselves: how soon they will get a return on their investment if they pick that player.
Sweed's struggles last season — he caught just six passes for 64 yards in 11 games — are not uncommon for rookie wide receivers. The transition from college to the NFL can be particularly tough for wide receivers because pro football is so much more demanding from both a physical and mental standpoint.
"In college, guys don't have to read coverages as much," Sweed said. "Being a receiver (in the NFL), you almost have to be a second quarterback."
Sweed is far from the only rookie wide receiver to make a minimal contribution, at least statistically, his first season.
Ward, the Steelers' all-time leader in receptions, caught just 15 passes his rookie season. Plaxico Burress, whom the Steelers made the eighth overall pick of the 2000 draft, had 22 receptions in his first NFL season.
"It's hit or miss as far as far as how quickly they transition," ESPN NFL Draft analyst Mel Kiper said.
That proved to be the case last year.
Two of the 10 wide receivers taken in the second round, Denver's Eddie Royal and Philadelphia's DeSean Jackson, made an instant impact. Each had over 900 receiving yards in 2008.
Sweed, James Hardy of Buffalo and Devin Thomas and Malcolm Kelly of Washington, meanwhile, combined for less than 300 receiving yards and two touchdowns.
All four played at BCS schools and had been considered potential first-round picks prior to last year's draft. Their rookie seasons bolster any argument that wide receivers often take longer to adjust to the pro game.
"I don't necessarily agree with that," Tomlin said. "I think the better the football team, the tougher it is for a young guy to have an impact. And I think more is at stake when a young guy has an opportunity to contribute, so it makes their growth and development tougher from a perception standpoint."
The perception is that the Steelers need to bolster themselves at wide receiver.
When asked if he thinks the Steelers should do that through the draft, Holmes, a first-round pick in 2006, said, "Why not• We've only got six guys with us now, and we're definitely going to need more guys to help. I'm pretty sure coach (Tomlin) is going to open his eyes to anything."
Here are some wide receivers that could be available when it is the Steelers' turn to pick at the end of the first round Saturday in the NFL Draft.
Darrius Heyward-Bey, Maryland — A tantalizing prospect because of his size and speed, he never came close to a 1,000-yard receiving season in college, which could raise a red flag.
Kenny Britt, Rutgers — Big East's all-time leading receiver is big and physical but is not a burner.
Percy Harvin, Florida — Dynamic and versatile playmaker could slip to the bottom of the first round because of concerns about his durability and character.
Hakeem Nicks, North Carolina — Might not be a good short-term fit for Steelers if they are looking for a speedster to take over for Nate Washington.
Brian Robiskie, Ohio State — Has NFL bloodlines and the Steelers had success the last time they took an Ohio State wide receiver in the first round.