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Steelers take flier on ex-Colts WR Heyward-Bey

| Wednesday, April 2, 2014, 2:03 p.m.

Darrius Heyward-Bey possesses the one asset no coach can teach: speed.

The kind of speed that led the late Al Davis to draft him No. 7 overall for the Oakland Raiders in 2009 — several rounds higher than he was projected to go. The kind of speed that led the Steelers to sign him Wednesday to a one-year contract.

Heyward-Bey isn't likely to win the starting receiver's job vacated by Emmanuel Sanders, and former Saints receiver Lance Moore is expected to fill Jerricho Cotchery's role as the slot receiver.

But Heyward-Bey gives Ben Roethlisberger a downfield option with 4.3 speed with the potential to stretch defenses and make game-changing plays.

If he doesn't work out — like he didn't with the Indianapolis Colts last season — it won't cost the Steelers much to cut him. And at 6-foot-2, Heyward-Bey is 4 inches taller than No. 1 receiver Antonio Brown and 5 inches taller than Moore, and Roethlisberger likes throwing to taller receivers.

With Markus Wheaton still an unknown quantity after missing much of his rookie season with broken fingers, Heyward-Bey, who is 27, provides veteran depth at a thin position, just as newly signed cornerback Brice McCain does. Heyward-Bey has 169 career catches for 2,380 yards, a 14.1 average and 12 touchdowns.

Signing Heyward-Bey to a deal for the veteran's minimum of $730,000 or just above likely won't prevent the Steelers from going after a receiver early in a draft that is filled with premier receivers.

The Steelers have been unusually active in going after free agents — Heyward-Bey is the seventh they've locked up — and that might be a sign it's not business as usual following a second successive 8-8 season.

Like McCain, Heyward-Bey was one of the lowest-rated players at his position last season. He was ranked No. 107 by Pro Football Focus among the 110 most-used receivers in the NFL. But while he caught only 29 passes and made 11 starts last season for Indianapolis, he made a career-best 64 passes for 975 yards with the Raiders in 2009.

Drops were an issue — he had nine, tying him for the 14th most in the league — and he had at least one in all but five of the 14 Colts games in which he was targeted at least once. He caught 29 of 58 passes thrown his way.

Heyward-Bey has been labeled as an underachiever, but that is mostly the result of him being taken higher than he should have been in 2009. A 64-catch season in his third year would have been considered an accomplishment had he been a third- or fourth-round pick.

Heyward-Bey signed with the Steelers following a Wednesday visit to their South Side offices. They also entertained visits from Michigan State cornerback Darqueze Dennard and Notre Dame defensive end Stephon Tuitt.

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