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Don't forget about underrated Ward

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Posted Aug. 24, 2010 @ 3:36 p.m. ET
By Michael Blunda

This is the 46th in a series of opinionated fantasy football columns that will be posted daily in July and August, providing fantasy owners with some insights to consider as they prepare for their drafts. You can get an in-depth preview of the upcoming fantasy football season with the purchase of the Yahoo! Sports / Pro Football Weekly Fantasy Football Guide 2010, available now in newsstands and bookstores, or online at PFWstore.com.

Hines Ward is full of qualities that usually cause fantasy owners to run the other way. He's past his prime at age 34. He's not very fast and rarely hauls in deep grabs. He's a key blocker in an offense that has a history of being more ground and pound than chuck and duck. And his starting quarterback is suspended for at least the first four games of the season. It's almost enough to cross him off your cheat sheet here and now, right?

Not quite. Despite all these knocks against Ward, the truth is this: He's probably one of the safer picks in all of fantasy football this season. What? That's right — while it may be hard to believe on the surface, a deeper look shows that the Steelers' wideout is ripe to succeed in 2010.

For Ward, age has proven to be nothing more than a number. After appearing to hit a wall around 2007, he has rebounded strongly over the past two campaigns, posting back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons and reeling in an impressive 95 receptions last year. Unlike most players in their mid-30s, his skills have not greatly diminished — his 1,167 yards last season were the most he has had since '02.

The Georgia product is also back to being a clear-cut No. 1 receiver again after Pittsburgh shipped Santonio Holmes to the Jets this offseason. Even though Ward shined in '09, Holmes led the team in receiving with 79 catches for 1,248 yards and five TDs, obviously commanding a significant amount of QB Ben Roethlisberger's attention. That's a lot of extra balls likely to head Ward's way this season, making a statistical improvement possible and a rise in TDs (he had six last year) very likely.

One potential negative of Holmes' loss would be the added coverage likely to head Ward's way. But, thanks to Mike Wallace that might not be an issue. Expected to step into the starting lineup this season, the blazing-fast receiver gained an eye-popping 19.4 yards per catch during his rookie campaign as Pittsburgh's primary downfield threat. His presence will force defenses to respect the deep ball, leaving them unable to double-team Ward. Given their skill sets, the two wideouts should complement each other perfectly.

Furthermore, the Steelers' offense is not the same run-heavy attack it used to be. Coordinator Bruce Arians really opened up the playbook in '09, allowing Roethlisberger to air it out and easily post career bests in pass attempts and yardage. Although there has been talk that the club will rely more on the ground game, Arians won't make any drastic changes to an offense that ranked seventh in the league. This can only help Ward, as his opportunities will be plentiful.

Of course, there's the issue of Big Ben's suspension, which turns down the excitement level for Ward a notch or two. With the QB sitting out at least the first four games of '10, either Byron Leftwich or Dennis Dixon will be under center for the season's initial month — let's face it, neither of those passers can replicate Roethlisberger's on-field performance. However, the Steelers still will have to throw during that stretch, and you can bet the reliable Ward will be a frequent target of whoever is slinging passes. Even if the veteran does get off to a shaky start, he should be golden once Big Ben returns. Isn't it worth sacrificing a slow first month for stellar production down the stretch?

If you want a guy who will put up numbers week-in and week-out and almost never miss time, Ward is your man. Posting nine 100-yard games over the past two seasons — the same number as Randy Moss and Reggie Wayne — Ward is as consistent as they come. With more targets on the way in 2010, that isn't about to change, and for fantasy owners, consistency is vital.

Is Ward the most exciting pick on draft day? No. But is he someone who will be a valuable asset to your fantasy squad all year long? Absolutely.

 

For authoritative coverage and analysis of NFL news, free agency and fantasy football, visit ProFootballWeekly.com.

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