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Pass-catching skill, toughness define Ward

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By Mike Wilkening

The Steelers took Hines Ward after 14 other wide receivers were taken in the 1998 NFL draft, and they selected him with a compensatory pick, one of four they were awarded because of free-agent losses the previous offseason. Most notably, the Steelers lost OLB Chad Brown to Seattle, which inked him to a six-year, $24 million deal.

Ward played a minor role in his first season, catching 15 passes. But by 1999, he was a starter, and he was a fixture in the Steelers' lineup for much of the next 11 seasons, thriving no matter what personality the Pittsburgh offense had taken.

Ward's career in Pittsburgh ended Wednesday, with the club announcing his impending release. Perhaps Ward, who turns 36 on March 8, will sign elsewhere. In a statement released Wednesday, Ward, according to NFL.com, said he was "looking forward to playing in the NFL, again, this upcoming season."

Smart and tough, perhaps Ward still can be effective against zone coverage. Teams looking for a possession receiver could do worse.

And he will block. Yes, he will block. It says it all about Ward that it is necessary to mention his blocking this high in the story, for if I didn't, you would say, "Well, all these numbers are nice …  but what about all the times he LEVELED defensive players?"

In a 2009 game at Cincinnati, Ward famously clobbered Bengals OLB Keith Rivers with a helmet-to-helmet block. The play broke Rivers' jaw and ended his season, and the league later outlawed similar blocks.

The 6-foot, 205-pound Ward did more than his part to contribute to the Steelers' collective physicality, but his pass-catching skill and productivity ultimately will be what puts him in the Hall of Fame discussion. He caught 1,000 passes in his 14 seasons, becoming only the eighth player to reach quadruple digits in receptions. He exceeded 90 catches four times, and as recently as 2009. He was a standout in his first Super Bowl, garnering game MVP honors with five receptions, 123 yards and a TD catch. When the Steelers captured another NFL title three years later, Ward again was a key contributor, hauling in one reception of at least 38 yards in all three of Pittsburgh's postseason wins.

Those moments comprise part of Ward's legacy in Pittsburgh. The little things, though, are essential to his story. Grinding his way forward on a screen pass, working his way open for Ben Roethlisberger time-and-again in key situations — that was the essence of Hines Ward. A little more than 84 percent of his receptions went for less than 20 yards.

Ward's release is not a total surprise. His role had diminished last season, with Antonio Brown taking his starting spot. If Ward had returned to Pittsburgh, he might have been the fourth or fifth option at his position.

Whatever is next for Ward, we know this much: the Steelers were rather well-compensated for their free-agency troubles of 1997. And few have ever done more with their NFL shots than Hines Ward. 

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