With all of the press surrounding the return of Randy Moss, another wide receiver drafted in 1998 has been swept under the rug. Hines Ward had has been a dedicated Pittsburgh Steeler for the last 13 seasons. Throughout his tenure with Pittsburgh, Ward (who is a former Super Bowl MVP) has accumulated 1,000 receptions (8th on the all time list), 12,083 yards (13th all time), and 85 receiving TDs (tied 13th all time), 428 rushing yards, and 1 rushing TD; not exactly a horrible career! Ward is also the most prolific Steelers receiver of all time leading all major statistical categories. It was reported last week that the Pittsburgh Steelers were considering not bringing Ward back for a 14th season. Although Ward has publicly stated he would restructure his contact to stay with the team, the question remains, should he? Should Hines Ward continue to persue playing for the Steelers, playing for a different team, or hang up the cleats?
Let's start by analyzing if Ward should continue trying to stay on with the Steelers. In 2011 Ward saw the worst production since his rookie year in 1998. Due to the emergence of Antonio Brown and Mike Wallace , Ward found himself as the odd man out in 2011. Although Ward is listed as the number one wide receiver on the Steelers' depth chart, Ward only started 9 games in 2011. The Steelers relied on Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown as their primary receivers; and with the emergence of Emanuel Saunders, Ward may find himself further from the field if he stays on in Pittsburgh for 2012.
Although Ward seems as though he is a dedicated Pittsburgh Steeler, he is also a dedicated football player. That being said, it is not impossible for Ward to seek employment elsewhere if the Steelers do, in fact, release him. Ward does have value and just because he saw a decrease in his production for Pittsburgh in 2011, does not mean he cannot be a productive receiver for another team in 2012. There are plenty of teams in the NFL looking for a veteran wide receiver to lead a group of young wide outs. Looking at the AFC North for example, the Cleveland Browns haven't had a lead at wide receiver for years. Browns QB Colt McCoy , who hasn't had the best start to his career, would probably welcome a great possession receiver like Ward with open arms. Not to mention the Browns could use a competent run blocking wide receiver on the outside. Moving away from the AFC North and moving further west (AFC), the Oakland Raiders have been without a lead wide receiver for some time now. Bringing in Ward would add the veteran presence Oakland has been missing for the past several seasons. Staying in the West (NFC), the San Francisco 49ers also have a need for a veteran wide receiver. After an abysmal showing by their wide receivers in the NFC Conference Championship game (1 reception by a wide receiver all game) no wide receiver should be crossed off of their list. Heading south (AFC), the Houston Texans and Jacksonville Jaguars both have a need for a possession receiver, and both teams could use Ward's excellent run blocking skills on the outside. The list of teams that could use a veteran wide receiver like Ward could go on, but Ward may recognize that another team isn't what he's looking for.
Another option for Hines Ward would be retirement. Ward is fortunate that he has had a very prominent career for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Many players don't know when to hang up the cleats (which could be Peyton Manning if rumors about bone spurs in his neck are going to require him to have another surgery), but Ward still has his health and a long football career ahead of him if he wants one. Ward would be a great candidate as a wide receivers coach. It may be too late for Ward to be hired on to a team for the 2012 season, but a year off to get some rest and coaching training would put Ward at the top of a lot of coach's lists for 2013. Adding Ward would upgrade any team's coaching situation. Just adding Ward as an assistant coach teaching other wide receivers how to run block would be beneficial for any team.
Hines Ward may not have to make any of these decisions because Steelers GM Kevin Colbert has not decided what to do about Ward's situation. Ward has already come out and said he would restructure his contract, so staying in Pittsburgh may be a foregone conclusion, but if Ward does hit the open market I don't think he'll be there long.