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Free agent benefits from Ward's absence



Published: Sat, August 20, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



Cedrick Wilson got to show his talents to the coaching staff.

SCRIPPS HOWARD NEWS SERVICE

Newly acquired Cedrick Wilson is one of the few Pittsburgh Steelers who benefited from the training-camp absence of Hines Ward. The holdout enabled Wilson to get more time with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and gave him an extensive opportunity to show the coaching staff he was worth the free-agent investment.

That, though, does not mean Wilson is disappointed to see Ward, a four-time Pro Bowl receiver, end his 15-day holdout and return to the Steelers. Even if it means he has been bumped from the starting lineup.

For now.

"It brings a little more energy to this team, and it helps me go back to the position I've been wanting to play ever since I got in the NFL, and that's the split-end position," Wilson said. "That's the position I've learned in this offense and the position I'm comfortable with."

Came from 49ers

Wilson was the Steelers' biggest -- OK, only -- signing in free agency, a wide receiver who was brought in from the San Francisco 49ers to help replace the team's biggest loss in free agency, Plaxico Burress.

Burress was the team's X receiver, or split end, a position designed for deep passes and big plays. His size (6-51/2, 229) and speed are not easily replaced, but the Steelers think his receiving numbers can be duplicated, if not exceeded.

"When Hines came back, you look at that group right now, it's a really solid group," coach Bill Cowher said. "They're clearly three good football players."

It remains to be seen if Randle El or Wilson can match the numbers posted by Burress, a former No. 1 pick who caught 261 passes for 4,164 yards in five seasons and drew the attention of defenses away from Ward. But, with few exceptions, Burress never performed up to the expected big-play capabilities, too often falling down or dropping passes or losing his awareness on the field.

They do not have that with Randle El, who has the deft hands of a safe cracker. And it doesn't appear they have that with Wilson, who has shown the necessities for the X position -- deep speed, explosiveness and ability to get off the line of scrimmage -- through the first three weeks of training camp.

Happy with corps

Right now, the Steelers think this three-man receiving corps is better than their three-man receiving corps of last year.

"I think we have three legitimate receivers," said offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt. "I'm talking about guys who have the caliber to be starters."

"The thing that's nice with Hines, Cedrick and Antwaan is that those guys are all interchangeable," Cowher said. "You can do a lot of things because they all can play inside and they all can play outside. I think that's the thing that gives you a lot of flexibility."

Free-agent steal

The Steelers think they got a free-agent steal with Wilson, a fifth-year player out of Tennessee.

Not only does he fit the profile of the type of player they ideally seek in free agency -- a rising player whose best years are ahead of him -- but his speed and ability to shift to another gear make him the perfect fit for the X position.

XSaturday's Steelers game was not completed in time for this edition.




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