By Jeremy Hritz
Hines Ward was no doubt an integral part of the Pittsburgh Steelers over the last several years and was a primary contributor in Super Bowl wins number six and seven. His physicality and connection with the fans of Pittsburgh will not be forgotten, no matter what jersey he wears next year (with the exclusion of a black and purple one). Ward will always be a Steeler, and someday soon, he will wear a jacket in Canton.
However, it was time for him to go. There would have been no way of justifying keeping him on board for the 2012 season with the plentiful young talent at wide receiver in Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders, and the hopefully soon-to-be resigned Mike Wallace. While Ward could have provided leadership and guidance to the young receivers, his diminished abilities, which were evident in 2011, would not have made the Steelers offense as effective as it could be in 2012. The impending release of Ward now sets the team up for either the resigning of Jerricho Cotchery or a middle-tier or slightly above average free agent wide receiver. Or, in an NFL Draft that Kevin Colbert has labeled as deep in wide receivers, and with the recent success the Steelers have had drafting wide receivers, the Steelers could pull the trigger on a wide-out in the third or fourth round of this year’s draft.
Ward’s upcoming release is also indicative that the other speculated cuts will soon be announced. These moves are being made so that the team can be in compliance with the salary cap, offer Wallace a viable long-term contract, and to create room to make offers to any free agents that they may have their eyes on.
So who will be next to get the axe over the next couple of weeks? It seems the magic number is two.
Chris Kemoeatu is as good as gone. A penalty machine who was demoted during the 2011 season, Kemoeatu has become expendable, and with the likelihood of the Steelers drafting a guard in the first or second round, his exit is nearly guaranteed.
The next cut will either be James Farrior or Larry Foote. Farrior is the elder of the two at 37 years old, and based on his play this year, which was questionable especially in pass coverage, he should get the axe. Again, his contributions to the team will not be forgotten, but his effectiveness as a middle linebacker has declined, and Foote still has a few productive years left at 31.
Colbert has already indicated that Casey Hampton will be returning to the team in an interview from last week’s NFL Combine. Hampton is currently recovering from his third ACL injury after a less than stellar performance in 2011 in which his performance contributed to a porous run defense. While Hampton will not be cut, the organization needs to seriously consider his future with team and his ability to contribute at a high level. With the possibility of the Steelers drafting Dontari Poe, if he is attainable during the draft, and with Steve McClendon’s serviceable play last season, is Hampton a necessity?
The biggest cut has already taken place with Ward. And as March 13th approaches, Kemoeatu and Farrior are probably the next in line. The moves being made are necessary as the Steelers gear up to offer Wallace an attractive contract and to have some flexibility to go after a few free agents. This much is clear: When it comes to letting players go, it isn’t about what players have done, it is about what they have done lately. No one is safe, and there may be more surprises left in the black and gold bag,