Yet another notable wide receiver has hit the free agent market, so being an ever-ambitious sports blogger, I decided to pounce on and devour the opportunity to create speculation like a wolf on fresh meat.
Today's wide receiver du jour is Hines Ward, the Steelers' smirking veteran that defensive backs love to hate. After a Hall of Fame 14 year career with Pittsburgh, Hines Ward has been informed of his release, making him available for pursuit by other teams. The next, oh-so-logical question is: Will the 49ers bite?
Well I say: Sure, why not? At 36, Ward has certainly seen a drop off statistically, but he doesn't believe that his career is done, and I'm not so sure either.
Oft injured in 2011, he played in 15 games and only started in 9. He racked up 46 catches for 381 yards and 2 touchdowns. Those numbers are nearly half of what he put up in 2010, and not even sniffing what he did in 09. He certainly wasn't the primary target that he used to be, especially with players like Antonio Brown and Mike Wallace taking snaps from him. Many people think Ward's career is over, but I don't believe that he would be completely useless on the 49ers nonetheless. If the 49ers could get land Hines Ward on a short term, inexpensive deal, he could be a useful piece.
He doesn't exactly fit the bill for what the 49ers need at wide receiver. He's not a burner; he never has been. But he would provide Alex Smith with another receiving option - someone with sure hands who runs disciplined routes. He's also a hell of a run-blocking wideout, an asset for Jim Harbaugh's balanced run-pass system. Off the field, he could play the role of Yoda for Michael Crabtree, a guy who has never enjoyed the benefit of having a true veteran wide receiver around to take cues from.
It wouldn't be the first time the 49ers signed an over-the-hill wideout. We all remember when Isaac Bruce became a 49er and we all took to enjoying chanting his name, right? Signing him to a 2 year, $6M deal may have even been a stretch for a 38 year old who was clearly past his prime, but his 835 yards and 7 touchdowns in 2008 provided a little bit of spark and proved that he had something left in the tank.
Whether or not Ward has anything left in the tank himself is up for debate. Bruce's 733 yards and 4 touchdowns in 2007 are better numbers than Ward's 2011 effort in Pittsburgh, but the 49ers wouldn't have to offer him much. Case in point: Braylon Edwards.
The 49ers waited out the market on Edwards until it was clear that he wasn't getting offers. They stepped in and pushed $1M base salary deal across the table stocked with some lofty incentives. It was basically no-risk from a salary cap standpoint. When Braylon fizzed out, there was no loss in cutting him because there was no great financial burden attached to him.
The same design can be utilized in pursuing Ward. If they wait out the market and find that no one has signed him, they can step in with a small, incentive-laden offer and see if he bites. It would be tertiary to both signing a free agent wide receiver - one who can REALLY make a difference - and using their first round draft pick to get another one. If another team picks up Ward, or if the 49ers get him and he turns out to be truly done, it's not a big deal because he wasn't their primary target to begin with. But if he signs a 1 year deal for around $1M, they have picked up a cheap veteran who could fill a role on their squad.
I'm not saying that I would be flying out of my cage if this deal happened - who's to say that Ward isn't done? He certainly looked that way after the concussion he sustained in November of 2011. Nonetheless, Hines Ward says he still wants to play, and for the right price, the 49ers may just offer him that opportunity.