Recent reports have said Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward is willing to restructure his contract to stay with the team in 2012, while a report from Jason La Canfora of the NFL Network has said the Steelers will not bring back the soon-to-be 36-year-old receiver.
Ward has two years left on his current contract, and is due to make $4 million in both 2012 and 2013, and he is coming off the lowest yardage total of his career (381) and he also failed to reach 50 receptions since his third NFL season in 2000. There has been a changing of the guard in the Pittsburgh receiving corps in recent years, as Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown most notably have emerged and Ward's role has been reduced.
Still, Ward finished the 2011 season with exactly 1,000 career receptions to go along with 12,083 yards and 85 touchdowns. He is one of only eight receivers in league history with 1,000 catches and he is in the top 20 all-time in receiving yards (18th) and receiving touchdowns (tied for 13th). These are clearly numbers on par with being an all-time great, though Ward has definitely been underrated and overlooked among the wide receivers of his era. Much of that has to do with the brass personalities at the position that have grabbed headlines, such as Terrell Owens and Randy Moss, while Ward has quietly toiled in the relative obscurity of Pittsburgh and the AFC North.
Ward said in January that he has no plans to retire, and would be willing to play elsewhere if the Steelers do not want to keep him. That said, even if he plays a few more seasons, I feel it is worth taking a look at Ward's numbers and weigh his chances for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame whenever he becomes eligible.
Ward's longevity and durability should not be overlooked, as he started at least 13 games every season from 1999-2010 and has played all 16 games in all but three of his 14 NFL seasons (counting 2011). His best season, which may stand up now due to his advanced age, came in 2002 when he set career-highs across the board with 112 receptions for 1,329 yards and 12 touchdowns. He had another solid season in 2005 (11 touchdowns) and capped it off with an MVP performance in Super Bowl XLV against the Seattle Seahawks.
Given how the Pro Football Hall of Fame has treated wide receivers up to this point, which may have to change due to how the NFL has become a pass-heavy league, Ward may have to wait a while before getting serious consideration for induction. The wide receivers that will also be in line for Hall of Fame induction include Cris Carter, Tim Brown, Andre Reed among those currently eligible and Marvin Harrison, Isaac Bruce, Owens and Moss among those not yet eligible but likely to become eligible around the same time as Ward.
If I were a voter and had a vote today, with all things being equal and all the above notable wide receivers (and perhaps others I did not think of) eligible for induction, I would have to leave Ward out of the Hall of Fame. Not to say that would not change over time as the backlog of worthy receivers gets in, but right now there are too many others that would get my vote ahead of him. I feel like Ward will be one of the candidates that straddles the line of "Hall of Fame" or "Hall of Very Good" when he becomes eligible in the eyes of a lot of voters. That looks unfair when looking at his numbers and where he sits all-time, but he is unlikely to be a sure-fire lock even with those credentials.