The odds of any player coming out of a small college football program in a conference like the Mid-American Conference usually isn’t good. It’s especially true for the quarterback position. Ben Roethlisberger showed he was not the average quarterback. He stood at 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds and had more than 10,800 passing yards during his three season at Miami (Ohio).
Despite the small school background, he was the 11th overall selection in the 2004 NFL Draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers. Roethlisberger would join a franchise that considered Terry Bradshaw their greatest quarterback in team history. But Big Ben would establish himself a legacy that has put him in that top spot.
Through a number of injuries, Roethlisberger came into the 2016 season with nearly 43,000 passing yards with 272 touchdowns against 147 interceptions. His resume includes four Pro Bowl selections and two Super Bowl wins. But a quarterback has to have someone to throw to. Roethlisberger has had a number of great wide receivers to target that have allowed him to climb the all-time rankings in league history.
While a good quarterback has great targets to whom he can throw, Roethlisberger is someone who has been able to find success even with average or subpar receivers in the offense. Not everyone he throws to is going to put up the big numbers like Hines Ward and Antonio Brown. The following 15 receivers highlight both the best and the worst Big Ben has ever had to throw to through as Roethlisberger is currently in his 13th season in the NFL.
15 Best – Martavis Bryant
It’s important to note the Martavis Bryant is going through some personal struggles that have led to him being inactive for the 2016 season. Failed drug tests and a battle with depression are his current opponents. The hope is that he will be able to win over his demons because the young wide receiver has shown a lot of promise. There’s a reason Bryant was picked by Pittsburgh in the fourth round of the 2014 NFL Draft.
In his rookie season, he had 26 catches for 549 yards and eight touchdowns that included a 94-yard scoring reception. The numbers and targets grew in 2015 with 50 receptions for 765 yards and six touchdowns. The amazing part is that he has yet to play a full season with 21 games in the first two seasons. If he can take care of his personal issues and play a 16-game season, he could be the perfect no. 2 option for the Steelers.
14 Worst – Jerricho Cotchery
Jerricho Cotchery was able to become a decent wide receiver during his time with the New York Jets for several years after being chosen in the fourth round of the 2004 NFL Draft. In the seven years with the Jets, Cotchery had 358 receptions for 4,514 yards and 18 touchdowns. The Pittsburgh Steelers were hopeful that he would be a big contributor to the Pittsburgh offense after signing him for the 2011 season.
But in three years in Pittsburgh, Cotchery was unable to produce in the same way he had with the Jets. For the first two seasons with New York, Cotchery totaled 442 yards and two touchdowns. Even in his most productive year with the Steelers in 2013, he only had 602 yards while catching 10 touchdowns. Compared to his big years in New York, it felt like Cotchery was unable to meet expectations.
13 Best – Antwaan Randle El
Maybe Antwaan Randle El was not a no. 1 receiver like some of the other receivers to whom Roethlisberger has thrown. There was some hope for him to be a top name. He was certainly rated high enough to be a second round draft choice by Pittsburgh in the 2002 NFL Draft, but it seemed like he wasn’t getting a lot of chances until Roethlisberger would join the Steelers in 2004 – when Randle El would have 43 receptions for 601 yards and three touchdowns. In their second season together, Randle El would get 15 starts in the 2005 season.
Randle El was a contributor for the Steelers as they would make a run from a Wild Card berth to the Super Bowl XL victory. In fact, Randle El threw a 43-yard pass to Hines Ward in the fourth quarter to make the score 21-10. He might not have been the best, but he did his job well.
12 Worst – Darrius Heyward-Bey
Darrius Heyward-Bey is someone who was a first round choice that showed plenty of promise during his college years at the University of Maryland. After some struggles in his first two seasons with Oakland, he had the one good year in 2011 with 975 yards and four touchdowns. Still, his performance continued to fall below the expectations of someone drafted seventh overall by the Raiders. He would spend one season with Indianapolis before he would eventually find himself in Pittsburgh.
In 2014, Heyward-Bey only started one game and had three receptions for 33 yards. He was slightly better in the 2015 season, when he caught 21 receptions for 314 yards and two touchdowns. Heyward-Bey is currently in his third season with the Steelers, but he’s not considered a starting option for the offense led by Roethlisberger.
11 Best – Emmanuel Sanders
Emmanuel Sanders has found a lot of success entering his third season with the Denver Broncos. He was part of Denver’s Super Bowl winning team last season and also put up some very large numbers – including 1,404 yards on 101 receptions in 2014. But before coming to the Broncos, Sanders as a third round draft choice out of Southern Methodist University.
Pittsburgh’s offense has collected a number of talented targets underneath Roethlisberger’s direction, so when Sanders came to the Steelers in the 2010 season, he had to fight for targets. After totaling a little more than 600 yards in his first two seasons, he started to increase his catch rate with more targets. His breakout season came in 2013 with 67 catches for 740 yards and six touchdowns. This led to him earning a deal with Denver and the rest his history.
10 Worst – Lance Moore
Lance Moore was the kind of receiver who benefited from playing with Drew Brees as a quarterback at New Orleans. It was a much more potent offense that threw the ball more than just about every other NFL team. In his eight seasons with the Saints, Moore had 4,281 yards with 38 touchdowns. He showed potential for someone who was never really a No. 1 receiver.
However, when he came to Pittsburgh in the 2014 season, he was unable to meet the expectations with an offense that didn’t throw as often. In 14 games with the Steelers, Moore had just 26 receptions for 198 yards. The experiment was ended after one season as Moore played one year with the Detroit Lions before he announced his retirement.
9 Best – Mike Wallace
Mike Wallace has played for a few teams in the NFL, but he was originally drafted out of Ole Miss by Pittsburgh in the 2009 NFL Draft. He showed promise under the Steelers’ offense in his rookie season with 39 receptions for 756 yards and six touchdowns, but it was in the 2010 season when he started to show signs of being a great receiver with 60 catches for 1,257 yards and 10 touchdowns.
His numbers fell slightly in 2011 with only 1,193 yards and eight touchdowns, but it was his first and only Pro Bowl nomination. He’s had some moderate success when he would then spend two seasons with the Miami Dolphins and one with the Minnesota Vikings. Before entering his eight year in the league with Baltimore, he had collected more than 400 receptions for 6,307 yards and 49 touchdowns.
8 Worst – Justin Brown
There might not be a lot of high expectations for someone that is drafted late in the NFL Draft. Still, Justin Brown was someone that the Pittsburgh Steelers brought onto their team with a sixth round choice in the 2013 NFL Draft. This was after he had a moderately successful senior season at Oklahoma with 879 yards and five touchdowns for the Sooners. However, when he joined Pittsburgh, he found himself on the practice squad.
Brown was on the 53-man roster in the 2014 season for eight games, but he was only able to catch 12 passes for 94 yards. After the 2014 season, Brown was released from the team and claimed by Buffalo on the waiver wire. Unfortunately, he was unable to play on the team before being released.
7 Best – Santonio Holmes
Santonio Holmes turned out to be a worthwhile selection as a first round choice in the 2006 NFL Draft. He showed some raw abilities out of Ohio State University, but it took some time in Pittsburgh’s offense. With receptions here and there, he had 824 yards in his rookie season and then 942 yards with eight touchdowns in 2007. However, Holmes would have his best success after struggling in 2008 with catching less than half of his 114 targets. Despite those struggles, Holmes would prove his worth by winning Super Bowl XLIII MVP after catching the game-winning touchdown, recording nine catches and 131 yards.
Holmes was a top target in 2009 with 79 receptions for 1,248 yards and five touchdowns, but Holmes decided to go for the big contract and left Pittsburgh for the New York Jets. He had some okay performances, but nothing compared to what he was able to do with Roethlisberger. Holmes would leave the NFL after one year in Chicago in 2014. Holmes finished with 6,030 yards and 36 touchdowns.
6 Worst – Cedrick Wilson
Cedrick Wilson had some success during his first few years with the San Francisco 49ers after he was a sixth round pick in the 2001 NFL Draft. While not catching any passes in his rookie season, Wilson’s productivity continued to improve up until he had 641 yards and three touchdowns in the 2004 season. When he decided to test the free agent market, he was able to earn a contract with the Pittsburgh Steelers with a still young and improving Roethlisberger.
Unfortunately, his numbers decreased greatly under the Pittsburgh offense. He averaged only 387 yards per year and only had two touchdowns. His career was over once he faced assault charges after allegedly attacking his ex-girlfriend at a restaurant in Pittsburgh. The team released him within hours of the news breaking.
5 Best – Heath Miller
While this list is naming the best and worst receivers to work with Ben Roethlisberger, we’re going to bring in a tight end. Heath Miller isn’t just a tight end. He was one of Big Ben’s most reliable targets in Pittsburgh’s offense. It was noticeable when Miller caught 75 percent of his 52 targets in his rookie year in 2005 – yielding six touchdowns. In fact, Miller caught 71 percent of his career targets.
Because he was a tight end, he never had more than 900 yards, but he still put up big numbers. His best year was in 2012, when he had 71 catches for 816 yards and eight touchdowns. After 11 seasons, Miller retired as one of the best catching tight ends with 6,569 yards and 45 touchdowns.
4 Worst – Matt Spaeth
When looking at how productive Heath Miller was for Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers, it's even more obvious that Matt Spaeth was the complete opposite as someone who was kept as more of a blocking tight end to help the running game. Spaeth was certainly a much bigger target at 6-foot-7and 270 pounds, but he was rarely thrown the ball because he was a lot slower that someone like Miller and the rest of the receivers.
Regardless of the team using him as an extra blocker, he still had the size that should have made him a more productive with Roethlisberger as the quarterback. Spaeth spent seven years with the Steelers and had two years in Chicago between two runs in Pittsburgh. Overall, he had just 55 receptions, 420 yards and 10 touchdowns in those nine career seasons.
3 Best – Antonio Brown
There’s a very good chance that when Antonio Brown decides to retire from the NFL, hopefully not right away, he could be considered the greatest wide receiver in Pittsburgh Steelers history. He’s certainly shown his deep threat value in the last three seasons after being selected in the sixth round in the 2010 draft out of Central Michigan University. In 2013, he had 1,499 yards on 110 receptions with eight touchdowns.
The targets increased and that led to Brown becoming a fantasy football icon. In 2014, Brown led had 129 receptions with 1,698 yards and 13 touchdowns. He nearly had 200 targets in 2015 and caught 136 for 1,834 yards. His numbers have fallen a little this season due to Roethlisberger being injured, but Brown is capable of breaking out for a big game on any given night.
2 Worst – Limas Sweed
When you are a wide receiver coming out of the University of Texas – especially in the second round of the NFL Draft – there is a certain level of expectation. Limas Sweed was selected by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2008 and had nearly 2,000 receiving yards and 20 touchdowns with the Longhorns. While only have one or two good seasons, he had a big play with a late touchdown reception against Ohio State to help Texas win the National Championship in 2008.
However, during his two years with the Steelers, Sweed was unable to get open to help Roethlisberger. Sweed only played 20 games and had seven receptions total for a minimal 69 career yards. Sweed dealt with a number of personal issues and an Achilles tendon injury that led to him not being active for most 2009 and all of 2010. After time in the Canadian Football League, Sweed stopped playing football in 2014.
1 Best – Hines Ward
While Antonio Brown might be on the road to becoming the best receiver in Pittsburgh history, that spot is currently held by Hines Ward. The former Georgia receiver came to the Steelers in the 1998 season. His playing time increased over the years, but he had the most success once Roethlisberger joined the Steelers. Ward might not have put up the monster numbers that Brown has, but Ward has been consistent with several seasons between 900 and 1,000 yards.
From Big Ben’s rookie season in 2004 until Ward retired, the two connected for more than 7,000 yards and nearly 50 touchdowns. They were the main factors in a Pittsburgh offense that was able to win two Super Bowl championships. After 14 professional seasons, Ward ended his career with 1,000 catches for 12,083 yards and 85 touchdowns. He also had 88 postseason catches for 1,181 yards and 10 touchdowns.