<
>

Steelers sign receiver Ward to 4-year, $25.83M deal

Three-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Hines Ward, regarded as the heart and soul of the Pittsburgh Steelers offense, on Monday signed a four-year contract extension that will keep him with the team through the 2009 season.

The extension is worth $25.83 million and includes total bonuses of $10 million. Ward can earn an additional $2.5 million in incentives. Ward had one year left on his previous contract, at a base salary of $1.669 million. Without the add-on, he would have been eligible for unrestricted free agency next spring.

"I think they went out of their way," Ward said of an
organization that has long set its own value on player contracts
and ignored the huge money deals given by other teams. "It was far
more than what I expected."

The accord ends months of negotiations that included Ward's 15-day holdout at the start of training camp. Steelers officials had announced late last season their intention to sign Ward to an extension aimed at having him finish his career with the team. Negotiations between Steelers officials and agent Eugene Parker heated up over the weekend and the two sides completed the final details of the extension on Monday morning.

"These things can get ugly and can become major distractions,"
team president Art Rooney II said. "While these things can be
difficult, it was something we got through without having it become
the kind of distraction that can really disrupt a team."

Ward, 29, is viewed locally as a player who epitomizes the blue-collar mindset of the city and its team. Even with his three Pro Bowl appearances, he is probably underappreciated around the league. But the seven-year veteran, who turned himself into a premier player through hard work, is a wide receiver who excels at far more than catching the ball.

"I look good in black and gold," Ward said. "The contract is
going to make me work even harder, just to prove I'm worth every
penny of what they gave me."

He is arguably the best blocking wide receiver in the league and his versatility -- he played four positions in college, at the University of Georgia, including quarterback -- provides the Steelers coaches opportunities for considerable creativity.

"I was a little worried with the holdout, of people questioning
my character and being put in the category of a T.O.," Ward said.
"But I went to pick up my wife and son at the airport yesterday
and the lady at the Great Steak place said, 'I can't give you a
million dollars, but I can give you a steak sandwich for free.' I
got a kick out of that."

Relieved at finally reaching a deal the Steelers previously
called their top offseason priority, Ward went out Monday and had
what he called "a great practice" before Sunday's opener against
Tennessee.

"I can go into the season focused now. ... I'm going to play
until the wheels fall off," he said. "I know only one style and
one way to play it, and that's how I have to play."

A third-round pick in the 1998 draft, Ward has twice been named the Steelers' Most Valuable Player, as voted on by his teammates. Over the last four seasons, Ward has averaged 95.3 receptions, 1,124.8 yards and 7.5 touchdowns. He posted at least 80 receptions in each of those seasons and went over 1,000 receiving yards each year.

For his career, Ward has 505 catches for 6,055 yards and 41 touchdowns, and he is poised to break most of the franchise's key receiving records. Ward has appeared in 112 games and has started in 93 of them.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. Information from The Associated Press was used in this report. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.