The Legend of Limas Sweed: The NFL Receiver Who Couldn't Catch
By Scott Kacsmar
Cold Hard Football Facts’ Comeback King (@CaptainComeback)
The New England Patriots have signed restricted free agent receiver Emmanuel Sanders from the Steelers to an offer sheet. Should the Steelers not match, they will receive New England’s third-round pick (No. 91 overall) in the draft.
The Steelers probably should not match the offer as they are low on cap space and likely will not re-sign Sanders to a long-term deal after next season anyway. Take the third-round pick, which is nearly the same resource the Steelers used to draft Sanders (No. 82 in 2010).
Even with two of the flagship franchises in the NFL, here we go again on the wide receiver carousel with the teams experiencing very different rides since 2007:
- New England has only 212 receptions from wide receivers they drafted. That is 9.35 percent of their total receptions.
- Pittsburgh has 1,055 receptions from wide receivers they drafted. That is 54.66 percent of their total receptions.
The Patriots have all but given up on developing their own wide receivers. That trend started in 2007, but since making those trades for Randy Moss and Wes Welker, their success rate has been very spotty.
If the Steelers lose Sanders, they will have to be in the market for a wide receiver high in this month’s draft. They already lost Mike Wallace to Miami, and tight end Heath Miller is coming off a torn ACL late in the season. He’ll be 31.
While Pittsburgh can take pride in hitting on wide receivers in the later rounds of the draft – Antonio Brown was merely a sixth-round pick – they cannot forget why a few of those picks were necessary in the first place.
Limas Sweed was a second-round pick in the 2008 draft and he should go down as one of the worst wide receivers in NFL history.
Sweed’s bizarre career should be a reminder that catching the ball is still the most important skill a receiver must possess. For whatever reason, Sweed faltered under the spotlight of the NFL when it came to making catches. While some would say it is mental, let’s not forget Sweed played in front of over 80,000 people at a major program in Texas.
So let this be a cautionary tale of how a team can be tricked by a wide receiver in the draft, for this is The Legend of Limas Sweed.
Chapter 1: Hook ‘em, Limas
It was nine years ago when Limas Sweed was a redshirt freshman at Texas. After a modest 23 receptions for 264 yards, he stepped up his game with 36 receptions for 545 yards and five touchdowns in 2005; his sophomore season.
That year Texas went undefeated and beat USC in the Rose Bowl for the national championship. In one of the greatest football games ever, with tons of future NFL talent on the field, Sweed had eight catches for 65 yards. He was targeted by Vince Young three times on the game-winning drive, though each play was an incompletion.
Sweed broke out in his junior season with Colt McCoy at quarterback, setting career highs with 46 receptions, 801 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Sweed’s senior season was compromised by a wrist injury that required surgery. He played six games and finished his Texas career with 124 receptions for 1,915 yards and 20 touchdowns.
Chapter 2: The 2008 NFL Draft
Coming from a big school and showing some big-play potential, Sweed was one of the higher-rated wide receiver prospects leading up to the 2008 draft.
This scouting report by Matt McGuire at WalterFootball.com notes Sweed as a true possession receiver who can make all the catches. It also speaks of his consistency and being a clutch receiver. The weaknesses do not touch on his hands, but instead focus on a lack of speed and deep-threat capability.
This report from Fantasy Football Toolbox also talks about Sweed’s first-round potential, questions his speed, and makes note that Sweed did not catch passes at the combine, likely due to the wrist. Perhaps with all those eyes on him that would have exposed his flaw.
Sports Illustrated may have gone overboard in praising Sweed’s catching ability. By noting he’s ineffective downfield, no one imagined it would be due to dropping wide open passes.
For those of you who like to knock the credibility of the big-name draft “experts”, ESPN’s Todd McShay said that “ten years from now, we’re going to say Limas Sweed was the most productive and most talented wide receiver in the 2008 NFL Draft class.”
Don’t trust that source that links to an ESPN Insider piece? Here’s another with the same sentiment. McShay had Sweed going 24th to Tennessee. Moving along.
Sweed actually went 53rd to Pittsburgh, much to the delight of Ben Roethlisberger, who was always posturing for a “tall receiver.” Roethlisberger loved throwing to Plaxico Burress his rookie season, but he never really had that height advantage again. Sweed, at 6’4”, was expected to be a big threat in the red zone and on jump balls.
Sweed was also supposed to pair up with running back Rashard Mendenhall, the first-round pick in 2008, as the future of the Pittsburgh offense. Oh what a mistake that was. In fact Pittsburgh’s entire 2008 draft class has left town.
It takes a few years to really grade a draft, but we know today’s media wants to do it instantly after the draft ends. We also know going with those sexy skill position players will usually boost your grade:
- USA Today gave the Steelers a B+, noting Sweed as great value.
- CBS Sports’ Pete Prisco went B, as he was one of the very few people to question the Mendenhall pick. Though he did think Sweed was the best pick.
- Robert Davis at Football’s Future also went B+, calling Sweed “a steal” and not choosing anyone as the Steelers’ worst pick.
- Patrick Luo of NFL Draft Site gave the Steelers an A-, noting Sweed’s hands will be great for Big Ben.
- SI’s Dr. Z liked Pittsburgh’s draft, wanting to see the vertical game between Roethlisberger and Sweed.
- SI also said Sweed “will be viewed as one of the best sleeper picks in the draft in a few years.”
- Dallas’ Rick Gosselin gave the Steelers a C, calling Mendenhall the steal of the draft, but no mention of Sweed.
- Mel Kiper’s 2008 draft grades reveal a B for Pittsburgh, simply noting Sweed was a good pick.
The expectations were for a more explosive offense, but the optimism that April brings usually dies a quick death in September when reality returns.
Chapter 3: Sweed Fails to Impress as a Rookie
Sweed did not overwhelm in his Pittsburgh preseason debut, but he at least caught the ball. The first catch of Sweed’s career may have been his toughest, as he took a big hit on the play from the Eagles:
Steelers’ preseason color analyst Edmund Nelson remarked “Tall wide receiver dividends paying off already.” Sweed would catch the next two catchable passes thrown his way as well, even with having to dive to the ground to complete both plays.
But it was downhill from there as the drops started to show up. As a sign of things to come, an open Sweed failed to hang onto a ball for a 32-yard touchdown against Carolina. Still, the excitement was that he could get open.
Expectations were not necessarily high for Sweed in 2008. With a receiving corps featuring veteran Hines Ward, emerging star Santonio Holmes and Nate Washington, Sweed was at best the No. 4 option on the wide receiver depth chart.
Sweed was not even active until Week 7 in Cincinnati following the team’s bye week. It was there he made his first catch: an 11-yard gain to convert a 3rd-and-6 from Byron Leftwich late in the fourth quarter with the Steelers up 31-10.
It was anything but a great grab as the ball came out at the end, confusing announcers in the process. CBS’ Kevin Harlan even called it a drop in live action.
A week later against the Giants, Holmes was out, giving Sweed the most action of his career. He was targeted six times, catching three passes for 28 yards.
The first target was a failed slant that again caused an announcer (FOX’s Dick Stockton) to say “off the hands of Limas Sweed.” It was actually just tight defense by Corey Webster that still may have grazed off Sweed’s hands. Sweed then caught three slants in a row. The last two passes were uncatchable for Sweed, including a bomb on 4th-and-15 that became the game-ending interception.
In a Week 12 rematch with Cincinnati, Sweed caught a pass short of the first-down marker on 3rd-and-9. NFL Network’s Cris Collinsworth criticized Sweed for falling down too easily instead of getting the first down.
Later in the quarter Sweed was pushed into a live ball on a punt, which he was credited for the muff and lost fumble.
Sweed did come up with the longest play of his career (17 yards) in the fourth quarter on a big 3rd-and-10, though the play was all Ben Roethlisberger escaping a sack and finding Sweed. Still, it was a nice diving effort.
Against Dallas, Sweed had a pass defensed by Pacman Jones as the ball just got away from Roethlisberger a bit.
That was it for the regular season targets in 2008. Sweed had only six catches for 64 yards, but at least he avoided the big drops. So far that is.
In Week 16, Sweed had an unofficial target late in the fourth quarter in Tennessee. Why unofficial? The play was negated because Sweed was penalized for offensive pass interference (pushing off). Not only did he commit the penalty, but he failed miserably to catch the pass on what could have been a 42-yard gain.
With the Steelers in the playoffs, Sweed may have actually lowered his game. In the AFC Divisional game versus San Diego, his only target was late in the fourth quarter with a 35-17 lead. Leftwich was in at quarterback. Still, a perfect pass on third down that potentially could have been a 66-yard touchdown was inexplicably dropped.
People don’t remember this one because of the game situation, but an encore the following week in a bigger moment would immortalize Sweed.
Chapter 4: The 2008 AFC Championship
We have reached the climax of the story, as Sweed’s best and worst career moments were all on display in this AFC Championship against the Baltimore Ravens.
Sweed made an insignificant catch for six yards late in the second quarter, but it was the start of the following drive that became his signature play. With the Steelers leading 13-7 at the 50-yard line with 1:00 to play in the half, Sweed broke wide open down the left sideline. Roethlisberger delivered a perfect pass, then this happened:
To make matters worse, Sweed stayed down, pretending to be injured and costing the Steelers their final timeout. The drive ended with no points, and you can look no further than Sweed who let an easy 50-yard touchdown go through his hands.
That play caused at least a 16 percent shift in win probability. Obviously the second half would have played out a little differently had Sweed caught it, but Roethlisberger could have finished with a spectacular 112.5 passer rating against the league’s second-best defense rather than the 84.8 he did get.
But for a change, Sweed did try to make up for his mistake.
Just three plays after the drop and fake injury, Sweed delivered a huge block (courtesy of Steelers Depot) on Corey Ivy to free up Heath Miller for some more yards. In the third quarter Sweed defensed a pass away in the end zone that should have been intercepted, allowing the Steelers to kick a field goal. On the first play of the fourth quarter, Sweed converted a 3rd-and-8 with a tough 14-yard catch.
A huge block, fighting for the ball and making a tough catch on third-and-long? That’s not normal for him. What was Sweed’s most embarrassing moment also might have been the best game of his career.
Two weeks later Sweed played in Super Bowl XLIII, but the Steelers never put him in any position to hurt their chances. Pittsburgh won, giving Sweed a Super Bowl ring to go along with his National Championship ring from Texas.
Few players ever achieve both championships. None may have ever done it in the double-agent fashion that Sweed did.
Chapter 5: The Sophomore Slump
While you could try to claim rookie jitters for why Sweed performed the way he did in 2008, could you believe things actually got worse in year two?
After the Steelers cut ties with Nate Washington, Sweed appeared to have the inside track to the No. 3 receiver position in 2009. But perhaps brought on by Sweed’s disappointing rookie performance, the Steelers added speed demon Mike Wallace in the third round of the 2009 draft. This gave Sweed even more competition to deal with beyond just Ward and Holmes.
Sweed looked more competent in the preseason, making a 45-yard catch against the Cardinals, though still dropping an easy pass or two that any receiver should make. Still, he was passed over for the superior Wallace on the depth chart, seeing very little work during the season.
Sweed saw his first significant action in a big Week 3 game in Cincinnati. He hung onto a little 5-yard slant in the second quarter, which would become his final catch in the NFL.
But it was in the third quarter when another classic Sweed moment happened. Facing a critical 3rd-and-4 in a tight 13-9 game, Roethlisberger stepped up and delivered a perfect pass to Sweed down the middle of the field for what should have been a 34-yard touchdown.
What do you think happened instead?
Another huge drop and an embarrassing self-signaled touchdown he clearly did not complete. You just do not see this type of drop every week.
Pittsburgh went on to miss the field goal, lose the game late and eventually miss the playoffs and lose the division to Cincinnati by one game. Think that touchdown could have been significant?
Two weeks later in Detroit, Sweed was the target of a slant on 3rd-and-5. The pass was a little behind him, but it did get on his hands only to see him have it knocked out for an incompletion. CBS’ Dan Fouts said “but still a catchable ball and this is something that has plagued Sweed is dropped passes.”
Against Denver in Week 9 it was another slant pass to Sweed, and the result was very similar with Sweed unable to hang on after the pass was defensed away.
Wouldn’t you know Sweed’s final target in Pittsburgh was a end-of-game Hail Mary against Oakland? Sweed was actually in great position to use his height to make the game-winning touchdown a la Golden Tate, but he misjudged the ball and only got one hand on it.
That could have been a career-saving moment, but instead it was the final mistake for Sweed on a NFL field.
Shortly after that game in late December the Steelers placed Sweed on the Reserve/Non-Football Injury/Illness list. The cause for the move was never publicized, though it was reportedly due to personal issues.
Message boards were rampant with rumors of Sweed contracting an illness as serious as HIV, though that was always hard to believe seeing as how Sweed can’t catch anything.
Chapter 6: Sweed Can’t Even Catch a Break
Had Sweed showed any improvement in 2009, he may have kept a job with the Steelers, especially after the team traded troubled receiver Holmes during a tumultuous 2010 offseason.
But the writing was on the wall when the Steelers drafted Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown in addition to bringing back Antwaan Randle El.
On the final day of a three-day mini-camp in May, Sweed tore his Achilles tendon, ending his season prematurely.
Giving it another try in 2011, the Steelers placed Sweed on the Waived/Injured list (this time for a shoulder) in August before cutting ties for good in September.
In the end, Sweed appeared in 20 regular season games for the Steelers, playing just 164 snaps according to Pro Football Focus. Including the playoffs he was targeted 20 times, making nine receptions for 89 yards (five first downs). He dropped five passes with several more in games/plays that did not count. He had one punt return for no gain. He fumbled twice, losing one of them.
Here is his career summary of targets, each with a link to a GIF image of the play:
Limas Sweed - Career Target Summary (2008-09)
Week 7, 2008
Slant; loses ball late
Week 8, 2008
Week 8, 2008
Week 8, 2008
Slant (natural pick)
Week 8, 2008
Quick slant (blitz)
Week 8, 2008
Week 8, 2008
Week 12, 2008
Out; short of marker
Week 12, 2008
Week 14, 2008
Week 16, 2008
Negated by penalty
Dropped 64-yd TD
Out; miniscule YAC
Tough 3rd down conv.
Week 3, 2009
Slant; no YAC
Week 3, 2009
Week 5, 2009
Week 9, 2009
Week 13, 2009
9 catches on 20 targets (45.0%) for 89 yards, 5 drops
Out of 17 catchable targets, Sweed had nine catches and five drops while being defensed five times. After catching four of his first five targets, Sweed caught just five of the last 15. Sweed’s two infamous dropped touchdowns would have been nearly as many yards (84) as he gained in his career.
Chapter 7: Of Limas and Men (The Giants Tryout)
Maybe a fresh start on another team was what Sweed needed. He knew his hands were the issue. He even tweeted about it back on July 23, 2011:
Sweed worked out for the Cincinnati Bengals in April 2012, but it did not lead to a contract. He reportedly did the same for Chicago with the same result.
A month later Sweed had a workout with the Super Bowl champion New York Giants. We’ll just let Mike Garafalo of The Star-Ledger tell you what happened, but you should already have a good idea:
“The veteran wide receiver struggled to make an impact and this afternoon and dropped three passes, thus reinforcing a knock on him from his days with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
On one play, he nearly hauled in a pass up the right sideline but couldn't control the ball as cornerback E.J. Whitley (tryout, Abilene Christian) got his hand in there. The next two should've been easy catches but bounced right off Sweed's hands. Even on a catch he did make, Sweed didn't make it a clean grab. Sweed also slipped on one play, leading to an easy interception for cornerback Dante Hughes (veteran tryout).
Sweed came here trying to make an impression. It's extremely unlikely at this point it was a good one.”
Ouch. With that failed tryout, Sweed’s pursuit of the NFL dream all but ended.
Chapter 8: Requiem for a Sweed
With no more opportunities waiting for him in the NFL, Sweed went north to Canada. On October 25, 2012, the Saskatchewan Roughriders of the CFL signed Sweed to a free-agent contract. He remained on the practice roster, and is still actively listed on the team’s roster.
With or without Sweed, the Roughriders are scheduled to play their first game on June 14.
You can increase the dimensions of the field, but catching the ball remains the same, and it remains the trait Sweed literally cannot grasp as a professional. It is hard to recall another player like this.
Now there have been receivers that did even less than Sweed. A total of 13 retired wide receivers were drafted in the first or second round since 1970 and had fewer than 60 receiving yards. A.J. Jenkins was the 30th pick last season and had zero receptions for the 49ers, but let’s give him some time.
Perhaps most notably was Tampa Bay taking Dexter Jackson (Appalachian State) just five picks after Sweed in 2008. He had zero targets let alone any receptions and averaged just 4.9 yards on punt returns. The Buccaneers waived him before the start of the 2009 season.
We probably have seen the last of Sweed in the NFL, though should the Steelers lose Sanders, do not ignore GM Kevin Colbert’s bizarre infatuation with bringing back former Steelers. He has done it at least seven times in the last few years, so the probability of Sweed walking back through that Pittsburgh door may go up a tick this week if the Steelers do not match New England’s offer.
If there’s one positive Sweed can take from his career, it’s that he was pretty good at getting open. But when you drop the ball almost every time that happens, then what’s the point?
For all the concerns a team mulls through for a wide receiver in regards to their speed, ego/off-field issues, route running, ability to learn the system, the one thing you essentially take for granted is their ability to catch the ball.
The story of Limas Sweed might have been very different had he come along at a time when hand transplants were practical. Instead he will be remembered as that second-round wide receiver who could not catch the football.
Scott Kacsmar is a football writer/researcher who has contributed large quantities of data to Pro-Football-Reference.com, including the only standardized database of fourth quarter comebacks and game-winning drives. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive. Please send any questions or comments to Scott at firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.
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