Can Markus Wheaton Adequately Replace Mike Wallace for Steelers?

Nick DeWittAnalyst IMay 10, 2013

CORVALLIS, OR - DECEMBER 01: Wide receiver Markus Wheaton #2 of the Oregon State Beavers applies a stiff arm to defensive back Darvin Butler #39 of the Nicholls State Colonels in the second quarter of the game on December 1, 2012 at Reser Stadium in Corvallis, Oregon. (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)
Steve Dykes/Getty Images

When Mike Wallace departed Pittsburgh via free agency and headed for big bucks in Miami with the Dolphins, there almost was a sense of relief after the wide receiver first demanded a contract that recognized him as one of the best receivers in the league but then held out deep into the 2012 preseason before having a pitiful season full of drops and poor effort.

Markus Wheaton certainly isn't a household name like Tavon Austin from this year's draft crop of wide receivers, but it's easy to forget that no one had ever really heard of Wallace before he burst onto the scene as a rookie.

So can Wheaton be the replacement for Wallace? Here's a look.


Playing Time

For Wheaton to replace anyone, he'll have to find his way onto the field. That entails winning a wide open battle for the third receiver spot during training camp and the preseason.

The primary combatants will be Wheaton, Plaxico Burress and Jerricho Cotchery. Does Wheaton have an edge?

In age, yes. In experience, no.

In talent, however, he might have a big edge on Cotchery and a sizable one on Burress as well. Wheaton has excellent hands and runs good routes. He has decent size (Burress' main ability). 

There's no reason that he shouldn't beat out Cotchery. At that point, it's him or Burress. The question will be youth over size. Given how successful Hines Ward was as a young player despite not having elite size, it makes sense to bet on Wheaton.


Wheaton Versus Wallace

The real question is whether or not Wheaton can be as good as Wallace. In his rookie season, Wallace caught 39 passes for 756 yards and six touchdowns. That was primarily out of the slot as a deep threat who was difficult to cover.

Wheaton can be that good. He won't flash the wheels that Wallace did, but he will catch the passes that Wallace dropped and should play with more hunger than Wallace showed in 2012.

There's a good chance the numbers would look very similar if Wheaton plays in the slot. There may be some drop in yardage, but expect there to be more touchdowns by one or two since Wheaton's hands make him a good red-zone target in the middle.


Beyond 2013

For Wheaton to truly replace Wallace, he will have to eventually move outside. That entails one of two outcomes: beating out Emmanuel Sanders, who may be better in the slot anyway, or replacing him if he leaves via free agency in 2014.

Does Wheaton have the skill to play outside? 

Yes, he does. In fact, he could end up being a better fit for offensive coordinator Todd Haley's system than Wallace was. Haley doesn't focus on stretching the field. He focuses on possessing the ball and working it down the field methodically with some big plays mixed in.

That's Wheaton's game. He could be a huge part of that with his hands and become a Hines Ward-type player for Pittsburgh. Ward was sure-handed and very rarely missed a chance to make a play. Wheaton can be that guy.

Oh, and his leadership skills are already beyond anything Wallace could accomplish. He doesn't have to play a single down to win that category. Hopefully he keeps that maturity with him once he gets a few big seasons under his belt.