There comes a point where every NFL team has to start to plan for its future. The Pittsburgh Steelers started that planning last April when they drafted Oregon State wide receiver Markus Wheaton in the third round of the 2013 NFL Draft.
However, as the Steelers are now three games into the season, the Wheaton experiment is still on hold. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Wheaton has only been on the field for 20 of a possible 177 snaps in these first three games. This must change.
Wheaton was a relative unknown to many Steelers fans who didn't follow college football, but the highlights to the right show off some of his capabilities.
As you can see, Wheaton was more than a simple deep threat during his time at Oregon State. He was clearly the best weapon the Beavers had, but opposing defenses never really had an answer for him.
Unfortunately, the Steelers have chosen to go with veteran Jerricho Cotchery in the WR3 role, leaving Wheaton as the odd man out. Cotchery has struggled with drops this year, and while he might be more experienced, he doesn't bring the same type of explosion Wheaton does. Let's take a look at what Wheaton's game is all about.
Here we see Wheaton in the slot, with the Bears defensive back giving him plenty of cushion. The intention is to not allow Wheaton's speed to win and get Wheaton behind the defense. The problem for the Bears is compounded with Antonio Brown at the bottom on the same side of the formation.
With a great play call, Wheaton uses that cushion to run a shallow cross and is able to get the football in space. But, that's not the play call here:
At the snap, Wheaton is gone. He blows past the Bears cornerback, and even the safety in helping deep can't catch up. Wheaton's presence on the inside forces the safety to try and run with him, allowing Brown to beat his man deep for a long gain. The options having Wheaton and Brown on the same side of the field are limitless.
But even beyond the schematic aspect of it, it's practical to get Wheaton on the field. Cotchery isn't getting any younger, and Emmanuel Sanders is likely gone next year via free agency. After not re-signing Wallace this year, I can't see the Steelers giving Sanders a big contract, so he will almost certainly walk.
This team has nothing to lose by including Wheaton as their WR3 going forward. Cotchery has only been targeted 20 times in 120 total snaps, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). If that third wide receiver role is going to be largely a diversion, why not make it a player whom the defense must respect?
But if you need any further convincing that it is time to get Wheaton on the field and see what he can do, I give you this: Wheaton beating Oregon speedster De'Anthony Thomas in the 100-meter dash. There are plenty of subtleties to playing wide receiver on which Wheaton needs work, but you simply cannot coach the type of speed Wheaton has.
Wheaton has a great group to learn from and an elite quarterback to get him the football. This is a perfect weekend to get Wheaton on the field and see what he can do.