Could Markus Wheaton Replace Emmanuel Sanders' Production in Steelers Offense?

Andrew WatkinsCorrespondent IFebruary 24, 2014

Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Markus Wheaton (11) celebrates after the Steelers won an NFL football game against the Buffalo Bills, Sunday, Nov. 10, 2013, in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh won 23-10. (AP Photo/Don Wright)
Don Wright/Associated Press

If recent reports from ESPN's Scott Brown hold true, Emmanuel Sanders will be given a chance to test the free-agent market. And that means his time as a Pittsburgh Steeler has likely come to an end.

These rumblings have led many to believe the Steelers will be targeting a receiver early in the 2014 NFL draft. But they may not have to.

And that’s where Markus Wheaton comes in. After all, the Steelers probably didn’t invest a third-round pick in Wheaton just for him to languish on the bench.

No, Wheaton didn’t impress much in his rookie year. The Oregon State product sat out the month of October and managed just six receptions in limited action (151 offensive snaps).

It’s worth noting that five of those grabs went for first downs. Even more noteworthy is that Wheaton spent his rookie season behind five players who hauled in at least 45 passes.

Sixty-seven of those grabs came courtesy of Sanders, which means Wheaton has a significant leap to make if he’s to replace Sanders’ production. So, is he capable of such a big improvement?

Well, that question will remain answerless until the players lace up the cleats and try to earn their paychecks. But if Wheaton’s pedigree is any indication, it should be a resounding yes.

Wheaton was lauded for several facets of his game coming into the 2013 draft. Of course, soft hands and savvy route-running ability are prized when talking about any receiver.

What really made Wheaton appealing to the Steelers is his speed. If the team does in fact lose Mike Wallace and Sanders in successive years, then having a speedster like Wheaton in the fold isn’t such a bad consolation prize.

Former Steelers quarterback Charlie Batch thinks Wheaton could have a Mike Wallace-like impact in his sophomore season.

Wheaton’s 4.45 40-yard-dash time, though very good, doesn’t necessarily scream deep threat. But like Antonio Brown, his speed translates to the field better than a stopwatch.

In fact, Wheaton ran sprints for Oregon State’s track and field team and once bested speedy Oregon running back De’Anthony Thomas in the 100-meter dash.

Wheaton’s speed also prompted the Beavers to use him as a threat outside of the passing game. In his collegiate career, Wheaton amassed over 600 rushing yards and five scores on the ground. 

The Steelers inexplicably ran a reverse with Jerricho Cotchery last season, and it predictably lost five yards. With a bigger role in the offense in ’14 and Brown good for about 100 catches, Wheaton would almost certainly be the beneficiary of play calls like that.

Speaking of Brown, Wheaton received comparisons to the All-Pro coming into the league, most notably in his draft profile. Like Wheaton, Brown had an underwhelming rookie season, but he took off in his second year.

In year two, Brown bettered his rookie season by over 50 catches and 900 yards. Now, that kind of leap shouldn’t be expected of Wheaton, nor is it necessary.

If he can improve by two-thirds as much as Brown in each category, he’ll be close to equaling Sanders’ production. And with all his talent and the experience surrounding him, it’s tough to bet against.