One of the most important positional battles for the Pittsburgh Steelers this summer is for No. 2 wide receiver. The vacancy created by Emmanuel Sanders' departure in free agency has presented the opportunity for the team's younger receivers to step up and join Antonio Brown and presumably Lance Moore in the Steelers' starting receiving corps.
There are four players on the Steelers roster who have the best shot at winning the job—2014 fourth-round draft pick Martavis Bryant, 2013 draft picks Markus Wheaton and Justin Brown and the undrafted Derek Moye, who joined the team in 2012.
Only Moye and Wheaton have taken the field for the Steelers in the regular season, and both have been marginal contributors. Moye had two receptions for 20 yards and a score in 2013 while Wheaton had six catches for 64 yards and no touchdowns.
Justin Brown spent the 2013 season on the practice squad while Bryant was playing college football at Clemson, ultimately catching 42 passes for 828 yards and seven touchdowns last year.
Because of their draft pedigrees, Bryant and Wheaton seem to have the edge over Brown and Moye. However, the job won't be handed over to any of the four without a fight. Each has a chance to stand out on the practice field.
Bryant may be the most intriguing of the bunch because he's the newest addition to the team and because of his size. With Brown standing at 5'10" and Moore at 5'9", Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger definitely wouldn't mind a receiver with some height as one of his passing options.
However, size isn't the most important thing—it's the entire package. If Bryant struggles to master the offensive playbook—something generally difficult for most first-year receivers—run routes or to get the timing right between himself and Roethlisberger, he'll need a year to develop.
|Martavis Bryant's Collegiate Stats|
Further, Bryant wasn't a consistently dominant receiver at Clemson, only breaking out in 2013. As a result, he had only 19 receptions combined in 2011 and 2012. Granted, those 19 catches produced 526 yards of offense and six touchdowns and gave Bryant impressive yards-per-reception averages (24.6 in 2011 and 30.5 in 2012). But he hasn't had much on-field experience.
Though Steelers receivers coach Richard Mann said of selecting Bryant, "I have been kind of campaigning for a big receiver through this whole process," and that Bryant was "just what I've been hunting for," Bryant is still quite raw.
Wheaton, in contrast, came into the NFL with more polish—better route running, more reliable hands—but missed his chance to make an impact as a rookie after missing Weeks 5 through 9 with a finger injury. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Wheaton played 161 snaps last year—just 20.6 percent of the Steelers' total offensive plays.
Now healthy, Wheaton could make a strong case for being the team's No. 2 receiver despite not having the height of Moye or Bryant. After all, Sanders was also 5'11" and handled the rigors of being the Steelers' "X" receiver quite well. Wheaton has comparable speed to Bryant while being the more accomplished collegiate receiver.
Wheaton had 675 receiving yards in 2010, 986 in 2011 and 1,244 in 2012 and also had 631 career rushing yards at Oregon State. There are simply more examples to point to when it comes to Wheaton's NFL-readiness and starter capability than Bryant's. Bryant's height and speed are assets, but there are other traits he needs to work on this summer in order to surpass Wheaton.
And if size is what drew the Steelers to Bryant, at 6'4", he's not the tallest of Pittsburgh's receivers. That would be the 6'5" Moye. Moye along with Justin Brown are both dark-horse candidates for the No. 2 receiver job. Moye was on the field half as much as Wheaton last year, playing 53 snaps in seven games.
|Markus Wheaton and Derek Moye, 2013|
Moye does make for a good red-zone target because of his height, and he was a three-year starter in college. But he doesn't have the speed of Wheaton or Bryant nor the athleticism. He's not a statue, but with other, more dynamic receivers competing for the starting roster spot, Moye has an uphill battle.
The same goes for Justin Brown, who admits that he'll have to be a special teams standout to make the Steelers' 53-man roster.
It looks more like Brown and Moye will be competing between themselves simply for a roster spot and not a starting job; you can also add Darrius Heyward-Bey to that battle as well. Heyward-Bey has speed and little else—he's just too one-note to be considered seriously in the running for the "X" job.
While Moye and Brown may push Wheaton and Bryant in training camp, ultimately it appears that Sanders' old job will be claimed by one of the latter two players. It will come down to how refined the raw Bryant can become in a few months' time and how Wheaton's development has progressed after spending so much time off the field with his injury last year.
At the very least, the Steelers don't seem to have a lack of options to replace Sanders. Both Bryant and Wheaton—if not also Moye and Brown—have the opportunity to play roles both big and small on Pittsburgh's offense and special teams.
These receivers have a good mix of speed, size and technical acumen that should provide the Steelers not just with a clear-cut No. 2 wideout from the group, but also high-quality depth.