Pittsburgh Steelers: Breakdown and Depth-Chart Analysis at Wide Receiver
Once one of the deepest positions on the Pittsburgh Steelers, the depth chart at wide receiver has taken a hit. Whether it was through retirement or free-agent losses, the Steelers have suffered some significant losses at wide receiver.
Luckily for them, they also have retained one of the best wide receivers in the game—Antonio Brown.
Not only has Brown stepped up after the losing Hines Ward and Mike Wallace, but he has established himself as a top playmaker and a true No. 1 option for Ben Roethlisberger. He also realizes that as the veteran receiver on the squad, he must set the tone for his teammates, via Teresa Varley of Steelers.com:
I know those guys are watching me, how I go about my business on the field, how I am in the meeting rooms. That is where I have to set the standard.
When I look around in the room there are some older guys, but I am the oldest guy who has been around the longest. I have to will the team to win and my group in the way I handle myself and prepare.
Brown and newly signed Lance Moore have the most NFL experience and are the leaders for a large group of young receivers who are looking to make their mark.
They are locks for the team, as is Markus Wheaton, but that leaves plenty of room for competition for the final two or three roster spots. Darrius Heyward-Bey, Derek Moye, Justin Brown and Martavis Bryant are the key players who will compete for these spots.
That is not to say that the other receivers currently on the roster do not have an opportunity to win a job, but it will be difficult. It is also worth noting that, while Dri Archer will be a part of this competition as well, he will not be a part of this particular analysis because he is listed as a running back as well as a wide receiver. You can see my analysis of him in my breakdown of the running backs.
With that said, the competition at wide receiver should be one of the most exciting in training camp. Here is a full breakdown of what you can expect from each player.
The Steelers have 11 wide receivers—12 if you count Archer—on their roster. Typically, only five or six will make the team, which means that at least four or five of these players are long shots. Here is a look at the players who will provide depth in training camp.
With his reliable hands and decent quickness, Coale fits best in the slot as a possession receiver. Despite his strengths, he is only an average athlete and will have a tough time beating NFL defensive backs. However, he does have a connection to Pittsbugh—he is the son-in-law of Steelers broadcaster Tunch Ilkin.
Goodwin is a 6’3”, 190-pound wide receiver who played in Division II college football at California University of Pennsylvania. The Steelers were one of the teams at Cal U’s pro day this spring .
Last year was not a productive one for Goodwin, a transfer from Fairmont State, as he only had 11 receptions for 126 yards and one touchdown. However, with his combination of size and speed—he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.41 seconds at his pro day—Goodwin will be worth watching.
Moore signed with the Cincinnati Bengals as an undrafted free agent in 2012. He would spend time on the practice squads of three different teams after they released him. At 5’10” and 175 pounds, he is undersized, but he did run a 4.42 in the 40-yard dash at the combine.
Moore played in 50 games at Connecticut and had 126 receptions for 1,699 yards and 13 touchdowns. He is a true burner and was a member of the school’s 4x100 meter championship relay team. He will need every bit of that speed to make the roster.
At 5’11,” Sampson is another receiver under 6 feet tall, but he is thick at 205 pounds. He was a four-year starter at Baylor where he made 165 receptions for 1,905 yards and had 11 touchdowns. Over his career, he started 44 games and finished his career with a 43-game receiving streak.
Sampson has good speed (4.40 40-yard dash) and does come from a college that has produced several quality NFL receivers. However, he never stood out while in school and has yet to make an impact in the NFL.
Seventh String: Martavis Bryant
There are high hopes for fourth-round draft pick Martavis Bryant, but before you anoint him as a future star, remember the names Danny Farmer and Fred Gibson. These two receivers are a gentle reminder that fourth-round wide receivers are by no means a lock to make the team, let alone develop into starters.
It was hard not to get excited over Bryant when he was drafted, though. The 6’4” receiver was finally the tall option that Roethlisberger has been asking for. His 4.42 speed in the 40-yard dash was an added bonus. Then his position coach didn’t just set the bar for Bryant, he raised it sky-high.
"I'm not going to say that he is going to start, but potentially he could," wide receivers coach Richard Mann told Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
"We feel like we got a guy to put opposite of Antonio Brown."
Those are some high expectations for a rookie, and it will be tough to live up to them. That is especially the case when your head coach is hard on you.
During one of the OTA practices, Mark Kaboly of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported that Mike Tomlin got on Bryant for not finishing hard on a receiving drill. More of that should be expected as the rookie enters his first training camp later this summer
Do not anticipate Bryant earning a starting job this year. Instead, he may become—at most—a package player where the Steelers can take advantage of his speed and height to stretch the field and perform well in red-zone situations.
Sixth String: Darrius Heyward-Bey
Heyward-Bey was selected seventh overall in the 2009 draft mainly due to his elite speed. However, his production has not matched up with expectations. In five seasons, he only has 169 receptions for 2,380 yards and 12 touchdowns, though he averages an impressive 14.1 yards per reception.
Besides his overall production, one of the issues with Heyward-Bey has been his history of dropping the football. According to Dejan Kovacevic of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, dropped passes were an issue already this spring as he wrote, "Darrius Heyward-Bey drops a lot of footballs."
There is an outside chance that Heyward-Bey makes the team, but he is mainly in Pittsburgh for insurance if none of the young receivers develops as anticipated. Do not expect him to remain ahead of Bryant on the depth chart for very long.
Fifth String: Derek Moye
Moye was everybody’s favorite receiver who didn’t produce last season. That may be the true again this year, as his 6’5” frame is too intriguing to look past.
In very limited action last season, Moye had two receptions for 20 yards and a touchdown. That came on a one-yard toss from Roethlisberger. Moye would certainly like to add to those totals in 2014, and he knows that he has some stiff competition.
"To be honest, it doesn't really matter who else is on the roster," Moye said told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s RJ Shaffer during OTAs. "I've got to play well, and, if I don't, no matter who or who isn't on the roster, I won't be here."
Moye has decent speed to go along with his size and is capable of going up and attacking the ball at its high point. Now he must develop consistency. If he can, he will have the opportunity to earn the fifth spot on the depth chart and earn spots in certain packages.
The talk of training camp will be the newcomer, Bryant, but Moye has two years of experience and is ready to have his breakout season. However, he will not only have to show that he improved on offense, but he must also demonstrate his worth as a special teams player.
According to Shaffer, Moye has put time in with special teams coordinator Danny Smith so that he can improve in this area. It is clear that he is on a mission, and he has his eyes set on making the team.
Fourth String: Justin Brown
The Steelers dipped into the 2014 draft to find a tall receiver, but they may have already found one from one year earlier. Brown, a sixth-round selection from Oklahoma, told Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that he feels better with the offense now that he has one year of experience.
“It’s a lot different having that year under my belt, just knowing the system,” Brown said. “My first year, I was running around like a chicken with my head cut off. Now, I’m more comfortable and I can just play.”
He added that he used this time to help refine his game.
“I just worked on the little things, working on the top of my breaks, using my body,” Brown said. “I spent a lot of time watching the vets in the last year, guys like [Cotchery], [Brown] and Emmanuel [Sanders], watching film of them, trying to be a better all-around football player.”
Apparently, the coaches have taken notice of his improvement.
With Markus Wheaton missing time during OTAs with an injury, Brown has received first-team reps, per Scott Brown of ESPN.com. So far, it has been a good experience for the second-year receiver.
“It’s definitely good getting some reps with the ones,” Brown said. “It definitely is encouraging. I’ve just got to keep working hard.”
While they are only playing football in shorts, it has been a very good start for Brown, and if he continues to improve, he will have the chance to lock down the No. 4 role for the Steelers.
Slot: Lance Moore
Though not the most athletically gifted receiver on the roster, Moore may have been one of the most valuable.
Moore does not have the speed of Heyward-Bey or the height of Moye, but he has a terrific set of hands and is an excellent route-runner. Though it is difficult to quantify, he also has veteran savvy about him that will make him a valuable asset to the wide receiver corps.
“It’s pretty great working with those guys. I am learning a lot from Lance (Moore),” Antonio Brown told Teresa Varley of Steelers.com. “Everybody is motivated, ready to learn, ready to work and eager to get on the winning side of things and just get going."
Not only will he help teach and guide the young receivers, but he should have the chance to be one of the more productive players on the offense. He has already made an excellent impression on the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s Dejan Kovacevic, who wrote, “Lance Moore doesn’t drop anything sent within his ZIP code.”
Without a proven receiver to start alongside Brown, Moore may need to assume that role early in the year until another player raises his level of play. Though this would not be the best situation, it would at least give the Steelers a dependable option. Ideally, he will be limited to playing the slot.
Starters: Antonio Brown and Markus Wheaton
Once at the bottom of the depth chart, Brown has worked his way up to be the top receiver for the Steelers and one of the best in the league.
Even without a true No. 2 receiver playing next to him last season, Brown had the best year of his career as he finished near the top of the NFL in several major categories. For the season, he had 110 receptions for 1,499 yards and eight touchdowns.
He was recognized on Pro Football Focus’ All-Pro Team. Here is what they had to say about his performance in 2013:
"Brown would finish the year our top-ranked pure receiving wide-out, but might consider him lucky that a player like Calvin Johnson missed so much time over the season."
Lucky or not, that is still impressive. He also went from being unranked last year to 33rd on Pro Football Focus’ Top 101 of 2013.
As the Steelers continue to diversify their offense, Brown may not match his production from last year, but it should still be very good.
While Pittsburgh can be comfortable with Brown, the same cannot be said for Wheaton. He has been limited during OTAs, per Scott Brown of ESPN.com, and that is a concern following a rookie season in which he was riddled with injuries.
Wheaton was limited to 12 games played—including one start—during his rookie season in which he caught six passes for 64 yards. One of the reasons he missed so much action was due to a broken pinky, which he did not rehab correctly.
“The surgeon did a great job, but the rehab, it was on me,” Wheaton told Alan Robinson of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “I should have been pushing it a lot more than I was, I got pretty complacent in where I was with my rehab, and thinking, `It’s just my pinkie,’ and not giving it as much time as it needed.”
Whether that will hurt him this season remains to be seen, but it is a concern.
Injury aside, Wheaton was drafted in the third round last season with the team's intention of developing him into a starter. He has the speed to stretch the field and is a solid route-runner. He flashed some of his potential during training camp last season, but he must take big strides forward to lock down the starting job.
With that said, Wheaton will have every opportunity to earn the spot, and if I had to make a prediction, I would say that he will be the starter for the season opener.