The Pittsburgh Steelers are fresh off a second consecutive season of playing mediocre football—a season that again saw the team go 8-8 and miss out on the playoffs.
The offseason saw the team bring in several notable additions via the draft and free agency, although the player with the biggest potential to make a newfound impact in 2014 is someone who is already familiar with the playbook—and his name is Markus Wheaton.
A quick glance at his stat line from last year doesn’t instill a great deal of confidence, especially for a man who could serve the team’s No. 2 wide receiver this year, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Ed Bouchette. Markus Wheaton only caught only six passes on 13 targets during an injury-plagued rookie season in 2013, accumulating just 64 yards in the process.
A third-round pick out of Oregon State in 2013, Wheaton could easily find himself in a much more visible role this year. That’s because the Steelers are without two of their top-three receivers from last year’s squad in Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery, both of whom left via free agency this offseason.
The Steelers drafted highly touted receiver Martavis Bryant in the fourth round out of Clemson this year, and they also signed veterans Lance Moore and Darrius Heyward-Bey to help fill out a depleted receiving corps that features Antonio Brown and a lot of question marks.
Rookie receivers like Bryant often don’t flourish immediately, however, and Moore is an eight-year veteran with only a single 1,000-yard season to his credit. Moore is expected to slide into the slot position vacated by Cotchery, meaning he could be a real red-zone threat, but fans shouldn’t expect much more out of a receiver who found himself at the bottom of New Orleans’ depth chart last season before being released.
The same can be said about Heyward-Bey, a man who caught 29 passes on 62 targets last year before being benched at the end of the season by Indianapolis. There’s also no guarantee he’ll make the team out of camp, as noted by Bleacher Report’s Andrea Hangst.
That leaves us with Wheaton, a player whom, according to Bleacher Report’s Chris Gazze, has the tools necessary to cement himself near the top of Pittsburgh’s crowded receiver depth chart:
Wheaton has blazing speed and should pose more of a vertical threat than Emmanuel Sanders did last season. Beyond his pure physical skills, he will have a much better understanding of the offense in his second season and will play a vital role in the success of the offense.
The question now centers on whether or not Wheaton can remain healthy enough to stick there throughout the entire season. He missed four games last season with broken fingers that required offseason surgery, only making one start in Week 4.
He could face stiff competition in camp from Bryant, although Gazze doesn't foresee the rookie winning a gig as a starter.
NFL.com writer Dan Hanzus believes that there aren’t any questions about Wheaton’s football smarts or ability to memorize and run routes, and he added that the second-year player possesses a beneficial combination of good speed and strong hands.
Wheaton’s skills, along with a general dearth of talent on the depth chart beneath him, means that a lot of people in the organization, including coach Mike Tomlin, are expecting him to have a breakout season this year. Per Hanzus: "The talent is undeniably there, and Tomlin doesn't hide the fact that Pittsburgh is depending on Wheaton to become a contributor. We think he'll step up."