There were few who were surprised when the Pittsburgh Steelers allowed Emmanuel Sanders to leave during free agency. However, it was a surprise when Jerricho Cotchery departed as well.
The result was an offense without two of its top three receivers from 2013.
Fortunately, the Steelers do bring back one of the top receivers in the league—Antonio Brown—and signed Lance Moore to replace Cotchery as the third receiver. These two proven commodities will bring experience and production to Pittsburgh’s no-huddle offense.
However, neither will be the team's X-factor this year. That honor goes to Markus Wheaton, a second-year wide receiver who is expected to replace Sanders in the starting lineup.
Wheaton is still a relative unknown after a quiet rookie season in which he only had six receptions on 13 targets for 64 yards. Despite playing in 12 games, he was never able to develop a rapport with Ben Roethlisberger after suffering a finger injury, which required him to miss four games.
Healthy and with his second training camp under his belt, Wheaton is in position not only to start, but to put together a very productive season.
Under Todd Haley, the Steelers have slowly developed into a quick-passing team that now features the no-huddle attack. Wheaton is an ideal fit for this scheme with his route-running ability and speed to stretch the field.
Despite his talent, Wheaton’s role in the offense will be limited. Brown is the clear-cut No. 1 receiver for Roethlisberger and should once again be near the top of the league in receptions.
Heath Miller will likely settle into the No. 2 role now that he has returned to health while Moore can put up Cotchery-like numbers.
Besides the other receiving options, Haley will look to have a more balanced approach with his offense.
The combination of Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount has the potential to provide a potent ground attack while Dri Archer adds some electricity to the offense with his ability to contribute in the running and passing game.
It is easy to see how Wheaton is an afterthought in this offense. The Steelers are loaded with weapons, and there are only so many balls to go around.
But while they will spread it out, he still figures to get a significant number of passes thrown his way as the No. 2 wide receiver.
Though Wheaton was not the favorite for the starting job, that did not stop him from working hard during the offseason. He spent time with Roethlisberger and other receivers for a week in California and followed it up with a strong performance in the offseason programs.
Wheaton had a particularly strong training camp, flashing his ability to be a threat over the middle of the field and get deep—though he did struggle through some dropped passes.
His performance entrenched him as a legitimate starting option.
With that said, performance in practice does not always translate to production in a game.
Against the Philadelphia Eagles, there was a clear emphasis on feeding the ball to Wheaton, and it was not pretty. He only caught two of four targets—with two attempts called back due to penalties. He was not on the same page as Roethlisberger, which is unacceptable for a true No. 2 receiver.
Markus Wheaton suffering from having to actually play rather than live off his hype.— Cian Fahey (@Cianaf) August 22, 2014
This came one game after Wheaton looked very good against the Buffalo Bills. Though he only had two receptions for 15 yards, his 16-yard reception from Roethlisberger was on a perfect post-corner route.
Better throw by Ben or post-corner route pass Stephon Gilmore by Markus Wheaton? Both excellent— Ken Laird (@Ken_Laird) August 17, 2014
As impressive as Wheaton’s touchdown reception was, he still has room to grow. Roethlisberger has recognized his effort, but believes that Wheaton can get even better, per Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
He’s learning and growing fast, and we need him to. That’s what’s great about him. He doesn’t make the same mistake twice. He’s busting his butt every day in practice. I grabbed him upstairs [Monday] and talked to him about something he did a little wrong in the game. He had nothing to do with the play, but he was heartbroken that he screwed something up that he probably shouldn’t have. He puts that work in. He’s watched [Brown]. He knows what it takes to be a pro.
Wheaton will have his problems as he settles into the starting role, but he is poised to follow in the footsteps of Brown and Mike Wallace to make significant leaps in his second year in the league—as opposed to Sanders, who didn’t start until his fourth year in the NFL.
|Steelers' Wide Receiver Yardage from Year One to Year Two|
|Receptions in Year One||Receiving Yards in Year One||Receptions in Year Two||Receiving Yards in Year Two|
A 1,000-yard season is unrealistic given all of the other options on the Steelers offense, but he should at least be able to match the 67 receptions for 740 yards and six touchdowns that Sanders put up last year.
Given his deep speed, Wheaton could be in position to produce an additional 100 yards.
Beyond his stats, the Steelers will look for Wheaton to be a dependable option—something that plagued Sanders last year. Though it may be overstated, Sanders dropped passes in several critical situations last year—something that Wheaton must avoid.
An additional dependable option for Roethlisberger will be a key to his success, as opponents will focus their coverage on Brown.
“It's absolutely important (for him to succeed) or teams are going to come to the stadium and put two or three guys on me,” Brown said to Alan Robinson of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “We're going to need other guys (contributing) to win.”
Brown is exactly right. He cannot do it alone, and as much as Miller, Moore, Bell and others bring to the receiving game, no one will be more important than Wheaton. He is the only other option who can command consistent attention from opposing defensive backs and allow Brown to run free.
Wheaton is Pittsburgh’s X-factor not only due to his potential production this year, but because of how he can open up the field for the other players on offense.
A productive season from Wheaton would help take the Steelers from an offense with the ability to be one of the best in the league to one that is one of the best in reality.