PITTSBURGH — The cameras were going to love this kid, with his long torso and the dreadlocks flapping out of his helmet. He was going to be a highlight machine, blazing through defenses and plucking passes from the sky, dancing in end zones and nodding while fans wearing his jersey No. 14 gave high-fives all over Heinz Field.
Sammie Coates was going to be an instant star. At least, that was how it seemed back in the autumn of 2015.
The NFL had different plans.
The plays moved fast. Real fast. Defensive players were cunning, and his routes were sloppy. Balls bounced off his hands. He was huffing and puffing all the time.
As it turned out, fans weren't wearing his jersey at games, and neither was he. His coaches decided he would wear street clothes for eight regular-season games and another postseason game. He didn't get off the bench in two other regular-season games. All regular season long, he caught one lousy pass.
Coates' most important contribution was making sure the wide receivers had Chick-fil-A sandwiches in their meeting room every Saturday morning. And by teammates' accounts, at least he did that well.
All of it was a bit of a shock for the former Mr. Big Man on Campus. At Auburn, he averaged 21.4 yards per catch. He once wrecked mighty Alabama with 206 receiving yards and two touchdowns. He was the leading receiver on a team that came within four points of winning a national championship. In high school, he was named MVP on a state championship team.
That seemed like so long ago to Coates.
"It was clear he wasn't ready to have an impact on us," Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley says in retrospect. "The first part of the year was rough. He wasn't near in the condition he needed to be in, and he probably thought he was in decent shape."
Of all the blessings in an NFL locker room, self-honesty may be the most difficult to find. Coates, though, looked in the mirror and saw the same thing his coaches were seeing.
"I was overweight and tired," he says. "I knew I wasn't where I needed to be to help the team win."
He wasn't ready to take the baton—to become the next in the seemingly never-ending line of great Steelers receivers. Yet.
Before he became a Steeler, Coates never had to worry about eating right or pushing himself in workouts. A native of Leroy, Alabama, Coates always could get from here to there as quick a Bama breeze, even if he wasn't in the best shape.
At 6'2" and with a 4.43 40-yard dash and 41-inch vertical jump, Coates got by on talent alone. In 2014, Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports ranked him No. 1 on his annual list of "the Top 20 'Freaks' in college football."
All that ability, it turned out, could have been his downfall.
"His whole life—college, high school, Pop Warner—he could just show up because he was the best athlete on the field," Steelers veteran receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey says. "He struggled with the fact that at this level, we're professionals. He found out quickly you have to put in extra work here."
Coates learned that if he wanted to do something the right way, all he needed to do was look at how those around him were doing it.
Antonio Brown, an incandescent talent who arguably is football's best wide receiver, is the perfect role model. In addition to playing the game with stunning precision, Brown builds his world around his game.
That means he analyzes every bite of food and every sip of drink. And it means the treadmill will wear out before he will.
"Nobody can outwork him or outrun him," Haley says.
Last year, Brown had a talk with Coates about taking care of his body and paying attention to nutrition. Coates took Brown's words to heart. As the season progressed, he lost about five pounds. During the offseason, he paid closer attention to portion sizes and carb-to-protein ratio. He dropped another 15 pounds. He is 210 now, and his body fat dropped from 10 percent to 6 percent.
"When we got to camp this year, you could see a marked difference in his ability to run all day," Haley says. "He ran back-to-back go routes a couple times in camp. The year before there was no way he could do it. It helped having a guy like Antonio. Young guys see that work ethic, how he gets himself ready to go."
Brown and Coates are a fine pair. Any receiver would benefit from playing opposite Brown, because he draws extra attention from defenses. But it especially helps a receiver who can get deep like Coates, because defenses don't always leave a safety over the top when Brown is running an underneath route.
There's the motivation factor, too, of teaming with a veteran receiver—a Steelers tradition at this point.
"Sammie mimics Antonio in terms of his attitude regarding work and demeanor he brings to work," Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin says. "Well, I watched AB mimic Hines Ward."
Brown wasn't the only young receiver in Pittsburgh who mimicked Ward. So did Santonio Holmes, Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders, Markus Wheaton and Martavis Bryant.
"It's a cultural thing," Tomlin says. "There's an element that doesn't get talked about that has been handed down from generation to generation."
Ward would work on the jugs machine before and after practice. Two hands, one hand—right and left—move closer to the machine, farther back, set up at different angles. In a quiet, dark meeting room on the South Side, Ward would share his goal for the week with the other receivers. On his playbook, he would write down coverages he expected to see in certain situations.
Brown does the same things. And now Coates is falling in line with the traditions.
"It all started from that one person," says former Steelers quarterback Charlie Batch, who now does media work in town. "You are seeing remnants of Hines."
Thanks in part to those remnants, Coates' average per catch of 22.2 yards this season is highest in the NFL among players with at least 10 receptions. Even after playing with a fractured finger last week and not catching a single pass, Coates has more receiving yards than any No. 2 wide receiver in football. He became the second player in Steelers history to have at least one reception of 40 or more yards in five straight games.
"He's the perfect example of putting in the work and having it pay off," Heyward-Bey says. "He's a totally different person from Day 1."
Ben Roethlisberger threw to Ward. He has thrown to all the other Steelers receivers since. He has been the constant in the long black and gold line of wide receivers. During Roethlisberger's 12 previous seasons, Steelers wide receivers have gone to seven Pro Bowls.
Big Ben is more than a passer for young receivers like Coates. He is a resource.
"Ben is one of the best quarterbacks in the world," Coates says. "When you have a great leader, he's going to help you develop into the player you can be. Ben knows so much about the game that he's going to tell you what you need to do, how to do it, timing, eyes, everything."
Coates will miss Roethlisberger this Sunday against the Patriots as the quarterback rehabs from surgery to repair a torn meniscus. But his words still will be ringing in Coates' ears.
"When you get this coverage, think about this," Roethlisberger has told him, repeatedly. "On this route, think about this."
From Roethlisberger's thumbs to Coates' eyes, much has been relayed through mobile devices. Roethlisberger also spent extra time with Coates in the offseason, as he does with all of the receivers. He typically takes them to his lake house in Greensboro, Georgia. There, they work out hard and then enjoy a cold beverage or two.
More than anything, it's about developing a connection.
"I always tell Sammie, 'Earn the trust of Ben,'" Brown says. "'He'll put you in great position and get you the ball, make it easy on you. Continue to work and let him know you can be a help.'"
At Auburn, Coates played in a zone-option-read offense. He subsequently arrived in Pittsburgh as an unsophisticated route-runner, having little experience at curls, ins, crossings and screens. He didn't play in the slot and didn't go in motion. Initially, he got by with vertical routes and some quick hitches.
Late in September during a practice, Coates ran a 12-yard stop route. He was Roethlisberger's first read on the play, but Coates' relaxed gait made it clear to the defensive back who was covering him that he had no intention of going deep. The defensive back jumped the route. Roethlisberger saw what was happening and went on to his next read.
After the play, he went straight at Coates, and he wasn't smiling. He had seen the same thing happen in games, and it was not acceptable. Not anymore. It was Tomlin who once used the term "one-trick pony" in reference to Wallace, because all he could do well was run a deep route. Now Roethlisberger made it clear one trick was not enough for Coates.
"There is no way a DB should know when you are going to run a go or a stop route," Roethlisberger told him. "You need to run every route as fast as you possibly can and scare the defender."
The message hit home. Now, the Steelers are using Coates on more crossing routes, out-breaking routes and in-breaking routes. He's creating separation on those routes because he is selling them as if they are posts or gos.
"Listen, overnight, he's not going to be the best route-runner in the world," Roethlisberger says. "That's just not the way it works. But you can see the growth. You can see the changes. He used to get real wild and flail at the top of his route, which keyed DBs on when he was going to start breaking. He's tightened it up and made it harder to know when he is going to break. You can see he's more compact at the top of his route."
One of the reasons Coates lasted until the third round of the draft was his questionable catching ability. He had a drop rate of 19.1 percent in college, according to NFL.com. In his first training camp, the drops continued.
Wide receivers coach Richard Mann spent hours working with Coates on his catching style. He had him catch passes with his thumbs in. Then thumbs out. He had him catch passes after watching the ball go past him.
In the offseason, Coates spent about $1,000 on a jugs machine. He set it up in his wife's parents' back yard in Florida.
"He can write it off," Mann says. "It's part of the job. It's growing up and becoming a pro."
Coates says he caught at least 100 passes a day from his new jugs machine. His catching ability remains a work in progress—his drop rate is 14.3 percent this year, according to Pro Football Focus—but it has improved.
"My hands never were bad; it's just concentrating on the football," he says. "The jugs machine helps, because you have to look the ball in."
Mann, 68, is good for Coates. He has been working with NFL wide receivers and tight ends for 32 years and has coached a wide range of talent, from Antonio Bryant to Ozzie Newsome. He sold Coates on his routine of everyday drills, or "EDDs" as he calls them, that address the foundations of the position.
"Richard has a fundamentalist approach to teaching that aids in the development of young players," Tomlin says.
Mann likes to pull out antiquated VHS tapes from a bygone era and show his receivers timeless technique. In the offseason, he showed the group a tape of Reggie Langhorne, a receiver he coached in the 1980s with the Browns. Mann says Langhorne was a less talented version of Coates.
"I'm teaching Sammie the same things I was teaching him," Mann says.
"Those old-school cassette tapes from back in the day are pretty cool," Coates says. "He told me how to read defenses good. Taught me how to get good releases, what to do at the top of my routes."
For a young wide receiver who wants to learn, the Steelers are the Harvard of football teams.
Tomlin has wide receiver roots. He played the position at William and Mary and began his career as a wide receiver coach. More importantly, he has patience and job security, and he buys into the organizational philosophy of draft and develop.
Haley has spent much of his career as a wide receiver coach. He has coached Keyshawn Johnson, Marty Booker, Terry Glenn, Terrell Owens, Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and Dwayne Bowe. He didn't tell any of them what they wanted to hear, and he has taken a similar tough-love approach with Coates.
Haley also has helped the Steelers scouting staff understand what his offense needs from the position. He began his career in scouting, and his father, Dick Haley, was the Steelers' director of player personnel from 1971 through 1990. Haley learned the business by watching tape with dad.
Haley is using Coates at one position only—Z, or strong-side receiver. "Young guys, we try to let them get comfortable in one job," he says. "A couple of years in, they can expand."
The Steelers need Coates this year because Bryant is suspended, but they didn't need him last year. That enabled them to take it slow, which was significant.
Last season when Coates was trying to find his way while playing on the scout team, Haley told him he was going to study his every route. He told him he had better run every route the way he was expected to.
About three-quarters through the season, it started to come together for Coates. No one saw it except for his coaches and teammates—and people like Batch who were allowed around the team—but he started lighting up practices.
He wasn't immediately rewarded, though.
"He was making great plays in practice, and there were wow moments, and they'd just say, ‘OK do it again,'" Batch says. "They wanted him to develop into more than just a long-distance guy."
His break came in the AFC divisional round Game, with Brown injured. Coates made plays like he had been in practice, with a 24-yard gain and a 37-yard gain.
Then he kept progressing in the offseason, refining technique, reshaping his body.
"He came a long way," Mann says.
He has a long way still to go. Coates has many more routes to run and catches to make.
But if he keeps going down the path he and others have traveled, a young Steelers receiver someday may say, "I learned from Sammie Coates."
Dan Pompei covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.