Markus Wheaton Is Fantasy Football's Top Breakout Sleeper Candidate

Chris Roling@@Chris_RolingFeatured ColumnistAugust 12, 2014

Sep 8, 2013; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Markus Wheaton (11) returns a kick-off against the Tennessee Titans during the fourth quarter at Heinz Field. The Tennessee Titans won 16-9. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Every now and then, a wideout such as Markus Wheaton comes along and catches the entire fantasy football landscape by surprise.

Let's not pretend this is difficult to see coming.

Owners are right to be skeptical. Led by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, the Pittsburgh Steelers are generally pigeonholed as a run-first team, a notion that is only further intensified by the breakout season of running back Le'Veon Bell last year in his pro debut.

On a more personal note, Wheaton battled injuries and a slew of more experienced names on the depth chart and managed to bring in just six receptions for 64 yards.

So, in a very non-forward thinking sort of way, it makes sense that he continues to sit by the wayside in fantasy drafts with an average draft position of 12.09 as the No. 57 overall receiver off the board.

But those owners with an eye on the future have received affirmation after affirmation this offseason and well into preseason contests that Wheaton is destined to play a large role for the Steelers next season.

CBS Sports' Jason La Canfora wrote in late July that "Wheaton is having another strong start to camp and his role will increase greatly, several Steelers people said."

What many seem to forget is that a redshirt year in an instant-gratification league tends to do players well.

“Being able to sit out last year pretty much helped me,” said Wheaton, per ESPN.com's Scott Brown. “I learned a lot of the coverages, the adjustments Ben throws at us, the playbook.”

Like clockwork, Wheaton was listed as the No. 2 wideout on the depth chart when the first official offering was released. He then told Brown that he welcomes the competition for the slot:

I’m glad that they are pushing me to take that spot. I obviously want that spot but there are a lot of good guys competing for that spot. There will be a lot of competition and a lot of growth from the competition. I’m looking for growth every day and I think with that growth I will prove that I can hold that spot down.

So why the promotion despite a miserable debut campaign? Pittsburgh lost Emmanuel Sanders to the Denver Broncos and Jerricho Cotchery to the Carolina Panthers this offseason.

Sure, the team brought on Lance Moore and fourth-round pick Martavis Bryant this offseason, but the former struggles to be consistent despite playing on pass-first offenses and the latter is very much a project player for the time being.

This next-man-up philosophy marries potential in a package that should simply make owners drool—113 receptions and 188 targets are free for the taking, if things remain similar to last year's offense.

Except they won't. Many will recall the seemingly disgruntled body language of Roethlisberger last season in Todd Haley's offense, and the coaching staff has already said this preseason that an uptick in the no-huddle offense is in the cards.

Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

That means more opportunities for Wheaton, and by the sounds of his preparation, as explained by coach Mike Tomlin and per Brown, he will not relinquish his spot on the depth chart any time soon:

Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

“He’s a detailed guy,” Tomlin said. “I see him not only working out (on the field) before and after but into the evening. He’s just taking a really professional approach. I think he understands what we expect and what we need from him.”

It all amounts to plenty of usage in a great situation for Wheaton, who will act as a deep threat reminiscent of Mike Wallace while players such as Heath Miller and Antonio Brown work more of the underneath duties.

Given the effectiveness of a no-huddle attack, especially led by a quarterback like Roethlisberger who can improvise when things break down, Wheaton should produce enough each week to be a surefire starter.

Health is an issue, but it is with plenty of players at this level of the game. Few come so cheap in the ADP department in such a great situation.

All average draft positions courtesy of FantasyFootballCalculator.com. All scoring info courtesy of ESPN standard leagues. Statistics courtesy of ESPN.

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