For well over 40 years, the Pittsburgh Steelers have drafted and developed linebackers better than any team in the league. As offense in the NFL has evolved over the past decade, the Steelers have adapted and consistently had one of the top receiver corps in the league.
In 2004, Ben Roethlisberger broke into the league with the trio of Hines Ward, Plaxico Burress and Antwaan Randle El. Since then, the Steelers drafted Super Bowl MVP Santonio Holmes as well as the “Young Money Crew” consisting of Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown.
Only Brown remains, but he will be flanked by a number of young, talented receivers in 2015. Markus Wheaton and Martavis Bryant will compete for snaps as the No. 2 receiver, while rookie Sammie Coates will try to establish a role in his first season.
Before he gets on the field, he must beat out Darrius Heyward-Bey. That may not pose much of an issue, as Heyward-Bey only had five targets all of last season since his role is primarily on special teams.
|Wide Receiver Depth Chart|
|Ourlads.com and Steelers.com|
Unlike in previous years, the Steelers do not have a veteran presence—besides Heyward-Bey—at the bottom of the depth chart. That could mean an even more explosive offense this year.
As pointed out by Neal Coolong of Steelers Wire, the Steelers were quite successful at getting big plays through the air: “Ben Roethlisberger tied a career-high with 32 touchdown passes last year. Those came from, on average, 22.3 yards down the field. That average was 17 yards in 2012, and 16.4 yards in 2013. Roethlisberger threw seven touchdown passes of 20 yards or more in 2012, then 10 in 2013 and 12 last season.”
Led by Brown, the Steelers are poised to have one of the most exciting groups of receivers in the league in 2015. Developing the raw abilities of their young receivers will be key, but as recent history suggests, the coaching staff will be successful.
Antonio Brown Focused on Football
As a sixth-round draft choice, Brown is arguably the Steelers' greatest late-round pick in team history. In only five seasons, he went from a limited contributor on offense to leading the NFL with 129 receptions for 1,698 yards last season.
Brown ranked second in the NFL with 13 touchdowns and was sixth with 568 yards after the catch. He paced the league with 85 receptions for a first down—nine better than No. 2 Julio Jones.
After such a successful season, there was talk that Brown was interested in a new deal. According to Mike Garafolo of FOX Sports, Brown believes that he should be paid like the elite receivers and that the Steelers “are bracing for a possible camp holdout.”
From everything we’ve seen in organized team activities so far, Brown seems as committed as ever to the team and will leave the contract talk to his agent.
“It’s not my business to discuss,” Brown said, via Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “It’s singularly up to my agent. Right now, I’m trying to better my game and prepare for 2015.”
|Antonio Brown Statistic Rankings|
Fittipaldo reported that Brown was one of the last two players on the field during OTA practices, which is par for the course. He is one of their hardest workers not only during team practices, but also while preparing on his own during the offseason.
Given his focus on improvement, it is possible that he signed his new contract too early and instead should have bet on himself and waited.
“That’s totally up to my agent. I’m here singularly focused to get better and better my game,” Brown said, via Fittipaldo. “This organization has been nothing but first class to me, believing in my skills since I got here. I’m ready to pay them back with my work ethic.”
Brown is a face of the franchise, but even he should know that the Steelers do not renegotiate until a player has one year left on his deal. As long as he continues to put in the work and produce, he will receive a new contract in due time.
With that in mind, he can focus on establishing himself as the top receiver in the league and, of course, continuing his streak of consecutive games with at least five receptions and 50 yards.
Battle for No. 2
Offensive coordinator Todd Haley has no hidden agenda for training camp. He made it clear that Wheaton and Bryant will compete for the No. 2 spot in training camp.
“We are looking for him to come in and make a push against Markus Wheaton for that No. 2 spot and continue give us big-time production, specifically in the red area where a big target like that can make a big impact,” Haley said during a Steelers Nation Unite "Weekly Huddle” fan forum, via Mark Kaboly of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
The two receivers could not be any more different from each other.
At 5’11” and 182 pounds, Wheaton has solid speed and has the route-running skills to play the outside or the slot. By contrast, the 6’4” and 211-pound Bryant has the deep speed to run by virtually every defensive back in the NFL.
|Wheaton vs. Bryant 2014 Statistics|
An injury-riddled rookie season limited Wheaton to six receptions, but he recovered nicely in his second year with 53 receptions for 644 yards and two touchdowns. Despite the improvement, he must work on his consistency—he had seven games with three or fewer receptions last season.
Another area that Wheaton must develop is gaining yards after the reception.
“[Tomlin’s] always on me about my run after [the catch], my YAC,” Wheaton said, via Mike Prisuta of Steelers.com. “He wants us to finish, that’s what he’s trying to push. And I think he gets his point across very well.”
Wheaton could take notes from watching Brown, who is excellent after the catch. One quick step is all it takes to break a tackle and gain an extra chunk of yardage.
Improving in this area could make Wheaton a dangerous option if he plays the slot with Brown and Bryant on the outside. Along with Bell coming out of the backfield, Wheaton would have plenty of room on the inside to make plays.
Wheaton told Prisuta that he has already improved in this area:
“I had a middle read, single-high [coverage], so I crossed the safety’s face,” Wheaton explained. “Perfect ball and then it was pretty much a footrace, me and Mike [Mitchell], I finished.
While the Steelers would like to see Wheaton take advantage of his short-area quickness, they need Bryant to continue to develop as a route-runner so he can fully take advantage of his deep speed and leaping ability.
When matched up one-on-one with defensive backs, Bryant will rarely lose a physical battle. When he does lose, it is due to a concentration lapse where he doesn’t take advantage of his skillset. He can continue to gain the edge once he can run the full route tree.
Last season, the Steelers utilized on screen passes and as a downfield receiver. The strategy paid off as Bryant led all receivers who had at least 20 receptions with an average of 21.1 yards per reception. Of his 26 receptions, eight went for 20 yards or more and he had 16 first downs.
Not only was Bryant a big-play threat, but he converted those plays into scores with eight touchdowns last season. He should once again stretch the field in his second year, but they will look for him to use his height in the red zone.
Given the number of looks the Steelers will give on offense, both receivers will get a significant number of looks in the passing game no matter who is the No. 2 by the time the season starts.
The Steelers have done a fine job getting production from rookie receivers in recent years. From Mike Wallace to Martavis Bryant, rookie receivers can expect playing time in Pittsburgh’s offense.
Sammie Coates is next in line, as the speedy wide receiver brings big-play ability from Auburn. At 6’1” and 212 pounds, he brings a physical aspect to his game as well as the speed element.
|Steelers Rookie Wide Receiver Statistics|
Coates ran the 40-yard dash in 4.43 seconds at the combine, but said that he is even faster on the field, via Jeremy Fowler of ESPN.com:
"I'm probably a 4.2, 4.3 [on field]," Coates said. "I play way faster."
His speed was evident in college, where he averaged 20.9 yards per reception of the course of his career—including 21.8 yards per reception last season. Coates didn’t beat up on low-level competition either.
Against Alabama last season, Coates caught five passes for 204 yards and two touchdowns. In 2013, he averaged 54.1 yards per reception on his seven touchdown receptions. Despite these impressive numbers, his weakness stands out.
According to Lance Zierlein of NFL.com, Coates’ drop rate was at 19.1 percent. That number is inexcusable if he ever wants to earn a starting job in the NFL, but it is also one that did not worry general manager Kevin Colbert.
"Trust me: He has good hands," Colbert said, via Fowler of ESPN.com. "He has big-play ability."
Coates has impressed during OTAs, as two teammates have taken notice:
“He looks like he knows how to finish a play with strength, especially in the middle of the field,” Gilbert said, via Fowler. “That’s something I noticed.”
Wheaton added that Coates has looked “great” catching the ball.
“He looks good,” Wheaton said, via Fowler. “Obviously as a rookie, he has a lot to learn. But physically, he’s where he needs to be.”
The Steelers will not ask much of Coates during his rookie season. Instead, expect them to use him in a specialized role where he can use his limited route skills to stretch the field. His physical build and playing in a running offense have also prepared him well as a blocker, which is an area that will help separate him from his competition.
As long as he can hold onto the ball, Coates will have a role as the No. 4 receiver this year and could have upwards of 25 receptions.
Best of the Rest
Outside of the top four receivers, it will be an open competition for the fifth—and possibly sixth—spot on the depth chart. Of course, that depends on whether they consider Dri Archer to be a running back or a receiver.
Assuming they keep five receivers, Heyward-Bey has the inside track on winning the job. He has 172 career receptions—although only two with the Steelers—and is a solid player on special teams. Unless a young receiver can excel in this area, he will be a virtual lock for a roster spot.
C.J. Goodwin returns to the team a year after Mel Blount suggested that the Steelers look at him. The receiver impressed enough to not only be signed, but earn a spot on the practice squad. Given his experience, he will have a leg up on his competition.
The Steelers will also work out a pair of former college quarterbacks at receiver. They have had success in the past with Ward, Randle El and Kordell Stewart, but all of those players broke into the league over a decade ago.
Devin Gardner and Tyler Murphy have the football IQ to succeed but must demonstrate that they can physically play the position. Being in the same situation should help the two players as they transition from college quarterback to NFL receiver.
According to Bryant, the former quarterbacks have performed well so far:
“They're coming along great,” Bryant said, via Chris Adamski of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “It's about technique. They've just got to get their technique, and if they get that, they'll get it done.”
No matter who wins the final spot—or spots—on the depth chart, the Steelers will have one of the deepest groups of receivers in the NFL.