By Matthew Marczi
In the weeks leading up to the start of the free agency period earlier this year, there was growing concern with the Pittsburgh Steelers’ wide receiver depth, given the imminent departure of speedster Mike Wallace and the fact that just two wideouts were under contract.
The Steelers attempted to remedy that by re-signing late-season addition Plaxico Burress at the start of the free agency period, and attempting to sign fourth-year veteran Emmanuel Sanders to an offer sheet. Of course, the team got a scare when the New England Patriots attempted to sign him, but the Steelers were able to match.
After the team drafted Markus Wheaton with their third round pick and Justin Brown with one of their sixth round picks, however, the conversation began to turn in the direction not of who Ben Roethlisberger would have to throw to, but who he would not have, and the fingers quickly began to point in the direction of the 36-next-week Plaxico Burress.
Suddenly, Burress was no more than a fifth wideout at best, just a red zone target who can’t play special teams. The fifth wide receiver has to play special teams, after all, so Burress no longer seems to have a place on the team.
But why can’t he play a bigger role with the team? Wheaton, Jerricho Cotchery, and Burress all have skill sets unique from one another—shouldn’t they split the third receiver role depending on the package?
Just two seasons ago, Burress played in 16 games, starting 13, for the New York Jets. He caught 45 passes on 90 targets—which is relatively efficient considering who was throwing him the ball—for 612 yards and eight touchdowns.
Despite just a 50% catch rate, Burress was only credited with four dropped passes, which gives a further indication of the poor quarterback play. His one issue during the season was being penalized, having gotten flagged five times. However, he did show that he was a capable and willing blocker.
He also did so with minimal preparation, a fact that perhaps gets overlooked. Burress, of course, spent roughly two and a half years and prison prior to signing with the Jets during the first week of training camp. And in that camp he quickly sprained an ankle that forced him to sit out the first preseason game and a number of practices.
While he went on to play in the next two preseason games, he did so while laboring through a lingering back issue that limited him in practices. He did not miss a game during the regular season, however, and was a reliable target for the unreliable Mark Sanchez.
In reality, 2013 is the first full offseason that Burress has had in five years, since 2008, and I do not think that is a fact that should be ignored. Last year, of course, he failed to catch on with a team until midseason, but in 2011, he missed all of spring practices and then labored through injuries during training camp.
This year, he appears to be fit and healthy, and is putting forth more effort now than he was in the spring. What’s more, he is building a rapport with Ben Roethlisberger that he has not had with a quarterback since he helped Eli Manning lead the New York Giants to a Super Bowl victory at the end of the 2007 season, and others are noticing as well.
Last week during an episode of Steelers Live, Bob Labriola shared his thoughts on the budding relationship after witnessing one of the team’s end zone passing drills:
What was interesting to me was the rapport between Ben Roethlisberger and Plaxico Burress. One of the combination routes that they ran, Plax was on the weak side, and it was the fade into the corner of the end zone. Ben put the ball on the money and Plax used his size to dominate the defensive backs. I really believe that if Plaxico Burress is going to have a role on this team, a spot, he’s gonna need to be very good down there, and from what I saw down there today, he still remembers how to do that.
Indeed, as the offseason has progressed, the support behind Burress and his prospects of securing a roster spot have been growing. Although he is still not a lock to make the roster, he appears to be in the driver’s seat for a spot, despite purportedly strong practices by Justin Brown and David Gilreath.
Maybe the greatest weapon in his arsenal is the fact that Roethlisberger wants him here. Of the projected top five wide receivers, only Cotchery even reaches six feet in height, and at that just barely. Both Brown and Derek Moye have height, but Burress has the experience, the veteran presence, and the relationship with the quarterback.
Todd Haley and the rest of the offense have the opportunity to maximize Burress’ skill set while still utilizing the quick strike passing game that was implemented last season. He has been there all offseason for a change, so if he is not utilized properly this year, it will be on the coaches.