The Pittsburgh Steelers spent much of the time between their last playoff victory and now replenishing their roster in preparation for their next chance to make a push for a championship. Last season showed signs that the team was on its way out of that transitional phase after posting a division-winning 11-5 record following back to back .500 seasons.
Still, the Steelers failed to make it out of the divisional round, and have lost their last three postseason contests, dating back to Super Bowl XLV. They followed up that 2010 run with a 12-4 wildcard campaign that saw a first-round exit, and subsequently failed to return to the playoffs the following two years.
Because the fifth skill position player on the field can vary significantly depending on the personnel package, whether it’s a third wide receiver, a second tight end, or a fullback, each will be looked at separately. As the Steeler continually employ three-receiver sets more and more, it makes sense to look at the primary slot receiver in each instance.
The team’s third receiver in 2008 when they won the Super Bowl was Nate Washington, who was in his fourth and final season with the Steelers before he signed a free agent contract elsewhere.
A former undrafted free agent, the climb up was a steep one for Washington, who was only active for one game in his first year. He played in 16 each of the next three years, averaging around 35 receptions for close to 600 yards and four touchdowns.
In 2008 posted 40 receptions for 631 yards and three touchdowns. He was often the Steelers’ deep threat, but he had drop issues that he had to overcome. He and Ben Roethlisberger managed to hook up on just four of 24 deep passes that season, but he was finally coming on, and he proved to be a better player later on.
A similar thing can be said for Emmanuel Sanders, who was the primary slot receiver in 2010 during his rookie season. He made the Pro Bowl last season after leaving the Steelers in free agency, but he struggled to live up to expectations in Pittsburgh.
As a rookie, he had some early injuries to deal with that caused him to miss time, and then he broke his foot in the Super Bowl, so injuries are certainly a part of that story. In all that year, he caught 28 passes in 13 games for 376 yards and two touchdowns. He progressed over time, entering the starting lineup in year four and posting six touchdowns, but he never had the impact he should have in Pittsburgh.
Whether or not that will also be the story for Markus Wheaton remains to be seen. Like Sanders, Wheaton was a third-round pick, who also dealt with injuries as a rookie, but Wheaton got far less work due to the depth chart. Unlike Sanders, however, Wheaton was thrust into a starting role in his second season, but an evaluation remains incomplete.
When viewing his numbers, they are not bad by any means. 53 receptions for 644 yards and two touchdowns in 16 games with 11 starts is okay, but that needs to be built upon heading into the future, which seems most likely to be a move to the slot.
Wheaton is certainly a talented player who has flashed his potential, but there are some things that he needs to work on, which includes building the mindset necessary to play in the slot, where the angles are different and you work against different body types. Much remains to be seen, but I believe that he will flourish in this role, and that there will be plenty of balls to spread around.