If you thought the emergence of second-year wide receiver Martavis Bryant last year somehow translated into a loss of significance for Markus Wheaton as he heads into his third season, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had another take on the matter.
During the spring and early in training camp, Wheaton continued to run with the starters in two-wide receiver sets, moving into the slot when Bryant came on to the field. The fact that the Steelers have and will continue to use 11 personnel with great frequency, however, largely negates the meaning of the starter label in the first place.
Within the public narrative, Wheaton has fallen somewhat behind his peers in Bryant and, of course, Antonio Brown, with the pair combining for a club-record 21 touchdowns between them during the regular season.
Wheaton, the primary starter at wide receiver last season, recorded 53 receptions for 644 yards and two touchdowns, but with the high-octane offense the Steelers are building and his newfound comfort in the slot, the expectation is that there will be enough balls to go around for him to improve on those numbers—perhaps in an offense that features three 1000-yard receivers.
The third-year wide receiver is certainly not lacking the work ethic. Wheaton has sat out some time now with a hamstring injury, but as Alex Kozora has been updating regularly, he has kept himself quite busy while his head coach has kept him on the sidelines, not wanting to push matters for no reason.
For a while now, Wheaton had been keeping himself busy by working on the jugs machine, catching passes and working on his handwork. When able, he was off to the side jogging.
On Tuesday, he was by Todd Haley’s side in spite of remaining sidelined. He stood in on the huddles in order to receive the plays and then retreated back to his offensive coordinator’s side, ready to take the mental rep.
He was finally given the go ahead to return to full participation, including team drills, in practice yesterday, and he reintroduced himself with a strong day, according to a variety of reports. He hooked up with Roethlisberger during one 11-on-11 session for what Kozora described as a 66-yard touchdown.
Kozora also noted that Wheaton ran in two-receiver sets with Brown, even though Bryant returned to practice a day earlier. However that rotation ultimately plays out by the start of the regular season, or by the end of it, seems fairly immaterial.
That is because all of the Steelers’ receivers seem poised for success, either entering or building on a breakout season, and the competition between the three of them will foster a great deal of productivity on the offensive side of the ball.
Many thought that the drafting of Sammie Coates in the third round of the 2015 NFL Draft spelled the beginning of the end for Wheaton. But the young wide receiver is entering just his third season and has two more years under contract. By then, he may only be on his way out of Pittsburgh because of his price tag.