I don’t imagine that anybody with a reasonable mind could say that the Pittsburgh Steelers are exactly hurting at the wide receiver position right now. Sitting at the top of the depth chart is the best wide receiver in the game, Antonio Brown, and across from him is the budding star Martavis Bryant, both of whom are under contract through 2017.
Markus Wheaton emerged into a vital player down the stretch and ended up leading the team in yards per reception, averaging 17 yards on his 44 receptions with five touchdowns. Second-year wide receiver Sammie Coates looked like he can contribute in a much bigger role in his second year, as Wheaton did in 2014.
That is not even to mention Darrius Heyward-Bey, the veteran free agent pickup that has been an asset even more on special teams than on offense, where he helped the Steelers bridge the gap left open by Bryant’s suspension.
The Steelers will even be returning two wide receivers from their training camp roster in 2015 that offered intrigue, and, in one way or another, stuck around with the organization all year. Eli Rogers suffered an injury that landed him on injured reserve before playing in a preseason game, but he was fast-emerging at the time. Shakim Phillips spent the entire year on the practice squad.
I think it’s probably safe to say even now—barring suspension or injury, the former not as unlikely as one might care for—that the first four players on the depth chart are more or less roster locks already. And Heyward-Bey’s special teams contributions and mild offensive resurgence are not to be overlooked, either, although his recent performance might even have another team take a glance in his direction.
With that background, players like Phillips and Rogers are already coming into a crowded ballroom before they even get their feet back on the practice field, and they already know that. They pretty much faced the same circumstances a year ago, with Dri Archer also thrown in to the mix.
But it helps that neither player is new to the process, and that the team has kept them around. Rogers even got some early work with the first-team offense toward the start of training camp when a spot was open—ahead of Coates—though his inability to make an appearance in a game leaves a major question mark.
Phillips wasn’t a priority signing of any sort. He was not immediately signed after the draft—in fact, his college teammate, quarterback-turned-wide receiver Tyler Murphy, joined the Steelers before he did, and made the initial 53—but he stuck around long enough to make it into games, and he made a couple of highlight plays that piqued a lot of interest in his stock.
Not that any of this means much as far as the 2016 season. goes. Let’s not forget about C.J. Goodwin, who spent all of 2014 on the practice squad despite never playing in the preseason, but he didn’t even make it back there. He spent 2015 unrostered, signed in January to a futures contract by the Falcons. Rogers and Phillips could be a storyline of interest, but let’s keep it at just that for now without overselling it.