2016 Steelers Pre-Free Agency Positional Review: Wide Receiver

We’re now into March, and that means that the new league year will be upon us shortly, and when that time comes, the floodgates to free agency will open—not that the Pittsburgh Steelers will be major players when it comes to signing outside free agents, as they tend to keep themselves busy in retaining their own players.

But before we get to that period, it’s time to take a look at the Steelers’ offseason roster as it appears to be shaping up as we hit the start of the new league year, at which time the team will have a couple of dozen players hitting the open market.

As with every other team, the Steelers have already made some roster tweaks, signing several players to Reserve/Futures contracts, tenders, and other sorts of contract, while also making some deletions after they waived a handful of players, so here is a position-by-position look at how the team looks heading into free agency.

Position: Wide Receiver

Total Positional Figure: 10

Additions: 3

Deletions: 2

Players Retained:

Antonio Brown: Antonio Brown enters his seventh season in the league having already established himself as the best wide receiver in the league. It’s hard to imagine him still having the ability to improve much from here as he shatters Steelers records and inks his name into the league’s history books.

Markus Wheaton: Entering the final year of his rookie contract, this could be an interesting season for Markus Wheaton. He has struggled to find his place in the offense, but he came on strong late in the season and finished the year with five touchdowns. Will he play out his career well enough to earn an Emmanuel Sanders-like deal in 2017?

Martavis Bryant: I don’t think many would contend that Martavis Bryant had the breakout season many anticipated, even conceding his truncated 11-game season due to suspension and injury. He had several big games, but he still lacks in certain areas of his game. His saving grace—other than his mother—will hopefully be his willingness to take hard coaching.

Sammie Coates: Having just completed his rookie season, during which he was hardly trusted, Sammie Coates figures to play a more important role in year two, especially if the Steelers adopt some more four-wide receiver sets. He played a significant role in their final postseason game, catching two passes and showing YAC ability while also drawing a pass interference.

Darrius Heyward-Bey: Former first-round bust Darrius Heyward-Bey played a key role in the Steelers’ offense during Bryant’s suspension and hit a couple of big-time throws late in the year after his role was reduced. He’s about as team-first a guy as there is, a great locker room presence, a blocking wide receiver, and a strong special teams contributor to boot. He may have earned himself a contract beyond veteran-minimum.

Shakim Phillips: Rookie undrafted free agent wide receiver Shakim Phillips brought with him to training camp size and speed, but once there, he flashed just enough playmaking ability to get people curious. While he didn’t make the initial 53-man roster, he was carried on the practice squad all year and was re-signed to a Reserve/Future contract after the season.

Eli Rogers: Another rookie undrafted free agent, Eli Rogers drew a lot of early buzz and even garnered some first-team reps early in training camp, but he suffered a foot injury before the preseason even started that wiped out his rookie season. He was carried on injured reserve all year, however, and figures to be back this year.

Players Added:

Issac Blakeney: Yet another undrafted rookie, Isaac Blakeney was originally signed by the 49ers and then spent less than two weeks on the Redskins’ practice squad. The Steelers signed him to a Reserve/Future deal after the season. If you’re looking for intrigue, he may not be overly fast, but he is 6’3” and has an impressive vertical, while still being relatively new to the wide receiver position.

Levi Norwood: The draw for Levi Norwood may primarily be his return work in college, which in itself was not spectacular. But he was a fairly consistent performer at Baylor prior to entering the draft—and going undrafted—last year.

Tobais Palmer: Tobais Palmer is a short, fast wide receiver who just turned 26. Originally signed by the Jaguars as an undrafted free agent, he bounced around on their practice squad and 53-man roster for a year, then spent the next two seasons bouncing around a few different teams, finally signing with the Steelers as a Reserve/Future player to being the offseason.

Players Deleted:

Tyler Murphy: And yet another undrafted free agent, Tyler Murphy was a college quarterback converted to wide receiver. He made the initial 53-man roster due to Bryant’s suspension and caught one pass in garbage time, but was moved back to the practice squad after two games. He was later promoted to serve as an emergency quarterback, but was then released again. He spent the rest of the season on the practice squad, but did not sign a Reserve/Future deal with the Steelers. He later did so with the Dolphins.

Jacoby Jones: The Steelers claimed veteran return man Jacoby Jones off waivers and installed him as their returner, but after four games of waiting for it all to click—after he fumbled twice in the same game—they pulled the plug and benched him. He was released a few weeks later.

Offseason Strategy: It’s unlikely that there is much of an offseason strategy here. The Steelers already have four wide receivers with playing experience under contract and two more encouraging undrafted free agents entering their second offseason. Outside of considering whether or not to re-sign Heyward-Bey, and throwing some more signing bonus money at Brown until next offseason, this position may not get addressed meaningfully at all.

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