You may have heard yesterday about Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin using the phrase “open competition” to describe the number two wide receiver position in the team’s offense during the 2016 season across from Antonio Brown, following the year-long suspension handed down to Martavis Bryant.
This comment may have seemed like a bit of a head scratcher, given that fourth-year wide receiver Markus Wheaton has, loosely, filled that number two wide receiver role over the course of the past two seasons, logging the second-highest snap total among wide receivers behind Antonio Brown in each of those two seasons, and occupying the lion’s share of snaps in two-receiver personnel.
But it is his own career trajectory that presents a comparable, though not synonymous parallel to the circumstances that will exist for the Steelers in training camp, as he ascended into the role of ‘starter’ in his second season in 2014.
Wheaton was a third-round draft pick during the 2013 NFL Draft, but he only logged a few dozen snaps that season and just a couple of catches. He ended up surpasses his rookie season totals in the season opener of his second season, to provide some perspective as to how little-utilized he was.
Wide receiver Sammie Coates was a third-round selection during the 2015 NFL Draft, and was even more scarcely utilized during his rookie season than was Wheaton two years earlier, though the former did have the opportunity to garner some playing time in the postseason and recorded two explosive plays against a talented defense.
The difference comes in how the depth charts shifted between then and now. This season, the Steelers will be without the services of Bryant, who missed five games due to suspension and injury last season, and did not play in his first six games as a rookie. He has existed in some mercurial role between the number two and the number three receiver for most of his two-year tenure because of his inconsistencies.
When Wheaton advanced into the starting lineup, it was during an offseason in which the Steelers lost both their number two and number three wide receivers in Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery, who combined to record 16 touchdown passes during the 2012 season, to offer a barometer as to the significance of that loss.
Those defections are what prompted the Steelers to draft Bryant, and to sign Lance Moore and Darrius Heyward-Bey during free agency to replenish a diminished wide receiver depth chart. This time around, they have an already established Wheaton, who is coming off a strong finish to the 2015 season, and a Heyward-Bey that has re-established himself as an offensive contributor and a big-play threat.
This is all just to say that, while the road ahead may be a long one for Coates if he hopes to ascend into the starting lineup by the 2015 season opener, it should not be one that is looked at as impossible. He has the highest ceiling of the three competitors for the ‘open’ spot; it’s just a matter of how soon he can push himself to a level that offers the coaching staff a level of comfort in his ability to perform consistently.