The AFC coaches held their annual breakfast Tuesday morning at the league meetings in Boca Raton, Florida and as usual, Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin answered numerous questions from the media in attendance. When asked who will start for the Steelers opposite Antonio Brown in 2016, Tomlin reportedly said it’s an ‘open competition’ for the No. 2 spot.
Tomlin says there's an 'open competition' for the No. 2 WR spot across from Antonio Brown. #Steelers
— Marc Sessler (@MarcSesslerNFL) March 22, 2016
The Steelers will be without the services of former fourth-round draft pick Martavis Bryant for the entire 2016 season as he was suspended for one year by the league for multiple violations of the league’s substance abuse policy over a week ago. That suspension leaves the team with Markus Wheaton, Sammie Coates and Darrius Heyward-Bey as the three primary wide receivers on the roster who figure to compete for the starting spot opposite Brown.
While Wheaton should be the odds-on favorite to win the No. 2 spot this offseason, Coates figures to at least push him during training camp now that he has a full year under his belt. While Coates finally saw playing time and contributed in the Steelers playoff loss to the Denver Broncos last season, his route running still leaves a lot to be desired. Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert addressed that very thing during his talk with the media a few weeks ago at the 2016 NFL Scouting Combine.
“Sammie grew as the year went on,” said Colbert. “He had to make some changes into a more of a conventional offense and learn to run more of a route tree than he was exposed to in some of the spread offenses that they run in college, so he progressed as the year went on.”
While the Steelers did re-sign Heyward-Bey to a three-year contract earlier this month, it’s hard envisioning the former first-round draft pick of the Oakland Raiders starting over both Wheaton and Coates. Heyward-Bey, however, will most definitely benefit from Bryant being suspended as he’s likely to see a substantial increase in playing time much like he received during Bryant’s four-game suspension at the start of last season.
While it’s fun to discuss which player will ultimately win Tomlin’s open competition, it’s important to remember that the Steelers used three or more wide receivers on 65.3% of their offensive plays in 2015. In other words, there will be plenty of snaps for whichever player or players lose Tomlin’s open competition.