Ever since the news first came out that Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Martavis Bryant would be suspended for a year, including the entirety of the 2016 season, pending reinstatement, the discussion from that point on has primarily focused upon how the team will move forward in replacing his production—namely, with a platoon of options—on the field.
That likely is not what fourth-year wide receiver Markus Wheaton wants to hear, or what he has in mind, even if he would be too humble and soft-spoken to say otherwise. The former 2013 third-round draft pick has been the team’s primary starting wide receiver across from Antonio Brown over the course of the past two seasons, although he has not always had the targets to showcase it.
The 25-year-old started 11 games in 2014, his second season, after hardly playing during his rookie year, and posted 53 receptions for 644 yards and two touchdowns, finding success early on but quickly fading, and Bryant’s storming onto the scene severely bottlenecked the amount of balls to go around.
Last season, Wheaton started eight games and caught 44 passes, but they were receptions of a more explosive nature, going for 749 yards and averaging 17 yards per reception, pairing with a career-high five touchdown receptions.
None of this amounts to a slam dunk resume for a starting wide receiver in Pittsburgh, of course, and Wheaton knows that. It’s why there has been so much discussion about platooning and the mentioning of other wide receivers’ names—even former undrafted free agents who never even saw a preseason stadium.
He knows that his game is not at the level at which he can be regarded unequivocally as a starter, and that if he should want to avoid a platooning situation, that he will have to take his game to the next level, starting with developing a more consistent rapport with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, which has ebbed and flowed in terms of continuity over the years.
Consistency, in fact, it the name of the game for the 5’11” receiver, because, while he has shown the ability to make some tough grabs in traffic, there have also been the moments—some of them high-profile, such as in the Divisional Round—during which he failed to come through. And it is in those moments that you solidify your status.
There is little doubt that Wheaton was on a positive upward trajectory over the latter half of the season, with his numbers after the bye week looking better, and more consistent, than they had ever been previously in his career. He even had a huge, nine-reception, 201-yard, one-touchdown game in Seattle—but even in that game there was a notable instant or two of a play he failed to come up with.
These may seem like fairly harsh words, particularly for a player who is about as modest as they come, but they are words partially inspired by a belief that he has the talent and ability to do better.