It appears as though Pittsburgh Steelers fourth-year wide receiver Markus Wheaton may be a game-time decision to make his 2016 debut this afternoon against the Bengals, after he missed the season opener with a shoulder injury, and in fact was sidelined for much of the preseason and through training camp.
He certainly missed a good deal of time, even if he may be considered a veteran now with three seasons under his belt and two years now of essentially being a starter, even if there have been throughout that time issues with getting on the same page with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
Wheaton did finish off the regular season strong, with the best six-game stretch of his career heading into the playoffs, during which he averaged 17 yards per reception and caught four touchdown passes. He had only three touchdown receptions, including one earlier last season, prior to that stretch.
As has been the case throughout his career, however, it does not appear that when he returns there will be a dedicated starting position there for him, due to the fact that the Steelers simply have more talent at the wide receiver position than would warrant not divvying up the playing time.
Second-year wide receivers Eli Rogers and Sammie Coates, though both with their own areas of room to grow, to be certain, did well for the most part in handling the Steelers’ offense, with Rogers catching six passes for 59 yards and a touchdown—off of a deflection—in the first half. Coates also had two big receptions, one of them for 42 yards, the other converting a third-and-long play.
Obviously, Wheaton will more likely than not resume his place as the second wide receiver in the pecking order, and should see more playing time than Rogers and Coates, unless Rogers is used exclusively in the slot and Wheaton rotates with Coates on the outside, given that the Steelers mostly rely on three-receiver formations.
The fact that he is just returning from injury would also lend credence to the idea that he may not see a full starter’s portion of the reps today, so the Steelers would obviously not want to re-aggravate the injury and cause him to miss even more time than he has already had, in terms of season preparation, and now into the season itself.
This is a pivotal season for Wheaton, as should go without saying, given that he is in the final year of his rookie contract and is slated to hit unrestricted free agency in 2017. The last two Steelers third-round wide receivers cashed in handsomely in free agency, and Wheaton could be the next.
But his final season under contract, and final season before free agency, has gotten off on the wrong foot, and he had better hop back on the moving train, as his head coach would say, before it moves on without him and he finds that the offense has found substitutes for his services.