2016 South Side Questions: What Does Markus Wheaton’s ‘Demotion’ Really Mean?

The regular season is here, and the Pittsburgh Steelers are taking their practices at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, formerly known and still referred to as the ‘South Side’ facility of Heinz Field. While the real work is now upon us, there is plenty left to be done.

And there are plenty of questions left unanswered as well. The offseason is just really the beginning phase of the answer-seeking process, which is lasts all the way through the Super Bowl for teams fortunate enough to reach that far.

You can rest assured that we have the questions, and we will be monitoring the developments in the regular season and beyond looking for the answers as we look to evaluate the makeup of the Steelers as they wade through a regular season in which they are, at least supposed to be, among the favorites to win the Super Bowl.

Question: What does Markus Wheaton’s depth chart demotion mean in practical terms?

As Alex Kozora noted yesterday, the Steelers recently updated the depth chart on their website that now shows Darrius Heyward-Bey listed as a first-team wide receiver along with Antonio Brown, with fourth-year wide receiver Markus Wheaton nestled behind Heyward-Bey.

When reviewing the season as it has developed so far, it is obvious that Heyward-Bey has, in practice, been ‘ahead of Wheaton, considering that Wheaton has missed four of the Steelers’ seven games due to a recurring shoulder injury that he suffered during the preseason.

In particular, Heyward-Bey was tasked with logging over 60 snaps in the team’s last game, though he was in essence the only wide receiver eligible to do so. Wheaton didn’t even dress, Eli Rogers was being disciplined, and Brown and Coates were dealing with injuries. Only recent practice squad call-up Cobi Hamilton was technically able to start and finish the game with Heyward-Bey.

On the season, however, he only actually has six touches for 128 yards, but three of them have gone for touchdowns. He had a 31-yard touchdown early in the year, and in the past two games, he to an end-around for a 60-yard score, and then added a 14-yard reception in the left corner of the end zone.

Wheaton, meanwhile, has caught four passes for 51 yards, including a 30-yard touchdown. Neither of them have seen a great number of opportunities, but both have had their share of drops in the process.

Wheaton returned to practice this week and is expected to return. The depth chart suggests that he will now be coming off the bench behind Brown and Heyward-Bey. If that is the case, might he rotate with Rogers in the slot?

Personally, I expect this to be a fluid situation that will be based on merit and who has the hot hand. Wheaton’s opportunities have been limited due to his health, and frankly, if Heyward-Bey is your second-best option, then you have a problem. But he has been a soldier for this team, and Wheaton has yet to justify a starting position, so the move works on paper. How it plays out on the field is yet to be determined.

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