Markus Wheaton no doubt did not realize back on October 9 that he was playing in his last game of the 2016 season. It was just the third game he had been on the field out of five games after sitting out the first two. In hindsight, there’s a very good chance that was also his last game with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
A 2013 third-round draft pick, Wheaton was seen as an essential part of the Steelers’ future at the wide receiver position after the team lost both Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery in free agency the year after he was drafted.
He moved into the starting lineup after barely being able to contribute as a rookie due to injuries and the depth chart, but it wasn’t long before the tall, fast rookie fourth-round pick, Martavis Bryant, flashed onto the scene with five touchdown passes in his first three games.
Once Bryant emerged by the midpoint of his rookie season, Wheaton’s opportunity to have a firm grip on a starting job evaporated, and in many ways he got lost in the shuffle over the course of his career, which is why many believe that he can find a good deal more success on another team than he had in Pittsburgh. Perhaps not Sanders-level post-Steelers production, but more than he has gotten.
Wheaton’s best season came last year, but the majority of it was focused on the end of the year. Of his 44 receptions, 28 came in the final six games. 476 of his 749 receiving yards came in the six games after the bye week. As did four of his five touchdown receptions. If you actually prorate his post-bye numbers over a season, he would have produced 75 receptions for 1269 yards 10 or 11 touchdowns.
That is why some were optimistic about what the 2016 season could bring for him, especially in light of Bryant’s suspension, which should have provided Wheaton with a clear opportunity to build off of his strong finish to the previous year. And in his contract year, he certainly had every motivation to put up the best numbers he possibly could.
But a shoulder injury in the preseason completely derailed any ambitions he may have had, limited to just three games, during which he saw varied and inconsistent snaps. He caught just four passes for 51 yards and a touchdown. He dropped three passes in his first game back. One wonders how the shoulder may have affected that.
Considering his lukewarm overall resume for a four-year period—107 career receptions for 1508 yards and eight touchdowns—one might figure that his free agent market will be similarly lukewarm, but we have seen some surprisingly big contracts in recent years handed out to fringe starters at the position.
I do think that Wheaton can succeed on another team and put ups starter-worthy numbers. In Pittsburgh, however, in many ways he really got lost in the shuffle, and even if they wanted to bring him back, he would struggle to find a role in between Antonio Brown, Sammie Coates, Eli Rogers, and perhaps even Bryant, so the chances of him returning have to be considered awfully slim.