It’s starting to feel as though the Pittsburgh Steelers are incapable of holding on to wide receivers if they draft them in the third round. Mike Wallace left after four seasons to sign big money in 2013. Emmanuel Sanders, drafted a year later, didn’t have the same success, but still got a decent contract in 2014 and then exploded. Markus Wheaton, their 2013 third-round draft pick, is the latest on the production line to find a new home.
The Chicago Bears inked the former Steelers wide receiver to a two-year contract, thought the details of that contract have not yet been disclosed. It’s sort of anyone’s guess what sort of deal he might have gotten if you consider that his contract season—which it was felt that he needed to earn a healthy contract—was almost entirely a bust.
And there are those who will look back at his time with the Steelers and see it as a bust, although I can’t agree. Wheaton was a player who was simply rarely at the right place at the right time—metaphorically, that is, though it does also touch on the fact that the rapport between himself and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was one that took a lot of work to develop.
Wheaton was drafted in order to help fill the void left by Wallace’s departure. Yet he was still buried on the depth chart as a rookie behind Antonio Brown, Sanders now playing in a contract season, and the veteran Jerricho Cotchery as an emergence in the slot, catching a career-high 10 touchdowns that season.
Not only was he lost in the shuffle of a crowded wide receiver room, he also managed to mangle a finger or two as a rookie in the process, an injury that required surgery in the offseason—and even that didn’t go so well. But he came back in his second season ready to prove himself, and he did—until he was outshone.
Both Sanders and Cotchery left in free agency, leaving Wheaton in a starting role, but it would only be six games before rookie fourth-round pick Martavis Bryant flashed onto the scene and the Steelers had no choice but to feed him the ball.
He still caught 53 passes for 644 yards as a sparsely-targeted possession receiver, adding a couple of touchdowns, but it was in 2015 in which he looked to be finding his role as a bigger component of the vertical passing game. He caught nine fewer passes (44) but for 105 more yards (749), scoring five touchdowns, including some long ones, for a 17-yards-per-catch average.
2016 should have been a big season for Wheaton, but he came into training camp with a hamstring injury and left it with a shoulder injury. He’ll be best remembered for his drops in the first game of the season he played, but his highlight should be the 30-yard touchdown a week later.
He’ll now have the opportunity to find out if he can follow in Sanders’ footsteps and excel with a fresh start in another city. While the Bears have Kevin White, he has yet to prove himself after two years of injuries, and Eddie Royal is expected to be released, while they have lost Alshon Jeffery in free agency.