A Look At The Steelers Wide Receiver Battle After One Preseason Game

By Matthew Marczi

Following the season-ending shoulder injury to veteran wide receiver Plaxico Burress, the door to the fifth receiver spot on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 53-man roster busted wide open, and several of the candidates made their presence felt during the team’s preseason opener against the New York Giants on Saturday, both positively and negatively.

The first four spots on the depth chart appear not only to be locked up, but in good hands with Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders starting and veteran Jerricho Cotchery and rookie third round pick Markus Wheaton battling for playing time as the third receiver.

Quite frankly, the rookie seems well on his way to winning an awful lot of playing time. Though he had his fair share of mistakes in his professional debut, from being unable to secure a ball out of bounds to injuring a teammate to being called for a false start, his raw talent was very much on display.

His speed is obvious, and his first down grab on a fourth and two play was most impressive. Additionally, he showed an instinctiveness and burst on a 10-yard end around play that former Steelers receiver Mike Wallace was never able to, and he also exhibited a willingness to get his hands dirty in special teams work.

Wheaton will not be the only new receiver on the roster to exit the preseason this year, however, as only third-year man David Gilreath spent a couple of weeks on the active roster mid-season a year ago.

To recap, the candidates for the fifth receiver spot, and how they represented themselves in the preseason debut, are as follows:

Justin Brown: A rookie sixth round draft pick, Justin Brown is one of the few options that can offer a bit of what Burress was expected to bring to the table, and that is size. At 6’3”, Brown is still able to look down at the receivers ahead of him on the depth chart. In college, Brown proved to be a capable blocker, an able return man, and a player unafraid to grab the tough balls over the middle. Although he took a hard hit during the game, we did not get to see these attributes on full display, but he did make a game-high four catches on six targets for 32 yards, including a tough, sailing pass that required him to stretch out and come down on his back. Although he committed an illegal block in the back on special teams that helped lead to a safety for former college teammate Landry Jones, he later proved that he could be a reliable target for quarterbacks as a possession receiver. Brown is in good position for that fifth spot right now, in my estimation.

Steelers Giants Justin Brown catch

David Gilreath: Saturday night was surely one on which David Gilreath did not sleep well. He was not even targeted in the passing game after a pair of blunders on special teams caused his stock to bottom out. Last year, Gilreath broke out during a preseason game after making four impressive grabs and battling for first downs. So far in this preseason, he fumbled one punt as an encore for fielding an earlier one inside his own five for a short gain that helped lead to a safety on the following offensive possession. While he can still make up ground, he dug himself a hole deep enough that he may not even see daylight by the time the preseason ends.

Steelers Giants David Gilreath punt muff

Derek Moye: The only remarkable feature of Derek Moye is seemingly his height, which, at 6’5”, is certainly an advantage; and with Burress gone, Moye is now the tallest target in the receivers room. However, following good reports out of camp about him making plays, Moye did nothing to dissuade his supporters, hauling in the pair of his three targets that were catchable on back to back plays for 22 yards. It is a nice start that he will look to build on next week in his quest to graduate from the practice squad this year.

J.D. Woods: J.D. Woods, along with Nik Embernate, was among the more popular of the undrafted free agents that the Steelers brought in this year, as he was a productive receiver behind two draft picks, including seventh overall selection Tavon Austin. There were not many reports about him during camp, however, suggesting that he was deep on the depth chart. True to the hierarchy, Woods only came into the game late, but he certainly made his impact. He caught the two most impressive passes of the night, the first requiring him to go up in the air and then maintain his poise and concentration after being upended by the defensive back, nearly landing on his head after doing an involuntary 270° rotation. The second came just a couple plays later, an impressive grab along the sidelines off a desperation throw that was the result of a bad snap. Those two highlight plays overshadowed the questionable decision to return a deep kickoff to begin that possession and vaulted his name well into the mix for a roster spot.

Steelers Giants J.D. Woods catch

Reggie Dunn: Reggie Dunn was unable to have quite the impact that he would have liked. In fact, he was only able to return two punts. He ended up getting smacked hard on the first one; however, he was able to show off some of his impressive speed on the second try for a 19-yard gain. He also smartly called for a fair catch later on. What is more, he was able to contribute a 10-yard catch in the passing game. While he is not expected to make an impact in the passing game, and this early showing would not be enough to earn what would essentially be a special teams roster spot, he could easily be off to a worse start. He is certainly still in contention.

Kashif Moore: Not to be forgotten, Kashif Moore was able to contribute one nice kickoff return for 30 yards and showed his ability to take a nice hit after converting a second and one with a four-yard reception. Still, he has a long way to go to even earn a spot on the practice squad, as every player ahead of him is also eligible.

Passionate Steelers fan with a bit of writing ability. Connoisseur of loud music. Follow me on Twitter @mmarczi.
  • Patrick

    Love Moye’s size and he is faster than people think but he needs to play special teams. Look for him to make the 53

  • Dom

    J.Brown seems to be favorite in my eyes. But I’d be just as happy for it to go to Moye being local and all that.

  • bonairsfavoriteson

    Forget local, it is about keeping the best, local has done nothing for Pitt, how can anyone think it will serve the Steelers well. Woods and Brown seem to be it so far, long way to go. Especially if we lose number 88 in free agency ,

  • Shannon Stephenson

    He is pretty frail looking, I worry about him. It is early and i do want to see more from the WR crew. I love what Brown did along with Woods but thought Dunn was a pleasant surprise and hope to see more from him.

  • Kenneth Wilt

    My guess is J. Brown makes the roster, Woods goes to the PS unless some other team falls in love with him and puts him on their roster. We shall see.

  • steeltown

    I doubt it..for the reason you mentioned, every other guy on the above list contributes on special teams. I think Moye will end up on the PS again

  • MP34

    Not sure about Moye either, he appears to be more of a finesse guy in a long body who’d have to lineup on the outside. I’m not sure he would take much punishment. I’m leaning more toward Brown, with an eye on Woods.

  • steeltown

    I agree.. it sure seems that way now, unless we keep 6WRs then I could see J.Brown and JD Woods both make it as both can contribute on ST

  • Patrick

    Frail looking? he’s bigger than all the others

  • Luke Shabro

    I’d like to see us carry 6 but then again we would be losing a roster spot at another position. Typically I’d say go ahead and throw JD on the PS but after last year when Gilreath got claimed by the Bucs and Toney Clemons got taken by the Jags you have to be at least somewhat concerned that a WR needy team like the Chargers or God forbid the Pats/Ravens might grab him. Not that we’d be losing an All Pro wideout or anything but as someone mentioned above. We need some backup plans for next year if 88 signs a contract elsewhere

  • steeltown

    ..yea and Cotchery will be a FA as well

    At this point A.Brown and Wheaton are the only ‘starting’ WRs under contract for 2014

  • Luke Shabro

    Exactly. So you’re looking at possibly having AB, Wheaton, Brown and…. who? Just my thoughts

  • steeltown

    I think they’ll draft another WR next year if Sanders leaves via FA, but yes I would love to enter next offseason with then 2nd yr players J.Brown and JD Woods on roster

  • Luke Shabro

    I agree. They will draft another WR but there’s no guarantee it’ll pan out. So far so good with Wheaton and even J Brown possibly. Wallace, Sanders and AB worked out great but I can’t forget about good ol’ Limas Sweed

  • StrengthOfVictory

    I really would like to carry 6 WR. Get Justin Brown and Woods in the mix. The Steelers have shown their talent at developing young talent at WR, so let’s develop these guys. The practice squad is a potential farm club for teams like the Eagles who can’t keep their guys healthy.

  • Mike Amaro

    If J.D. Woods continues to show his ability to catch the ball could he possibly be WR#5?

  • Kenneth Wilt

    I get that, and I don’t want to lose anyone who looks like they could be a player, but we lost 2 last year and are fine at the position this year. The FO will have a plan. I don’t think they are brave enough to keep 3 rookie WRs especially since they had only planned on keeping 1.

  • Shannon Stephenson

    You must not have seen this kid up close. Plax who is skinny has 20 pounds on this kid. He is frail looking. Just because he is 6’5″ doesn’t mean he has meat on his bones.

  • Shannon Stephenson

    possibility?…yes.

  • Luke Shabro

    I think J Brown is your #5 unless he starts underperforming the rest of the preseason. He’s going to get plenty of reps

  • Mike Amaro

    Kind of off topic but how about LSH do you think if Bell sits out another game he can challenge for the #1 spot if not #2?

  • StarSpangledSteeler
  • StarSpangledSteeler

    This is one of those years I think we should strongly consider keeping 6 WRs. Next year we could potentially lose Sanders and Cotchery. It would be helpful to have two guys like JD Woods and J. Brown with a full year under their belts, ready to contribute. And the one position where our practice squad tends to get raided is WR (due to our recent success in identifying middle/late round talent).

    The way I see it. JD Woods is a Cotchery/Ward type receiver. Tough, strong, good hands, quick feet, but lacking in deep speed, running those tough routes over the middle. Also, i would expect some solid special teams ability.

    Brown is a tricky one. He’s got good height and great hands (IMO) which would allow him to flex to either the slot or outside positions. Plus he can return punts (or at least catch them and secure them). This versatility makes him a very useful roster spot. But he doesn’t possess much deep speed so he’s still probably a back up long term.

    Dunn appears to be a one trick pony. Whereas Rainey gave us a returner, plus a little Stephens-Howling-type scat back option, I see Dunn strictly as a returner. (Maybe possibly a gunner?) I don’t think we can afford that luxury right now.

    As of today, I’d keep 6 WRs. A. Brown, M. Sanders, M. Wheaton, J. Cotchery, J. Brown, JD Woods. Next year (assuming Sanders leaves) I’d draft an elite 1st or 2nd round, tall, fast, outside WR. And as long as Brown and/or Woods progress, I’d let Cotchery go. That would give us a young core of fast, quick, versatile WRs that we could keep for cheap for the rest of Ben’s career.

  • Matthew Marczi

    He might be able to handle 15-20 carries a game for a couple weeks, but he doesn’t have the size to be a long-term number one. He’s a change of pace guy. I think Redman is the clear #1, assuming Bell wins the starting job.

  • DAYSNWAYS

    Brown will make it, and if Woods continues his upswing the next few games, we need to keep him too, ….

  • RedCarpetDefense

    If the Steelers can potentially lose Cotchery next year to free agency, is he worth keeping around this year? Wheaton could pass him on the depth chart as the #3 WR…the consensus seems to be in the direction of getting younger and one look at the roster will show a lot of that at the receiver position. If Cotch has hit the ceiling (skill wise) are there other younger guys who can surpass his level of play?

  • Matthew Marczi

    I think they’d like to keep at least one backup this year with experience. All the guys we’re talking about (except Gilreath) haven’t even appeared in a game at this level yet.

  • Milliken Steeler

    He’s taller not bigger. lol He isnt accomplished of a route runner as J Brown or JD Woods either.

    I don’t see him making the the 53 unless maybe the keep 6 receivers and he beats out Woods or whoever else might rise up. I’m pretty confident Justin Brown is going to make the 53