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.
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.
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.
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.