Steelers Offseason Priorities – Replenishing The WR Depth Chart

By Matthew Marczi

The Pittsburgh Steelers have their work cut out for them coming off consecutive non-winning seasons. It takes elbow grease to get from 8-8 to a contender, as everybody knows, of course, but this offseason, the issue is more complicated than simply improving, due to some uncommon circumstances.

One of the major story arcs of this offseason, certainly, will be how the Steelers front office decides to go about reconstructing the wide receiver depth chart for 2014, considering they have three impending free agents at the position, including two of their top three targets from last season.

With both Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery set to hit free agency, the Steelers have a lot of production currently sitting outside the organization. Between the two sit over 110 receptions, 1300 receiving yards, and, most importantly, 16 touchdowns, or more than half of the touchdown passes thrown by Ben Roethlisberger in the second-most prolific season of his career.

Roethlisberger’s 28 touchdown passes from a season ago ranks second in both his own career and in the history of the Steelers franchise in terms of most touchdown passes thrown in a single season.

Considering that 24 of those touchdowns went to wide receivers—the most by a receiver group in franchise history—it strikes me as a top priority to assure the franchise quarterback that he will have his weapons at wide receiver. To that end, it is certainly essential to retain at least one of Sanders and Cotchery.

Cotchery is, of course, by far the most likely of the two to be retained easily. As a veteran that understands what it’s like to play with a subpar quarterback, he’s fallen in love with Roethlisberger’s passes and isn’t looking to start over somewhere else. Especially not after a season of catching 10 touchdown passes.

Sanders, on the other hand, may very well price him out of the Steelers’ plans. Remember, last year the New England Patriots were willing to pay Sanders a salary of $2.5 million in addition to a third-round draft pick in order to be a starting receiver for Tom Brady when he’d never been a starter before.

Now that he’s coming off his first year as a starter with nearly 70 catches, over 700 yards, and six touchdowns, you can rest assured that his agent will be looking to cash in on a bigger pay day—because he basically said just that during the season. I would not be shocked if Sanders doubles his salary somewhere, but if he does, it won’t be in Pittsburgh.

What the Steelers do, or don’t do, or are unable to do during free agency to address the wide receiver position should be pretty illuminating as to what their intentions are coming into the 2014 NFL Draft.

As has been frequently speculated—for example, Daniel Jeremiah’s early mock draft has the Steelers selecting wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin in the first round—it is a very real possibility that Pittsburgh could be addressing the position on the first day of the draft.

The biggest boost that they must get, however, is one that comes internally, and that must be the precipitous growth of second-year wide receiver Markus Wheaton, who with Sanders potentially gone could find himself battling for a starting wide receiver position depending on how the rest of the offseason unfolds.

Wheaton comes off as a perceptive and bright young man. On the field, his quickness is obvious, and he seems to have good hands. But his rookie season was derailed by a string of finger injuries sandwiched around the emergence of Cotchery as the slot receiver, and at that point there was no sense in fiddling with something that was already working.

As it stands right now, there are many different directions the Steelers can go to address their wide receiver depth chart, which includes the possibility of retaining Sanders, even though it’s being widely written off. They could address it in free agency with a moderately priced aging starter that can still gain separation, or they could even address it in the draft. It’s certainly a key narrative to follow this offseason.

Previous Articles In This Series
Steelers Offseason Priorities – A Primer
Steelers Offseason Priorities – Finding An Offensive Line Coach
Steelers Offseason Priorities – What To Do With Woodley And Worilds

Passionate Steelers fan with a bit of writing ability. Connoisseur of loud music. Follow me on Twitter @mmarczi.
  • mem359

    Since the title was “WR Depth”, I thought it would at least touch on the other receivers that the Steelers drafted recently. Maybe the title should be “replenishing the WR starters”?

  • Brian Tollini

    You’ll want to read yesterday’s article, “Steelers Early Offseason Positional Needs-Wide Receiver”

  • John21

    How do the scouts compare Benjamin and Evans to last year’s ‘big receiver’ Patterson? [ We seemed to have no interest last year. Is that because Patterson wasn’t worthy of that high of a pick or WR in Rnd 1 isn’t considered a good investment? CP proved to be good on ST and contributed in a big way. He draws a lot of parallels to Benjamin- big, athletic, young, raw, red zone target, great upside, etc.]

  • Superdriller316

    No, Jarvis Jones was higher on the list, and more of a need.

  • Brian Tollini

    I also believe “character issues” kept teams away from Patterson

  • steeltown

    They have some options.. sign Sanders and sign Cotchery or sign Cotchery and draft WR.. im sure they still have hopes that J.Brown or Moye can round out the depth chart. I hate to say it, but I think J.Brown might overtake Moye this time around assuming he can contribute on special teams.

  • StrengthOfVictory

    For me, it’s less about the Steelers working a potential Sanders contract into a tight cap (though that’s certainly a concern). It’s more that Sanders likely won’t be worth the $$ he’s after. (Sorry, Emmanuel, but it’s the truth.) I like retaining effective players—those who already know the offense and can make plays—and Sanders certainly qualifies. (After all, nobody wants to add growing pains to an offense when it’s starting to click.) And Sanders may…MAY…be able to stretch his production a bit further. But he’s (at best) a #2 WR. And there are plenty of desperate teams out there who could use Sanders’ skill set badly, and have the cash to burn on a more lucrative deal.

    I guess what stinks the most is that it’s almost lose/lose. Keep him, and you have to overpay for it (and hope that he matches or improves upon 2013, rather than stepping back). Let him walk, and you’re left relying on multiple younger players to pick up the slack right away, hoping for NO dip in production. (Keep in mind that Sanders was a very effective red zone target in 2013.)

    I have to bet he’s as good as gone, though. The only thing more shocking (to me) than the Steelers outbidding other teams for his services after the start of FA, would be Sanders agreeing to terms with the Steelers before the start of FA.

  • Iron Cadet

    If we draft a receiver in the first then it pretty much guarantees Wheaton will at beat be the number 3 for the next few years. I don’t believe the steelers will do that when we need so much help on defense

  • grw1960

    Would be very surprised if Justin Brown eve became anything but a possession WR Tall , soft hands , but slow 4.6 forty and the 57th ranked WR in the 2013 draft. Still can’t believe the Steelers wasted that pick on him. The Steelers skipped over 20 higher rated WRs to pick him.
    Surely one of those skipped over WRs would have had a better chance of making the roster.
    I still don’t know what Moye’s problem is . he at least ran in the high 4.4s , but he must be lacking something to keep him out of the line up.

  • Brian Miller

    Well said, and I agree 100%! And it is sad really…he doesn’t deserve the kind of money that he will garner in FA because he has been hurt so much…but you put together a decent year your contract year and then tons of teams will overpay…I like a lot of other people frankly get really tired of grooming players only to see them leave after their rookie contract expires to go somewhere else…it’s frustrating, especially since we are never active participants in FA either. If our team is known and revered for building from within, then why the hell do we not seem to keep many players from within anymore? Now we will probably lose Sanders and Worilds among others…just really frustrating.

  • DrakePirate

    CP comes off as too raw for me … he did quite well and is def a great Return guy, but there is no way i would have touched him on the 1st round last year

  • DrakePirate

    I see JB as much better than Moye … dont see much in Moye … JB was not a wasted pick, he provides good depth and i think has a good chance to develop into a situational 400-500 yd receiver !

  • DrakePirate

    As it is right now i wouldn’t mind drafting a WR in the 1st if it was of course Watkins (very doubtful) or KB … but looking at the scenario we have i guess i would rather draft one of the TE’s in the 1st and a WR in the 3rd/4th etc ..

  • sean mcmartin

    One glaring problem the Steelers have is to draft a number one WR and then let him walk when it comes time to get paid. except hines ward. And the exception of wallace, who was overpriced. and overpaid

  • http://pittsburghsportsinat.blogspot.com/ bgsteelfan

    Ward and Brown are the only exceptions.

  • blackandgoldBullion

    They need to start drafting guys that will become the nucleus of a championship defense in the future. Draft D players early and often. Oh, sure, they could surprise us with 1st round WR that they think will push the Offense over the top so they can start averaging 27 points a game on offense, but I doubt it. If they think that way, then it may be a 1st round TE, but I give that an outside chance.

    I truly believe that with all the WR’s turning pro these days, there is no need to draft a WR until at least the 4th round. Hopefully a healthy Wheaton will turn into someone that really opens the field up for Brown, and one of the others, J Brown or Moye can contribute as well. Get a mid to late round guy and a crap load of defenders this year.

  • AzheDraven

    I would really like if they could take a CB on the first, and then go after a TE, to be the next Heath, maybe some big and fast TE like Gronk or Graham. I’m not really sure about the draft pool, but I would prefer a TE drafted in the first rounds rather than a WR

  • Milliken Steeler

    I see you popping stats from the rankings as if they are always right. Brown had Moye beat out until the very end. This, despite Brown coming right out of college and Moye having a whole year of development after college.

    I think JB over takes Moye and makes the squad this year, not to mention he can return punts.

    That forty speed doesn’t mean squat if he runs good routes and is a steady possession receiver for 10 to 20 yard routes and of course the red zone.

    You guys don’t even give these guys a chance but I see people satisfied with Sanders with more than three years in the league, critical drops, questionable maturity and at best, number three receiver stats.

  • LayDownTheHammer

    Agree with most of the others – being raw referred to his route-running and general awareness/savvy. Obviously in ST you don’t need to worry about it and just use speed/athleticism which he obviously has. Thus I’m not surprised at his season – great on ST, much left to be desired as a WR. It’ll be interesting how much he can study and work at the WR part, because historically great ST guys can be planned against/bottled up (relatively) after one good season. Not to say they’ll be bad, but they won’t break one as easily the following season. Happened to Hester, Cribbs, Peterson, etc.

  • alex

    im good with Brown, Cotch, Wheaton, and a camp battle between Moye and Brown…

    BUT, with a big pick @ TE or WR on day one, i think our offense can blow the doors out! (but then what does that mean to/about Wheaton with a bid day one pick?)

  • steeltown

    I don’t question them when it comes to finding WRs in the draft, obviously Limas Sweed was a miss, but you cant be right all of the time. I think the door is still open for J.Brown to become a contributor, maybe never more than a #4 and special teams guy, but that’s fine we need one of those