The Optimist’s Take – Markus Wheaton As A Starter

By Matthew Marczi

For a team facing so much adversity in the past season and heading into the next with a litany of questions to address, it’s natural to consider the issues and how they can either go right or wrong, as well as how they will affect  the broader dynamics and future success of the team, both heading into this season and into the future.

Though not statistically true, it is technically true that every team enters the offseason with the potential to finish the year as the league champion or as the first team on the clock in the next draft.

Some teams have a wider realistic range than others, and I think the Pittsburgh Steelers are one of those teams. Think of them as Schrödinger’s franchise; in February, they are both future champions and future owners of the top draft pick.

In order to gain a better feel for not only the issues facing the team this year, but how those issues might play out, it’s useful to take the devil’s advocate approach. This is the optimistic side of the coin.

Question: Can Markus Wheaton sufficiently replace Emmanuel Sanders in the starting lineup?

Among the Steelers’ 21 players scheduled to hit unrestricted free agency, the one player that seems to be universally agreed upon that will not be back due to a discrepancy in actual worth versus projected financial compensation is Emmanuel Sanders.

Consider the fact that the New England Patriots were willing to pay him $2.5 million to play this past season in addition to handing over their 2014 third-round draft pick to the Steelers based on three years of not starting. Given that, it’s certainly plausible that some team will give Sanders a nice contract after posting career highs in most categories, including a fairly respectable six touchdown receptions.

That leaves the Steelers with Markus Wheaton, last year’s third-round draft pick, as arguably the most likely candidate to replace him, if not at the beginning of the season, then not long after.

Outside of a few hiccups, Wheaton had a pretty nice preseason, which included a long touchdown pass from Bruce Gradkowski, but that never translated when the games started to matter. In fact, it was difficult for him to even get on the field for multiple reasons, let alone getting targets.

For his entire rookie season, Wheaton had just six receptions for 67 yards, with a long of 21 yards. He missed four games due to two separate hand injuries, and accumulated just 161 snaps, receiving double-digits snaps in just three games.

From the injuries, to the receiver hierarchy, to missing time in the offseason due to school-related regulations, Wheaton had a litany of setbacks as a rookie that he’ll be asked to make up for in his second year.

Can he do it? Sure, why not? Mike Wallace took over a starting role in his second season, and Wheaton is a much more polished receiver than he was coming out. Antonio Brown eventually emerged as the starter in his second year, leapfrogging others along the way, after a pretty nondescript rookie season.

Wheaton has all the tools necessary to be a good starting receiver. He’s both fast and quick, is a polished route runner, and according to Jerricho Cotchery and Ben Roethlisberger, is always asking questions. He’s a willing blocker—50 of his snaps came on running plays—and he’s more than humble enough to know what kind of work he needs to put in. I wouldn’t bet against him being successful early this season.

About the Author

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

    Would like to see the NFL do away with the rule regarding not participating in OTA’s for new draft picks that have not graduated. It seems to me like Wheaton was playing catch up all year even though Cotchery took him under his wing in training camp. That along with the injuries pretty much cancelled out his rookie year even though he had some flashes. I’m looking for Wheaton to take the next step as a starter and I think he’ll excel at it. Replacing what Sanders gave us shouldn’t be so hard between Wheaton n possibly a draft pick.

  • blackandgoldBullion

    You can tell the guy is fast, because Ben kept throwing behind him last year. They better get their timing right because Wheaton was running away from people on crossing patterns, with all kinds of room to turn it up the field, except for that one problem — the ball was way behind him. Same thing down the field — he is actually going to stretch the field for the others.

    Come on, Ben! Lead the man! Throw it farther!

    Just watch this guy explode next year.

  • Kevin Gobleck

    Here is hoping he has a break out year!!!

  • Matt Manzo

    I’m glad u brought that up! We keep wondering and hoping, but you’re right, he did show enough when he had the chance. Could of made more out of the opportunities? Maybe? But it was too little to judge him.
    And Ben was way off in the beginning.

  • Jacob Dixon

    Finally a reciver like Hines Ward when it comes to throwing blocks in the running game

  • Shannon Stephenson

    Whether we are fans of Sanders or not it bothers me to see us let young guys walk when we have a need for them.

  • dkoy85

    You’re absolutely right. Getting open is not an issue for Wheaton. I payed close attention to him in training camp and he was ALWAYS open on crossing patterns. He will he dangerous next year if him and Ben work on timing. I’m very excited about him and one reason I think TE is more practical in the first round over WR. A little more strenght in the offseason and he’ll be able to disengage the CB easier.

  • AndyR34

    Although I agree…the Steelers seldom keep players selected in the 3rd round or later after their rookie contracts are up. We can point at many obvious exceptions, but the preponderance of evidence is that 3rd rounders and higher leave.

  • RMSteeler

    Ben under throws his fast receivers many times because he holds on to the ball too long. He rarely hits them in stride on long balls. Trusting them to be open or throwing them open is one thing he has always needed to work on.

  • Dutchess Hershberger


  • blackandgoldBullion

    He often did that with Wallace also. These fast guys blow past everyone, they’re at full speed 5 yards clear, and as I’m jumping up and down expecting a 60-yard TD, reality sets in. The ball comes up short, the WR slows and the DB catches up to knock the ball away. I cannot believe how many times I have seen this happen.

    Throw it DEEP, Ben! That way it’s either a TD because your WR is the only guy fast enough to get there or an incompletion, which won’t kill you.

    And they don;t need a workout in full pads to get these timing issues down. They could just get the WR’s, and even RB’s out there playing with Ben. Manning did this to try to get comfortable with his receivers. The result? Tons of plays with Denver guys catching the ball 5 yards downfield, IN STRIDE, that turned into big, big plays! That’s what I want to see because Wheaton and Brown will be phenomenal in the open field, obviously.

  • joed32

    Some of those balls were way behind him because he broke one way and Ben was expecting him to break the other way. Hopefully they can work that out.

  • blackandgoldBullion

    Thank you, as that’s a good point also. I am not blaming everything on Ben, but I want them to go ahead and have some informal practices. These can work them out on their own away from the limited practices they have in the official season.

  • Brian Miller

    I agree this bothers me too…and I am sure most fans of the Steelers would agree. Back in the day, the franchise would let overpriced and/or aging FA’s go, and just reload with draftees/UFAs in the wings i.e. Harrison for Porter, but now, we just see them get released before the second contract like you mentioned. I HOPE this gets corrected when the rest of these huge contracts get dumped or lowered, but it is still sad. We do all of the work and reap none of the benefits, especially since most don’t even get starting time until year 3. Constantly playing reactive instead of proactive is tough to stomach with our history, but may be the reality until Ben retires with his contract.

  • steeltown


  • James Kling

    Wheaton had a snakebit rookie season, but I think the kid is for real. Often takes a year for WRs to put it together anyway, and I think Wheaton will be a nice deep threat. That said, wouldn’t mind adding another threat at WR/TE to really kick the offense up a notch.