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.