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 pessimistic side of the coin.
Question: Can Markus Wheaton sufficiently replace Emmanuel Sanders in the starting lineup?
Having just lost starting wide receiver Mike Wallace to free agency, the Steelers worked to add some more depth to the position during the 2013 NFL draft by taking two wide receivers: Markus Wheaton in the third round, and Justin Brown in the sixth round. The latter spent his rookie year on the practice squad.
Wheaton, however, didn’t get many chances to contribute as much as he would have liked to as a rookie, thanks to school regulations keeping him out of the early portions of offseason training, a pair of finger injuries forcing him to sit out of four games, and Jerricho Cotchery having an excellent season from the slot.
He had minimal opportunities during the first three weeks of the season, which included dropping a third and nine pass that was slightly behind him but in his hands on his lone target against the Chicago Bears. But the team tried to get him integrated the following week in London.
In that game, he played nearly half the time and caught three of his five targets, but the final target was another drop on a pass slightly in front of him that helped force the Steelers to settle for a field goal. He also broke his finger and missed four weeks afterward, and only re-emerged with significant snaps in Week 11 against the Detroit Lions, due to the injury to Emmanuel Sanders.
He did catch all three passes aimed at him that were catchable in this game, though at some times it wasn’t always obvious that he was on the same page with Ben Roethlisberger. His only target for the rest of the season was a deep pass that fell incomplete against the Miami Dolphins, on which, I believe, a pass interference call could have been justified.
As a whole, Wheaton didn’t contribute much as a rookie; therefore, it’s difficult to accurately project what he will be able to contribute going forward. The only receiver in recent team history to emerge as a starter in his second season was Wallace, and that was after experiencing extensive playing time in his rookie season.
Antonio Brown eventually took over the starting spot from Hines Ward by the end of the 2011 season, during which he netted over 1000 yards receiving, but it took him time during the year to develop to that point. Brown is also an All-Pro player, so it’s hardly a fair basis of comparison for Wheaton.
Regardless of how much talent or potential Wheaton might have, it’s still very much the case that it would take a significant leap forward in comparison to what he delivered as a rookie if he is to be counted upon as a starter in 2014. To that end, it’s no guarantee that he even would be given—or earn—the starting job if Sanders does indeed leave in free agency. ‘Potential’ is hope, and hope doesn’t win games.