Competition For Starting Wide Receiver Spot Will Reap Rewards
Given the quality depth present throughout the 2014 draft class, and particularly within the wide receiver ranks, some have viewed the Pittsburgh Steelers’ selection of Martavis Bryant in the middle of the fourth round a potential ‘steal’ later on down the road.
Others have attempted to read between the lines and slide Bryant into the starting lineup at wide receiver across from Antonio Brown.
While it’s certainly within the realm of possibility, the Steelers likely are not banking on it; as has regularly been discussed this offseason, the team is projecting a significant leap from second-year former third-round wide receiver Markus Wheaton, whose rookie season was truncated by a pair of finger injuries.
While Wheaton has yet to prove much more than Bryant has one the professional level—he caught six passes for 64 yards as a rookie—the fact that the Steelers have two young receivers hungry to compete for a very open spot in the starting lineup can only be a good thing.
Wheaton spent much of his rookie season buried on the wide receiver depth chart behind veterans Brown, Emmanuel Sanders, and Jerricho Cotchery, with the knowledge that he was drafted more for the future than for immediate contributions.
With both Sanders and Cotchery now gone—replaced only by Lance Moore and Darrius Heyward-Bey—Wheaton now finds himself likely in the driver’s seat for a spot in the starting lineup after playing 161 snaps as a rookie, including lengthy action in three games.
Bryant could have something to say about that during training camp and the preseason.
His main advantage is offering a physical skill set not matched by anybody else near the top of the depth chart—a tantalizing combination of 6’4”, 210-pound size and 4.4 speed.
While Derek Moye can make the claim of a similar skill set, the truth of the matter is that Bryant has far more upside. Moye—and Justin Brown—are fighting a steep uphill battle for a roster spot that neither may get.
Especially if Bryant succeeds early on in his career, because the advantage that Moye and Brown had in their favor last season was a monopoly on size in the wide receiver room, with both being over 6’2”.
Antonio Brown is just 5’10”; Wheaton is 5’11”. New slot receiver Moore stands at just 5’9”. Adding Bryant’s five-inch minimum height advantage into the mix provides the Steelers a different look at the position that they obviously crave.
But he doesn’t have to be in the starting lineup for the Steelers to get that look. Wheaton remains the more realistic option for the starting spot, though that can change as the offseason wears on into training camp and the preseason.
Wheaton came into the league last season with the reputation of being a polished and knowledgeable receiver who runs fluid routes. Bryant’s game has yet to progress that far; he’s largely gotten by on his athleticism.
Pitting those two against each other will make the team better. A number of clichés can be cited here, such as “two dogs one bone” and “steel sharpens steel”.
But clichés become clichés because of the truth value that they possess at their core, and I believe the summer competition between Wheaton and Bryant, with the carrot of a starting spot at the end of the stick, will make both better players for the Steelers.