With the NFL draft having come and gone, and free agent signings—at least significant ones—likely completely wrapped up, we can now begin painting a picture of what the 2014 Pittsburgh Steelers will look like in September.
One thing is for certain: there will be a new starting wide receiver this year, with both Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery departing.
Second-year player Markus Wheaton figures to have the first crack at it, though Lance Moore, Martavis Bryant, and Darrius Heyward-Bey could all theoretically push for the job, especially if Wheaton flounders this summer.
As said, Wheaton will likely enter training camp working as the number two receiver. The Steelers are certainly no stranger to handing starting jobs over to wide receivers in their second seasons. Of particular relevance here would be Mike Wallace and Santonio Holmes.
How did Wallace and Holmes fare in their rookie seasons, and how did they transition into a bigger role in their second seasons?
We already know that Wheaton’s rookie season was by and large a wash. It began with him missing OTAs due to school obligations, and then, during the season, when not buried in the depth chart, he suffered multiple finger injuries that kept him out for stretches. He ended up catching just six passes on 12 targets for the year.
Holmes, of course, was a first-round pick, and the depth chart at wide receiver was pretty lacking when he was drafted. He got a good amount of playing time as a rookie, catching 49 passes for 824 yards. That’s more yards than Sanders had as a starter last year.
Holmes also caught two touchdown passes, but he also fumbled five times, losing two of them. He transitioned into a full-time starter in 2007 and caught 52 passes for 942 yards, while recording a career-high eight touchdowns.
Wallace, meanwhile, came on as somewhat of a surprise as a rookie, easily surpassing Limas Sweed, who at the time was in his second season. He proved to be a weapon on the go route, and he averaged 19.4 yards per reception on 37 receptions, totaling 756 yards and reeling in six touchdown passes.
The Steelers dealt Holmes the following season, which helped get Wallace in the starting lineup. He delivered his best season, catching 60 passes for 1257 yards, averaging an eye-popping 21 yards per reception and catching 10 touchdowns.
The last two Steelers who started at wide receiver in their second season each went on to have arguably their best year of their careers. But each of them were significantly more involved in the offense the season prior than Wheaton was able to be last year.
Assuming that he does indeed win the starting job opposite Antonio Brown (who despite not starting in his second year caught 69 passes for 1108 yards and two touchdowns en route to a Pro Bowl trip as a returner), how will Wheaton fare, transitioning from a complementary role to a featured role? We saw so little of him as a rookie that it’s difficult to project, but expect him to get a ton of work this preseason.