When you look back just to the start of last season and project the starting lineup that the Pittsburgh Steelers can be expected to field when they resume play in September, you’ll see that they’ve undergone quite a bit of change. Certainly more than usual.
With two exceptions—Heath Miller and Le’Veon Bell—the changes to the opening day lineup will be made either due to free agency losses or gains or simply superior play. The two aforementioned players, of course, projected as starters but missed the early portions of last season due to injury.
This series will take a look primarily at the starting positions that will be filled by new faces, replacing the old faces that are now gone—Emmanuel Sanders, Ziggy Hood, LaMarr Woodley, Larry Foote, and Ryan Clark.
Position: Wide Receiver
2013 Opening Day Starter: Emmanuel Sanders
Projected 2014 Starter: TBD? [Markus Wheaton, Martavis Bryant, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Lance Moore]
The Steelers have been shifting wide receivers perennially for a while now. In 2009, they had Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes. The Steelers dumped Holmes and inserted Mike Wallace into the starting lineup in 2010.
In 2012, Ward was released and subsequently retired, placing Antonio Brown into the starting lineup. Then Wallace left in free agency, promoting Emmanuel Sanders to the role of starter in his fourth season. He, too, fled in free agency in 2014.
That leaves yet another starting spot open at wide receiver, this time opposite Brown as the top target, and the man whose job it is to lose is second-year third-round draft choice Markus Wheaton.
Wheaton is reportedly looking good early in OTAs, coming off a rookie campaign marred by school requirements, injuries, and lack of chances for playing time. As has been repeated many times by now, he had just six catches for 64 yards in 2013.
His finger may look pretty gnarly at the moment, but he is in line to enter the season as a starter if he continues to perform well and shows that he was worth the pick last season, which was universally lauded at the time.
Still, he will not be without competition. The Steelers drafted rookie Martavis Bryant in the fourth round this season with high expectations—pun not intended, in reference to his 6’4” frame. They also added two receivers via free agency with starting experience, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Lance Moore.
While Moore has almost universally been pegged as the slot receiver to replace Jerricho Cotchery, the fact that two of the most likely candidates for the job are so inexperienced may coax the coaching staff to go with the veteran. Given the frequency with which the Steelers use three-receiver sets (during which Moore would likely move to the slot), it may not matter much anyway.
Heyward-Bey had a down season last year, where drops resurfaced as a major weakness in his game, to the point where he was benched for the receiver-needy Colts. But he has size and speed to spare, and plenty of experience, so I wouldn’t completely rule him out yet.
And while Bryant may lack the experience, he offers significant red zone potential that others do not—which doesn’t require him to start, but it doesn’t hurt his case, either.