By Tony DelSignore Jr.
Entering his second season in the NFL, Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Markus Wheaton has a lot to prove. According to the first official depth chart released by the Steelers, Wheaton is listed as the starting receiver opposite Antonio Brown. The pressure is on Wheaton to produce. Wheaton said earlier this offseason, “I feed off the pressure and embrace it. Pressure is always good, I feel. Pressure can push you to get a lot better or it can break you. I feel that the pressure is always good for me because it always pushes me to get better.”
Watching the news out of Latrobe this summer, and seeing it for myself this past weekend, Wheaton is much more relaxed in his second year with the Steelers. He has his confidence back and is running every route with the excellent speed that caught the Steelers eye in the first place. Wheaton said himself, “I’m just more relaxed. I can go out there and play whereas last year I was thinking a lot. I feel like when you’re thinking you can’t play at the speed you want to play at.”
The Steelers selected Wheaton in the third round of the 2013 NFL Draft to be the direct replacement for Mike Wallace. Unfortunately he was never able to get on track as a rookie due to numerous finger injuries. Wheaton only caught six passes for 64 yards on 151 offensive snaps all season long, three receptions in both Weeks 4 and 6. The positive spin on those six receptions is that five of those six receptions went for first downs, showing his ability to move the chains. With Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery now both in different uniforms, Wheaton sits atop the depth chart with Brown and has a fantastic opportunity to make a huge jump in production in his second season as a pro.
One realistic data point for comparison is Brown’slarge uptick in production from his freshman to sophomore seasons. In year two, Brown bettered his rookie season by 53 catches and 941 yards. Wheaton may not take that much of a step forward, but somewhere close would make the Steelers and fantasy investors very happy. I like Wheaton’s chances to break out and shock the fantasy community this season.
When looking for breakout players in fantasy football, often times it comes down to talent aligning with opportunity. Speed, soft hands and great route running helped Wheaton excel during his time at Oregon State. With Lance Moore and Heath Miller taking many of the underneath routes, Wheaton will be able stretch the field and have opportunities for the long touchdowns that Wallace became famous for during his time in Pittsburgh. Wheaton has blazing speed and consistently beat defenders deep in college and in the preseason last year. Don’t be surprised if he sees a lot of deep targets in the Steelers offense this season.
According to Fantasy Football Calculator (which tracks average draft position of every player in real and mock fantasy drafts throughout the offseason), Wheaton is being selected as the 57th wide receiver at the beginning of the 13th round (*based on standard & PPR 12 team, 16 round drafts). Begin targeting Wheaton in the 11th-12th round range in your upcoming fantasy drafts. Wheaton could make an excellent third wide receiver or flex in PPR leagues.
My season projections for Markus Wheaton are: 64 receptions, 905 yards, 6 touchdowns.
Follow me on Twitter at @TonyD_12 and @SteelersDepot for more Steelers fantasy analysis and projections throughout the 2014 season.
2014 Fantasy Football Profile: Steelers WR Antonio Brown
2014 Fantasy Football Profile: Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger
2014 Fantasy Football Profile: Steelers TE Heath Miller
2014 Fantasy Football Profile: Steelers RB Le’Veon Bell