When the Pittsburgh Steelers first drafted 6’4” wide receiver Martavis Bryant in the fourth round, it pretty much immediately ignited discussions, particularly in the national media, over whether or not he could seize upon a starting position as a rookie.
As the logic went, Bryant could become the big target that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has coveted since his rookie season after Plaxico Burress left in free agency. Aside from that, the Steelers had just lost two of their top receivers during the free agency period months prior in Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery.
That left second-year wide receiver Markus Wheaton, he of six catches, as the likely first option to start at wide receiver opposite Antonio Brown. To many, that certainly sounded like it was open competition there, but Wheaton has been silencing those doubts.
No, the Steelers won’t need to depend much on Bryant as a rookie, with the inclusion of Lance Moore as a reliable slot receiver. He will get his playing time, but it will be selective playing time that accentuates his natural assets.
Part of the reason for that is because of the development of the Steelers’ other second-year wide receiver, Justin Brown, who was listed fourth of the team’s first official depth chart that was released yesterday.
After spending a year on the practice squad, the former sixth-round pick has been opening some eyes over the last few months in his campaign to make the roster in year two. He’s currently ahead of the rookie Bryant, and he intends to keep it that way.
Not even a broken nose figured to slow him down much. He missed just one day of practice while he had surgery to repair his busted nose, which he suffered on Thursday after a blow from safety Shamarko Thomas, nicknamed “Headache”.
Both young receivers seem to be advancing past veteran free agent signee Darrius Heyward-Bey, who has been falling behind and missing valuable time with a concussion. Even before the injury, however, he found himself practicing with the camp bodies at wide receiver and quarterback.
It’s still early, but it would seem that Brown would be the first receiver called up to play should there be an injury among the top three receivers. Moore would likely start and move to the slot in three receiver sets.
That doesn’t mean that the rookie can’t steal his share of snaps, however, particularly when it comes to the red zone, where he has been putting on quite a show lately. His deceptive speed also gives him the opportunity to serve as a deep threat.
He significantly lacks polish, however, having been so inexperienced as a complete receiver in college, and he has a lot of work to do before he can be expected to take on a bigger role. When you hear him speak, he constantly talks about how he likes being coached hard, and is intimately aware of the work that he needs to put in to round out his game.
It’s not as though the Steelers can’t find a way to use a raw rookie deep threat, of course. But because of their sophomore receivers coming in and stepping up, Pittsburgh is in the fortunate position of not having to depend on more from him just yet. And in the meantime, the competition is healthy for both young wideouts.