The presence of wide receiver Markus Wheaton on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ roster has been nothing short of an anomaly since he entered the league in 2013.
Selected as a third round draft pick, Wheaton’s entrance into the NFL was a pivotal time for the Steelers’ offense. The retirement of Hines Ward in 2012 was still fresh in the hearts and minds of Steelers’ Nation, Mike Wallace decided to follow a $60 million trail of money from Pennsylvania to Florida, and Antonio Brown wasn’t yet the dominating receiver he would soon develop into.
The former Oregon State standout offered much in terms of talent to a receiver corps looking for answers. Another among their ranks, Emmanuel Sanders, attempted to sign with the New England Patriots as a restricted free agent, but the Steelers were able to match the offer presented to him. It was clear the young talent that had been in Pittsburgh for years wanted to move on from the team that made them household names.
Wheaton’s rookie season wasn’t exactly record shattering. His six total receptions were a sign that he was buried deep on the depth chart. His sophomore season brought much anticipation and excitement that he would step into a starting role. Those expectations were dashed when the Steelers signed free agents Lance Moore and Darrius Heyward-Bey to add a veteran presence to the roster after Sanders left for Denver and Jerricho Cotchery signed with his home state of Carolina.
Despite this, Wheaton proved a serviceable number two receiver across from Brown for the first six weeks of 2014. It all came crashing down when fourth round draft pick Martavis Bryant exploded onto the field. Placed on the back burner once again, Wheaton’s production dropped dramatically for the remainder of the season.
Now in his junior year as a professional, he serves as the second longest standing receiver on the roster. Even with the trio of Brown, Bryant, and Wheaton posing a dangerous threat to any team’s secondary, the Steelers once again spent a high round draft pick on a wide receiver. Sammie Coates became the latest to enter Pittsburgh’s receiver battle royale when he was selected in the third round of this year’s draft.
Knowing that Bryant could possibly face a suspension for an extended amount of time, the organization acquired Coates who, at one point in time was considered a first round selection. During Bryant’s four game suspension, Coates was active for only two of those games where he hauled in one pass for eleven yards in week four against Baltimore. That is his only reception in the seven games he has been activated for.
This would leave one to think that there are other reasons for the Steelers to draft yet another wide receiver as early as they did. With contract years rapidly approaching for many players on offense within the next two seasons (Ramon Foster, Kelvin Beachum, Le’Veon Bell, David DeCastro, Heath Miller), Coates looks more like an investment to replace Wheaton rather than the placeholder for Bryant that the Steelers led everyone to believe.
Perhaps the most important signing the Steelers could make in the next few seasons will be Antonio Brown’s. Already unhappy that he is underpaid as one of the most dangerous receivers in the entire league, the Steelers attempted to appease him with a $2 million contract bonus. The Steelers’ philosophy of giving out early contract extensions to any position besides quarterback could be broken with Brown, as they can’t just continue to award him bonuses until the end of 2017 when his contract is up.
Everything eventually boils down to one question: What do the Steelers do with Wheaton? With the aforementioned players needing new contracts, this would leave Wheaton the odd man out. It is unlikely Heyward-Bey will be on the team next year, giving Coates a full year to work his way further into the offense and ready himself for the eventual takeover of Wheaton’s third receiver position. With the Steelers so desperate to save cap space this seems to be the most likely scenario.
This is also another option that the Steelers could pursue if they felt they could get something in return for Wheaton. As it stands, Pittsburgh currently holds six selections in the 2016 NFL draft. After trading a fifth round pick to the Philadelphia Eagles in exchange for Brandon Boykin and a sixth round pick for Josh Scobee, this leaves the Steelers with only two seventh round selections on the third day of the draft.
Wheaton has the talent and skill set to be a dominating number one receiver in the NFL. Antonio Brown has broken the cliché that only receivers over six feet tall prove to be successful at the professional level. Wheaton’s 72 yard touchdown catch and run against the San Diego Chargers earlier this season is a testament to his ability to stretch the field and utilize his speed, while his nine reception, 200 yard game against the Seahawks demonstrates he can handle the requirements of a primary target.
The Steelers are not a team you often hear about placing their athletes on the trade block. The last meaningful trade would most likely be when former Super Bowl MVP, Santonio Holmes, was shipped to the New York Jets after his multiple instances of substance abuse. In the case of Wheaton, it would be a strategic trade in order to acquire a high round or multiple mid-round selections to the right team. At best, given his talent and production, Wheaton is worth a second round draft pick. His value increases dramatically if the Steelers make a deep run in the post season this year.
It will be interesting to see the fate of Markus Wheaton develop as his career progresses. For now, the Steelers have a great receiver who can help guide their team to a seventh championship. While it would be disheartening to see another talented receiver leave the Steel City after years of service, it could be the Steelers’ best way of investing on future prospects to preserve the future of their organization.