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Receiver Wheaton could make biggest splash among Steelers' rookies

| Thursday, May 2, 2013, 11:36 p.m.
CORVALLIS, OR - DEC 01: Markus Wheaton (2) runs away from the Nicholls State defense at Reser Stadium. (Ethan Erickson/OSU Athletics)
Oregon State receiver Markus Wheaton outruns Arizona State defender Chris Young on his way to a touchdown during the first half of their game Saturday, Nov. 3, 2012, in Corvallis, Ore.

Jarvis Jones could come in and start immediately. Le'Veon Bell could come in and start immediately. But Markus Wheaton could be the rookie from the Steelers' Class of 2013 who makes the biggest impact.

Forget the comparisons to Mike Wallace, the receiver he might replace — if not in the lineup, then as the Steelers' best deep threat. While Wheaton is exceptionally fast, especially after making the catch, he is not Wallace-fast.

He won't have to be to still be effective in Todd Haley's offense, which values quick throws to receivers who run precise routes to get open in heavy traffic.

“Markus Wheaton is a very good route runner who is coming into the NFL and will be ready to play right away,” ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said.

Wheaton, the leading receiver in Oregon State history, fell to the Steelers in the third round partly because of his 4.45 time in the 40 at the NFL Scouting Combine. Jones, the Georgia outside linebacker, slipped to No. 17 overall partly because of his 40 time, too.

Wheaton says he had run in the 4.3s during other workouts, just not the one that counted.

“I know it probably hurt his feelings and made him feel bad, but we were happy because, when you put the tape on, he plays fast,” Haley said of Wheaton, who caught 91 passes for 1,244 yards and 11 touchdowns last season. “He's a fast player and quick. He's an exciting guy to have around.”

Haley also called Wheaton “a versatile, good, polished” player. And while Wallace had game-changing speed, the word “polished” wasn't used to describe him coming out of Mississippi, also as a third-round pick.

That route-running ability and Wheaton's dependable hands could be more assets for the Steelers from the start in a year in which the top four picks — Jones, Bell, Wheaton and safety Shamarko Thomas — could make major contributions.

“A little different skill set than Mike other than the speed,” Haley said. “I saw Mike as more of an outside receiver outside the numbers. This guy has played the slot a bunch when he wasn't outside. He is a little wider base, a little more running back.”

Wheaton had 18 catches for 20 yards or more last season, yet also ran for 631 yards and five touchdowns during a career in which he caught 227 passes.

His ability to line up as the ‘X' receiver, which Wallace played almost exclusively, but also as the “Z” receiver and in the slot is certain to be utilized by new receivers coach Richard Mann, who is strong on fundamentals and technique.

“He was in the slot. He was in the backfield,” Haley said. “That tells us he's a smart guy. Any time a coach feels comfortable moving a guy around a bunch like that, that's good.”

Wheaton said he can envision himself “anywhere” in the Steelers' offense because “I like being all over the place. The defense can't plan for you when they don't know where you're going to be.”

Wheaton and 40 other Steelers rookies and first-year players will start a three-day minicamp on the South Side on Friday. The group includes the team's nine draft choices, the undrafted rookie free agents and nine first-year players who previously signed an NFL contract but did not accrue pension time.

There will be two quarterbacks — fourth-round pick Landry Jones of Oklahoma and undrafted rookie Caleb TerBush of Purdue. And Ryan Clarke, a running back from West Virginia.

Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at arobinson@tribweb.com or via Twitter @arobinson_Trib.

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