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Steelers rookie receiver Wheaton is waiting for chance to contribute

| Thursday, Dec. 19, 2013, 9:33 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Steelers' Markus Wheaton plays against the Dolphins on Sunday, Dec. 15, 2013, at Heinz Field.

With two weeks left in a rookie season that hasn't gone as he expected, Steelers receiver Markus Wheaton is playing the waiting game.

Waiting to catch his first touchdown, play in his first impactful game, make a difference in an offense that has yet to need him.

“I definitely expect a lot from myself, and coming in, I wanted to make an impact right away and put up numbers,” said Wheaton, a third-round draft pick. “But everything happens for a reason, and all I can do is go from here.”

In training camp, Wheaton arguably made a bigger impression than the players drafted ahead of him, Jarvis Jones and Le'Veon Bell. Veterans such as Ryan Clark and Ike Taylor raved about his maturity, work ethic and promise and predicted he would produce immediately.

But after finally getting on the field for 36 plays during a Week 4 loss to the Minnesota Vikings, Wheaton broke a finger and was out for more than a month. He never has caught up, and he has played four offensive snaps or fewer in five of his past six games.

“It was unfortunate, really,” receiver Jerricho Cotchery said Thursday. “He had a strong training camp, he was developing really, really well, and we were starting to get him into a groove. Then he went down, and that stunts your growth a little bit.”

For a competitive player such as Wheaton, the transition from star at Oregon State to role player in the NFL hasn't been easy. It also hasn't helped that Cotchery, with whom he was expected to share the slot receiver position, is enjoying a career year with nine touchdown catches.

“He's had that little (injury) hurdle that he's had to get through,” offensive coordinator Todd Haley said of Wheaton, who has six catches for 64 yards. “That's never easy for a rookie, but mentally, he's handled it real well. Right now, the biggest issue is the three guys in front of him are playing at a really high level.”

Antonio Brown, playing at a Pro Bowl level with 95 catches, has spent considerable time helping to ease Wheaton through his rookie year. So have Cotchery and starter Emmanuel Sanders.

Nobody uses the word disappointing to describe it.

“I tell him that's part of being a rookie. You might not always get the playing time you want, but if you keep working, those things will start coming,” Brown said. “I think as his journey continues he'll make a name for himself.”

Wheaton said he has learned a lot from watching Brown, Sanders and Cotchery, not only in games but also in practices. He so admires Brown's work ethic that he hopes to train with him during the offseason.

“He never takes a day off,” Wheaton said. “Cotchery, he takes everything so serious. He's truly a professional — whether it's in the meeting room taking notes or helping me out about watching film. … I'm just trying to pick it up and bring it into my game.”

Cotchery can relate to what Wheaton is going through. He made only six catches as a New York Jets rookie in 2004.

“The rookies that came out with you, you want to be competing with them in playing time and yardage,” Cotchery said. “Sometimes you get caught up in that. But sometimes it's not about how you start. It's about what your career does beyond this point.”

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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