Steelers WR Wheaton wants to produce after injury-plagued rookie year
They could have brought in a more high-profile free agent.
They could have drafted a wide receiver higher than at No. 118.
If the Steelers are concerned that Markus Wheaton isn't ready to make the leap from a nondescript, injury-plagued rookie year to replacing at least a portion of free-agent defectors Emmanuel Sanders' and Jerricho Cotchery's combined 113 catches and 16 touchdowns, they didn't proceed that way in the offseason.
In fact, they gave Wheaton a vote of confidence by doing what they did with their wide receiver crew in the offseason, which was not much at all.
“Now, he has got to be the man,” Steelers receiver coach Richard Mann said. “Somebody has to pick up that slack. The good thing about him is that he doesn't need a lot of reps. It doesn't take him long to get it.”
“I consider myself a quick learner, and I have been like that for a while,” Wheaton said.
That's good, because the Steelers don't have much time to piece together a wide receiver group for Ben Roethlisberger and his sometimes pass-happy offense.
Antonio Brown returns after having a career year with 110 catches and 1,499 yards, but the rest of the unit, minus free agent additions Lance Moore and Darrius Heyward-Bey, combined for eight receptions. Wheaton had six of those.
The onus will be on Wheaton, the Steelers' third-round pick in 2013, to step into the starting role opposite of Brown.
“The expectation level is high,” Roethlisberger said. “He was doing some really good things last year until he got hurt. He kind of lost some confidence I think in himself, but he's got it back and I'm just excited for him to take that next step in Year 2.”
Year 1 got off to a rousing start for Wheaton.
Despite missing all of spring practices because his class at Oregon State had yet to graduate, Wheaton showed up to training camp and was an instant sensation.
“Last year I was thinking a lot and didn't know if I was over-thinking things or just trying to get something down,” Wheaton said. “When you are thinking like that, you can't play at the speed you want to play.”
Wheaton played sparingly through the first three weeks before taking part in 36 snaps in a Week 4 game against Minnesota. One of those plays — he doesn't remember which one — Wheaton broke his right pinky finger in three places. It was an injury that proved to be troublesome.
Wheaton didn't get back on the field until Week 11 against the Detroit Lions, but the finger continued to be an issue. He didn't have a catch from Weeks 12-17, and he needed to have additional postseason surgery.
“He came back and played and was still adequate,” Mann said. “With that said, that tells me something about him. Basically, I need him to pick up where he left off last year.”
Wheaton acknowledges the pressure that comes with the expectations and welcomes it.
“I feel like I feed off the pressure and embrace it,” Wheaton said. “I don't want to be just another guy in the locker room. I don't want to be just another name that passes through the program.”
Wheaton will get every opportunity to prove he's not one of those guys.