Much had been expected of Steelers rookie wide receiver Markus Wheaton, especially after safety Ryan Clark said in training camp that he was better than Mike Wallace in every way except speed. That might have been an unfair comparison for someone who had yet to play an NFL game, but Clark’s point was Wheaton, the team’s third-round draft choice out of Oregon State, had the ability to help the offense in a big way this season.
Wheaton’s rookie season hasn’t gone as planned.
A fractured finger forced him to miss four games in the middle of the season and the receivers in front of him on the depth chart are playing well, so there hasn’t been a reason to play him more. That has left Wheaton with some paltry statistics through 13 games: six receptions for 64 yards and no touchdowns.
That makes Wheaton the least productive of the 11 receivers taken in the first three rounds of the 2013 draft. The player taken three spots ahead of him at No. 76 overall is the most productive. Keenan Allen of San Diego leads all rookie receivers with 61 receptions for 905 yards and five touchdowns.
DeAndre Hopkins, the No. 27 overall selection of Houston in the first round, is the second-most productive with 44 catches for 707 yards and two touchdowns. The third-most productive is Terrance Williams, who was taken by the Dallas Cowboys five spots ahead of Wheaton at No. 74 in the third round. He has 35 receptions for 567 yards and five touchdowns.
It’s not just receivers taken ahead of him in the top three rounds who have outperformed Wheaton. Several late-round choices and undrafted free agents are having better rookie seasons, too.
Fourth-round pick Ace Sanders of Jacksonville has 39 catches for 397 yards. Fifth-round pick Kenny Stills of New Orleans has 25 receptions for 495 yards and four touchdowns. Kenbrell Thompkins wasn’t even drafted, but he has 32 catches for 466 yards and four touchdowns for New England.
“Nowadays, you see these glimpses of rookies, and we rush to judgment and say, ‘This guy is a bust’ or things of that nature,” veteran receiver Jerricho Cotchery said. “Well, [Wheaton] hasn’t played. It’s not his fault. Guys have played well in front of him. That’s the reality of it. He’s been studying hard and practicing hard. He’s ready to play. He’s a smart guy. Whenever he’s given the opportunity, he’ll make plays.”
Wheaton appeared to be making some progress before getting injured against Minnesota in the fourth game. He started and made the first three receptions of his career against the Vikings, but suffered a fractured pinky finger in that game that required surgery.
“I was picking it up pretty well at the time,” Wheaton said. “Each game I got a little more playing time. And then, after the injury, I never really got back into it like I was then. All I can do is try to work my way back and keep improving as the weeks go on.”
Since getting back into the lineup against Buffalo Nov. 10, Wheaton has three receptions, and all three came against Detroit after Emmanuel Sanders left the game early with a foot injury. In the past three games, he has played a total of 11 snaps on offense.
With Antonio Brown second in the NFL in receptions and Cotchery having a career year, there hasn’t been reason for offensive coordinator Todd Haley to change much with his receiver corps. While he waits his turn, Wheaton has tried to soak in as much knowledge as possible from his teammates.
“I’m still young,and there’s a lot to learn from these older guys,” Wheaton said. “I try to do that every day. I’ve definitely learned a lot this first year. Even when I was out with the injury, I was still picking up a lot of information, sitting down with the coaches and learning from the older guys.
“Altogether, to this point, it’s obviously a disappointment where we are as a team. That sucks. Personally, the injuries set me back a bit. The numbers aren’t ideal, but I learned a lot. I think that is what’s most important.”
With Sanders and Cotchery in the final years of their contracts and their futures with the team uncertain, Wheaton likely will have more opportunities next season. Cotchery is convinced he’ll become a productive player.
“I know in my rookie year there were plenty of guys who had great rookie seasons, but, at the end of the day, it tailed off,” Cotchery said. “You just have to continue to work. For him, he’s caught in a situation I was in when I was behind Mike [Wallace], Emmanuel and Antonio. We don’t do a lot of four-receiver stuff, so he’s just sitting there waiting. But he’s definitely ready to play.”
Ray Fittipaldo: email@example.com and Twitter @rayfitt1.