Steelers covet receiver in NFL draft; free-agent signings to help

The Steelers knew they would lose Emmanuel Sanders in free agency because they almost lost him last year when he signed an offer sheet with the New England Patriots.

But they didn't anticipate losing him and Jerricho Cotchery, who might have been the best valued receiver in the NFL in 2013.

Even with Pro Bowl receiver Antonio Brown, who is coming off a record-breaking season, that's a big chunk of their passing offense that will be missing in 2014.

Sanders and Cotchery combined for 113 catches, 1,342 yards and 16 touchdowns last season -- hefty numbers for a tandem that doesn't include Brown or tight end Heath Miller.

But the Steelers are hoping they can be more productive this year with the development of Markus Wheaton, the signing of free-agent Lance Moore from the New Orleans Saints and the very real possibility they will take a tall wide receiver in the first or second round of the draft.

They would like to draft Mike Evans of Texas A&M, a 6-foot-5, 231-pound receiver whose stock soared even more when he ran a sub-4.5 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine. But Evans might not be available when the Steelers pick at No. 15 overall.

Still, the key for the Steelers will be how well, or even how fast, Wheaton can assimilate in the offense.

A third-round choice in 2013, Wheaton missed four games as a rookie because of a broken finger and struggled to get playing time. He appeared in 11 games, mostly on special teams, and caught six passes for 64 yards. After the season, he had more surgery on his fingers.

The Steelers have high hopes for Wheaton, who was so impressive at training camp that former safety Ryan Clark said he was already better and a more complete receiver than Mike Wallace.

"It's tough to play wide receiver with broken fingers," coach Mike Tomlin said last week at the NFL owners meetings in Orlando, Fla. "I look forward to him taking a significant step for us. I know that we need him to."

To replace Cotchery, the Steelers signed Moore, a 5-9, 190-pound slot receiver who lacks Cotchery's size but, until last season, has exceeded his production. They also signed former Oakland Raiders receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey, the seventh overall pick in the 2009 draft, hoping he can live up to his grand expectations.

Moore, 30, caught 276 passes for 3,512 yards and 34 touchdowns from 2008 to 2012 playing with Drew Brees in New Orleans. Last year, Moore's role diminished because of injuries and the emergence of rookie Kenny Stills, and he dropped off to 37 catches, 457 yards and 2 touchdowns.

"He developed a significant rapport with a guy like Drew Brees over the years," Tomlin said. "Hopefully he will do the same with Ben [Roethlisberger]."

The Steelers did not target Moore as a potential signing because he was not an unrestricted free agent. But he became available when the Saints released him March 7 and the Steelers moved quickly after Cotchery signed with the Carolina Panthers.

"He's a very smart, experienced receiver that knows how to work in the slot," said general manager Kevin Colbert. "He has been productive. There is still some good football left in Lance Moore."

Brown more than answered the question if he could be a top receiver last year without Wallace, setting a franchise record for receiving yards in a season (1,499) and becoming only the second player in team history to record more than 100 catches in a season (110). He also became the first player in NFL history to have at least five catches and 50 yards in all 16 regular-season games.

But the Steelers will also benefit from having a couple of healthy tight ends heading into 2014, especially Miller.

He missed the first two games last season recovering from offseason ACL surgery and finished with 58 catches for 593 yards. He had one touchdown and never played with his usual burst, especially in the red zone.

Backup tight end Matt Spaeth returns after spending the first 12 weeks on the short-term injured-reserve list. He played in the final four games last season and showed his value as an in-line blocker in the run game.

What's more, Tomlin wants to see how a couple of tall wide receivers -- Justin Brown, last year's sixth-round pick, and Derek Moye of Rochester High School and Penn State -- develop in their second year. Brown spent last season on the practice squad.

"We need some quality depth there and we will fill that, whether it's through free agency or through the draft," Tomlin said.


Position coaches: Richard Mann (WRs) and James Daniel (TEs)

Strengths: With the departure of Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown showed he could be a No. 1 receiver with a record-setting Pro Bowl season. Heath Miller's return to full health will help.

Weakness: Losing two of the top three receivers -- Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery -- will hurt after they combined for 113 catches, 1,342 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2013.

Needs: Markus Wheaton has to stay healthy and prove he was worth a No. 3 pick last season. And a tall wide receiver is high on the wish list in the upcoming draft.

Overview: Brown's production alone makes this a solid unit, but the Steelers will need Wheaton to develop into the player everyone thinks he can be. The addition of Lance Moore could help offset Cotchery's departure.

Gerry Dulac:; twitter: @gerrydulac.

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