Second-year receiver has golden opportunity with Steelers

Head and knee injuries are football players’ worst nightmares. Seasons and careers are ended when those part of the bodies are hurt. When a football player injures a finger, the expectations are to tape it up and re-enter the game.

For receivers, it’s one of the hazards of the job. When quarterbacks routinely rifle passes that can reach speeds of more than 40 mph, dislocations and fractures will happen.

It didn’t take Markus Wheaton long to discover that.

Four games into his rookie season last year, in his first career start, Wheaton fractured the pinky finger on his right hand. He had two surgeries to stabilize the finger, which has presented no problems for him this spring except when it comes to appearances.

The sight is enough to make a grown man squeamish. The finger is mangled, bent in a manner it was not meant to bend. But there is no pain for Wheaton, no issues catching the football and no excuses as he enters his second season in the league.

“It looks horrible, but it feels good,” Wheaton said. “It doesn’t bother me at all. I can still catch and still block. It hasn’t affected me yet.”

A crooked finger might look gruesome, but it’s not necessarily a handicap for a receiver. Torry Holt, who finished his career with 920 receptions for 13,382 yards and 74 touchdowns, has a permanently disfigured middle finger. Former Steeler Plaxico Burress also has permanently disfigured digits. He played 12 seasons in the league and caught the winning touchdown pass in Super Bowl XLII for the New York Giants.

Wheaton did not have a productive rookie season in part because of his twice-fractured pinky. He missed four games and managed only six receptions for 64 yards. He never developed a rapport with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

Wheaton is looking to change that this season. A starting job is open after the offseason departure of Emmanuel Sanders, and Wheaton is the odds-on favorite to win the job.

“I wouldn’t say there is more pressure,” Wheaton said. “I’m getting a lot more reps. I’m having fun. It’s less watching, so I’m enjoying it.

“There are a lot of us chasing that spot. It’s not mine. There’s a lot of good competition. I’ll get the work that I need and hopefully I’ll get it.”

Knowing Sanders was likely to leave in free agency, Roethlisberger took Wheaton, Derek Moye and Justin Brown to California in February so they could train together and develop better chemistry.

The Steelers operated this offseason as if they expect Wheaton to flourish with the starting opportunity.

Despite one of the deepest drafts for receivers in years, the Steelers waited until the fourth round to take Martavis Bryant, an underclassman from Clemson who might need more seasoning before he can play a major role in the offense. They signed Lance Moore and Darrius Heyward-Bey in free agency, but Moore is best-suited to play in the slot and Heyward-Bey was signed to provide depth.

“He’s a competitor, he’s a guy that wants to prove that he’s a guy that he can be out here and that he can be a starter,” Roethlisberger said. “So, I’m excited to see what he can do.”

The offense was at its best in the second half of last season when Roethlisberger ran the no-huddle and got on a roll with his veteran receivers. But Sanders is gone, and so is Jerricho Cotchery, the productive slot receiver who led the team in touchdown receptions last season.

Roethlisberger said earlier this week it will be important for Wheaton and the other new receivers to learn subtleties involved in the no-huddle if it is going to be used as much as it was last season.

Wheaton indicated that process is ongoing.

“There is definitely still some I have to learn,” he said. “I know it, but there are things I have to keep in mind when I get to the line. Because I haven’t gotten the reps I should have gotten, I tend to miss the signals he throws at us. I just have to keep up with Ben and keep on the same page with him.”

•NOTES — Rookie running back Dri Archer missed OTAs this week because his presence was mandatory at the NFLPA rookie premiere event in Los Angeles. Archer and several other rookies from other teams took part in the marketing event. … Fifth-round draft pick Shaquille Richardson, a cornerback, signed his four-year rookie contract. … The Steelers cut offensive lineman Nik Embernate and signed another offensive lineman to replace him. Emmanuel McCray, an undrafted free agent from Mississippi who was recently cut by the St. Louis Rams, was added to the roster.

Ray Fittipaldo: and Twitter @rayfitt1.

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