It was only a year ago that, standing outside the cafeteria during a lunch-time break at Saint Vincent College, former safety Ryan Clark dumped a surprising heap of praise on rookie receiver Markus Wheaton, the Steelers’ third-round draft choice.
After only a couple days of watching Wheaton run routes in training camp, Clark gushed that the rookie from Oregon State already was better than Mike Wallace, who left the team in free agency to sign a big contract with the Miami Dolphins.
“Markus Wheaton is better than Michael Wallace at everything but one thing — speed,” Clark said at the time. “That’s it. He does everything else better. As far as route-running, he’s more polished. I think he has better hands … I think he’s ready to step in and play.”
Fast forward one year later, after a season in which Wheaton was plagued by a broken hand and caught six passes for 64 yards, and consider the observation of another veteran secondary member who has had to cover him in training camp — cornerback Ike Taylor.
“He can be that guy that teams look at in the first four games and are like, ‘Who is that dude running past people?’ ” Taylor said. “After those first four games, they’re like, ‘OK, we know who he is now.’ ”
Wheaton, though, is in a different position this year than he was as a rookie.
Last year he was the fourth receiver on the depth chart behind Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery. Now, with the departure of Sanders (Denver) and Cotchery (Carolina) in free agency — players who combined for 113 catches, 1,342 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2013 — he has been elevated to the No. 2 receiver alongside Brown.
Can he be that guy?
“Hell yeah,” Taylor said, without hesitation. “But he’s got to be consistent. He’s got to have that Antonio Brown mentality, just like I feel Cortez Allen has to have that Ike Taylor mentality. You can’t care about anything but that person trying to beat you. That’s only thing I care about, and 10 other guys relying on me.
“Cortez got to have that personality, and Markus Wheaton has got to have that personality, like A.B. That’s what makes A.B., A.B. That’s why he’s a Pro Bowl guy. Wheaton has all the talent. He just has to have that mentality. Once he gets that mentality, it’s lights out for him.”
Wheaton’s ability to be a productive receiver will be one of the critical components for the Steelers offense in 2014. Even though he dressed and played in 12 games last season, he is one of three new receivers with whom quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has to develop some kind of rapport.
The others are veteran Lance Moore, signed in free agency from the New Orleans Saints to replace Cotchery; and rookie Martavis Bryant, their fourth-round pick.
Still, so much of what happens with the passing game will be up to Wheaton.
At Oregon State, he caught a school-record 227 passes for 2,997 yards and 16 touchdowns in three seasons. He also rushed 83 times for 631 yards and five touchdowns, an average of 7.6 yards per carry. That means he averaged 11.7 yards every time he touched the ball.
Moore, who played in a pass-happy offense in New Orleans, likes what he sees of Wheaton.
“He has great potential and extreme explosiveness,” Moore said. “He runs really, really good routes and has great hands. I think the sky is the limit for him.”
Brown is the unquestioned leader and production machine among the receivers after a Pro Bowl season in which he finished with the second-most catches in team history (110) and set a club record with 1,499 receiving yards. In addition, he became the first player in NFL history to have at least five catches and 50 yards in every game during a 16-game season.
In very convincing fashion, Brown answered any question how he would perform without having Wallace to command the defensive attention on the other side.
“Do it again,” Brown said when asked what he does for an encore. “We all need to work hard if we want to be successful. We’re 8-8 two years in a row. That’s not good enough.”
Nobody works harder than Brown. Long after practice ended Thursday, he stood at the far end of the practice field, making one-handed catches on balls fired from the jugs machine, first with his left hand, then with his right. Brown stood only 10 yards from the machine as it whistled hard, tight spirals.
“He’s a lot better in person than I thought he would be,” said Moore, who saw a number of productive receivers when he was with the Saints. “You watch him on film and you see him, but to be up close and personal and see it every day, no wonder he’s as great as he is.
“The way he approaches the game, the way he comes to practice and competes every single day is awesome to watch. It’s awesome to be a part of that. You can really see each and every day why he’s as good a player as he is.”
Gerry Dulac: email@example.com; twitter: @gerrydulac.