The split end in the Steelers offense is designed to make big plays and big money, and after former “Young Money” receivers Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders caught huge contracts elsewhere, the Steelers turn to a new man.
“I’m anxious, excited, nervous, all of that,” Markus Wheaton said. “I can’t wait to get going.”
Wheaton epitomizes many of the players on this Steelers roster as they prepare to open the season Sunday against Cleveland at Heinz Field. He has potential and little experience, but will play a key role as the Steelers of 2014 transition to a new era.
The split end or “X” position is the home-run hitter, the long-ball man. Think Mike Wallace. Wheaton does not have that kind of speed, but he’s fast enough and seems to be a more accomplished route-runner than Wallace was in his second season.
“I don’t see why not,” Wheaton said of his ability to make the big plays for Ben Roethlisberger. “I won’t compare myself to Mike Wallace. I’m Markus Wheaton, he’s Mike Wallace. He does what he does, I’m going to do what I’m going to do. I’m sure I can make plays down the field.”
They have the same initials and came from the same draft round. Yet before the Steelers drafted Wheaton in the third round last year, an analysis of him on NFL.com concluded that the player he most compared to already in the league was … Antonio Brown.
The Steelers would take that.
Wheaton had a chance for more significant playing time as a rookie last season until he ran into the broken finger syndrome, twice injuring it to where he had to have surgery. He won’t do any hand modeling anytime soon, but it should not hinder his ability to catch, as was seen when he made two nice ones in the preseason — one for a touchdown, one for a 28-yard gain.
He had just six catches all of last season, so there is a projection there, as there was for Wallace. Wheaton’s inexperience may have been a reason he stayed on the field so long Thursday night against the Carolina Panthers.
“I feel more work is always good,” Wheaton said. “This last preseason game, I played a lot. I think I was one of the last starters standing. I have a lot to learn, I’m still young, still developing. I think I needed that.”
By their roster cuts Saturday, the Steelers told everyone they needed or wanted six receivers — seven if you include rookie Dri Archer, officially a halfback on the depth chart. They carried only four two years ago, five last year.
It could portend how the Steelers plan to attack on offense this season, with a heavy emphasis on their passing game with Roethlisberger.
Of the six receivers, only Brown has real experience in that offense. Wheaton would be next. Veterans Lance Moore and Darrius Heyward-Bey have experience with other teams, but are new to the Steelers, as is rookie Martavis Bryant. The only players at skill positions who have much time at all in this offense other than the tight ends are Roethlisberger, Brown and halfback Le’Veon Bell, who enters his second season.
It might bode for a slow start on offense, although Heath Miller’s contributions at tight end will be crucial, especially early as the new receivers become more acclimated.
“I see us getting better over time,” Wheaton said. “Whether it’s where we want it to be, I’m not sure. Throughout the preseason and camp we did get a lot of work in and are ready for the first game.
“We’ve made a lot of progress. Are we where we need to be? Who knows. We’re going to continue to keep growing. It’s a young group, but we’re all very hungry, we’re all willing to learn, obviously leaning on Antonio in the amount of time he’s been in this league and what he’s been able to do.
“We’re all hungry, we’re all willing to learn, we’re all going to get better. With the combination of vets and rookies, I feel we can.”
Ed Bouchette: email@example.com and Twitter @EdBouchette.