A Blast from the Past: Third Round Part 3

Don Ryan/AP photo

Because the 2012 third-round pick (Sean Spence) was such an interesting one, and because there was so much to say, I saved the (also interesting) 2013 third round pick for this article. Said pick would be wide receiver Markus Wheaton.

It has frequently been noted just how successful the Steelers have been with bargain-basement wide receivers in recent years, and how odd it is that they seem to have been so inept at choosing what is in essence an equivalent defensive position in defensive backs. And it is truly odd, and rather unfortunate. But I suppose we can at least be happy they have been so successful with receivers.

Not that the third round is exactly the bargain basement, but certainly all of the prototypical big receivers are gone by the point the Steelers are usually picking. And yet they have picked up a number of success stories and few failures. It’s really interesting to see it laid out. Since 2010 they have drafted these guys:

  • 2010: Emmanuel Sanders, 3; Antonio Brown, 6.
  • 2011: None
  • 2012: Toney Clemons, 7.
  • 2013: Markus Wheaton, 3; Justin Brown, 6.
  • 2014: Martavis Bryant, 4. (If you want to call Dri Archer a WR, you can, but he was listed as an RB)
  • 2015: Sammie Coates, 3.

Obviously the jury is still out on Coates, although he looks quite promising, and on Bryant. The latter would be an unqualified success except for the reason he ended up in the fourth round in the first place. Whether he can get his head and life together remains to be seen. It will be a very great pity if he can’t, but he wouldn’t be the first guy to throw away a promising career due to the inability to quit using his substance of choice.

There isn’t a single player on the list who wasn’t on an NFL roster at some point. Although Toney Clemons only made the Steelers’ practice squad, he was signed off of it by Jacksonville and was on their active roster for part of the 2012 season. He was on two other practice squads thereafter, and then did a stint in the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in 2015 before being entirely unemployed, which isn’t bad for an end of the 7th round pick.

Justin Brown made the Steelers’ roster for two seasons before being cut, and was cut by the Bills after he was injured. He is also currently a free agent.

But we’re here to talk about Markus Wheaton, and let’s do so. Here’s the “Strengths” given in his NFL Draft Profile:

His quickness is blatant and dangerous. Whether taking off from the slot or outside, his feet are literally a step ahead of his defender on everything from speed outs, crossers, to jerk routes. Displays the flexibility to grab throws behind him or over his shoulder when running deep. He’ll also extend away from his body to bring in high or wide throws, and will stutter on the sideline to ensure he makes the catch in-bounds. Possesses some thickness to his frame, and is willing to lower his shoulder to get the extra yard – often diving under defenders to get as many as possible. Wheaton also dabbled in track while at OSU, reminding scouts of his elite speed.

I love “blatant and dangerous.” I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a similar description. In their “Bottom Line” he was projected to be taken in the first or second round, so to get him in the middle of the third round is pretty good going.

Wheaton has never quite lived up to the hype. He’s been modestly productive, and had some big-time catches at important moments, though, and one has to wonder if his modest production is mainly due to having to share the field with some very special receivers. After Emmanuel Sanders signed with the Broncos, one would have assumed Wheaton would have gotten many more opportunities, but lots of things seemed to intervene—Le’Veon Bell’s abilities as a receiver, the emergence of Martavis Bryant as a force to be reckoned with, and the durability of Antonio Brown, who hadn’t missed a game during the time Wheaton has been on the team until the final playoff game last January.

One has to give Wheaton a lot of credit. He came in as a college star and has been relegated to a relatively small role in the Steelers’ offense because of all these things. He seems to have a great attitude, as Chris Adamski of the Tribune-Review recently wrote:

Wheaton concedes it’s “tough” having limited opportunities on an offense that has included the likes of Brown, Bryant, All-Pro running back Le’Veon Bell and a standout tight end (this season, Ladarius Green replaces the retired Heath Miller).

Last season was a prime example of the ebbs and flows of Wheaton’s contributions. He endured a midseason seven-game stretch in which he was targeted just 20 times with nine catches for 135 yards, but he broke out of it with 13 catches for 201 yards Nov. 29 at Seattle.

“It’s been frustrating at times, but it’s part of the game,” Wheaton said. “I love the game, I love being out here with the guys.”

Frankly, this season is almost certainly going to determine his future. Bryant’s season-long absence gives him the opportunity to show what he can do, and his future contract, whether with the Steelers or, more likely, some other team, is going to depend on whether he can step forward and make himself indispensable.

To return for a moment to the question of why the Steelers have been so successful with receivers, I think it is worth noting that this wasn’t necessarily the case prior to about 2009. Here are the receivers they drafted between 2004 and 2010. (I chose 2004 because they also drafted Ben that year:)

  • 2004: none
  • 2005: Fred Gibson, 4.
  • 2006: Santonio Holmes, 1; Willie Reid, 3.
  • 2007: Dallas Baker, 7.
  • 2008: Limas Sweed, 2.
  • 2009: Mike Wallace, 3.

The only successful draft pick prior to Mike Wallace was, of course, Santonio Holmes, and he was taken at No. 25 overall. I am not a fan of Holmes, but I’ll give him his due for the catch in the 2008 Super Bowl. I will also just note, since I’m not a fan, that he had dropped a well-placed equivalent throw from Ben on the previous play. Roethlisberger had the cojones to do it again and tell Holmes it was coming.

So what changed? Perhaps just their luck. I would love to attribute it to wide receivers coach Richard Mann, but he wasn’t hired until 2013. Bruce Arians left in early 2012, and while I’m sure there are plenty of people who would love to say that made the difference, you would also then have to give him credit for drafting the Young Money crew, and I expect that would be too painful.

If any of y’all have any ideas about this, I would love to hear them. It is a curious thing…

 

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