By: Zach Metkler, The Burgh Blog Writer
Last week, I took a look at the running back and fullback depth chart and gave my analysis of how the roster will likely turn out by the end of the season. Now, I will continue my breakdown of Big Ben’s main targets by looking at the wide receivers.
Players on Roster:
-#84 Antonio Brown (5’10″, 181 lbs.; 27 years old; 7 years experience; Central Michigan)
-#11 Markus Wheaton (5’11″, 189 lbs.; 25 years old; 4 years experience; Oregon State)
-#88 Darrius Heyward-Bey (6’2″, 210 lbs.; 29 years old; 8 years experience; Maryland)
-#14 Sammie Coates (6’1”, 212 lbs.; 23 years old; 2 years experience; Auburn)
-#17 Eli Rogers (5’10”, 187 lbs.; 23 years old; 2 year experience; Louisville)
-#82 DeMarcus Ayers (5’11”, 190 lbs.; 21 years old; rookie; Houston)
-#19 Shakim Phillips (6’2″, 204 lbs.; 24 years old, 1 year experience; Boston College)
-#16 Issac Blakeney (6’6”, 225 lbs.; 23 years old; 1 year experience; Duke)
-#18 Levi Norwood (6’0″, 197 lbs.; 23 years old; 1 year experience; Baylor)
Undrafted Free Agents/Tryouts:
-#83 Canaan Severin (6’2″, 205 lbs.; 23 years old; rookie; Virginia)
-Marcus Tucker (5’10”, 190 lbs.; 23 years old; rookie; Northern Michigan)
-#10 Martavis Bryant (6’4″, 211 lbs.; 24 years old, 3 years experience; Clemson)
The Steelers boast one of the best and deepest wide receiving groups in the NFL. Superstar receiver Antonio Brown is arguably the best receiver in the league and was just ranked as the #2 player (yes, PLAYER) in the NFL (behind local Penn Hills and Pitt product Aaron Donald). After a brutal concussion suffered in last season’s Wild Card game, Brown looks to come back in full strength and be a statistical leader in the NFL again for yet another season after totaling 1,499, 1,698, and 1,834 yards in the past 3 seasons on top of 8, 13, and 10 touchdowns as well. Martavis Bryant would typically be the #2 receiver on the roster but after violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy for a second season, he will serve a year long suspension (normally, he would only be serving a 10 game suspension but he failed to attend a few drug testings). With the electrifying deep threat not being on the field at all this season, the remaining depth chart is completely up in the air.
Although the #2 receiver spot is up for grabs, there is excitement around the Steelers organization to see who will step up beside Brown. The likely frontrunner to fill the void will be Markus Wheaton, who after a slow start to his career and being unable to build a chemistry with Ben Roethlisberger, stepped into the spotlight last season, racking up 749 yards and a team leading average of 17 yards per reception. Wheaton plays with more athleticism than many people give him credit for, running a 4.45 40 yard dash at the combine in 2013. This is a big season for Wheaton, as he is entering his contract year and with Bryant’s absence, there is a chance that he could outperform any money that the Steelers are willing to give him (although the Steelers would be wise to resign Wheaton, as he is a very solid player). Beyond Wheaton, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Sammie Coates will compete for playing time (and a starting spot). A former journey man, Heyward-Bey seems to have found a home with the Steelers organization and has played admirably when called upon while being a standout on special teams. As one of the fastest players in the NFL, Heyward-Bey has big play ability and the length that teams love in the NFL. Although he has never lived up to his billing as a top 1st round draft pick, Heyward-Bey has been a serviceable player and signed a 3-year contract earlier in the offseason. Last year’s 3rd round draft pick Sammie Coates was a relative non-factor during the season until he was forced into action during the playoff game against the Broncos, where he showed the big play potential that made the Steelers select him in the draft. In that game, he had 61 receiving yards on just 2 receptions. The Steelers are high on Coates and believe that he has a lot to offer to the offense, especially with his conditioning and understanding of the game being much improved. He is a true deep threat with the potential to be more and if he develops like many people believe he will, his second year with the Steelers could be a major breakout season.
Eli Rogers showed flashes of greatness during the preseason last year and will likely compete with 2016 7th round pick DeMarcus Ayers for the last spot on the roster. This competition will likely come down to Ayers ability as a punt returner. Special teams coach Danny Smith believes that Ayers was the best punt returner in the draft this year, which should be music to Steelers fans ears considering that the team’s primary punt returner for the past few years has been Brown. Simply put, you don’t want your superstar receiver returning punts. If Ayers can prove to be an effective punt returner, that could be enough to convince the Steelers to keep him on the roster and any offensive production he could add would be an added bonus. While at Houston, he proved to be a solid receiver with great hands, as indicated by his 2 drops in 101 targets so it will be interesting to see if he can produce anything on offense for the Steelers.
Beyond the aforementioned players, none of the remaining receivers expect to be real factors to the team, but as always, stranger things have happened. One player to keep an eye on is undrafted free agent Canaan Severin out of Virginia. At 6’2″, 205 lbs., Severin is a tough, physical receiver with extraordinary ball skills and extremely strong hands. Although Severin doesn’t possess elite speed, he makes up for it by having a high football IQ and having a developed route tree. He is able to adjust his body in the air and does a nice job of high-pointing the ball. So why did he go undrafted? He has been inconsistent over the course of his collegiate career, dropping some passes that would leave you scratching your head. But so did 1st round pick Laquon Treadwell, so there’s that.
Expected Depth Chart:
- Antonio Brown (Starter)
- Sammie Coates (Starter)
- Markus Wheaton (Slot)
- Darrius Heyward-Bey
- DeMarcus Ayers
There is absolutely no competition for Brown as the #1 receiver. As long as he is healthy and remains one of the best players in the league, he will continue to be one of the faces of the Pittsburgh Steelers. When the dust settles after the preseason, I expect Coates and Wheaton to serve as a 2a and 2b, much like Bryant and Wheaton did in previous seasons. The reason I gave the #2 nod to Coates primarily sits in the fact that he is a true deep threat receiver and the Steelers drafted him in the event that something like the situation with Bryant happened. Good thing they did. Wheaton has the ability to play both as a deep threat and in the slot but due to his toughness and position flexibility, I see him playing primarily out of the slot but bump outside sometimes, much like he did last season when Bryant was the #2 receiver. Due to his experience and ability to step in when needed, Heyward-Bey will likely retain his role as the #4 receiver on the roster. Rounding out the depth chart will be Ayers, provided that he can in fact nail down the punt return duties. This battle between him and Rogers will be one of the more interesting position battles of the preseason. The player that doesn’t crack the final roster will likely be destined for a spot on the practice squad, with this case being Rogers.
Of the remaining receivers, the player with the best shot at surprising people will likely be Severin, but the Steelers will probably store him on the practice squad as well, especially with Bryant’s future with the team up in the air and Wheaton entering his contract year. Issac Blakeney provides some interesting potential as an absolutely HUGE target at 6’6″ but is arguably the rawest receiver currently on the roster. Blakeney and the remaining guys will all likely be cut casualties during the preseason.
Coming up next: Tight Ends. Stay tuned!