Who are those guys? : Assessing the Steelers Receivers

Markus Wheaton putting good use to those hands in mini-camp. Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Swann. Stallworth. Lipps. Burress. Ward. Two of these five are in the Hall of Fame and a third (Ward) will surely join them someday. Even in their down years, the Steelers have always had a primary play maker at receiver. And while Hines Ward wasn’t a prototypical play maker, he was solid and reliable, always there to make the clutch catch or throw a TD in the Superbowl when needed. Now that the black and gold are in a transition period, who will step up to be the next great Steelers receiver?
In my opinion, last year made it difficult to assess what the team had at receiver. Todd Haley’s offense emphasized the short to intermediate passing game which was in direct contrast to the vertical attack under Bruce Arians. The team’s most recent deep threat deep threat, Mike Wallace spent the season sulking about his contract and dreaming of being everywhere else but Pittsburgh. Had he not been so selfish, he might’ve spent more time learning to run more precise routes and not dropping what at times were easily catchable passes.
Now that the me-first Wallace has departed for South Beach, it’s time to look at what the team has going forward. Antonio Brown is entrenched as the number one receiver on the depth chart, but is he truly a number one receiver? This will be the first year he doesn’t have Wallace on the opposite side drawing coverage away. Brown hasn’t shown to this point he’s worth double covering, moving a safety towards his thus opening the middle of the field for other targets. And while he adds a nice dimension to the return game (he was a Pro Bowl special teamer two years ago), I think that part of his role will lessen with the addition of players like La-Rod Stephens Howling, Markus Wheaton and Justin Brown. Antonio does have good hands but is also susceptible to dropping catchable passes as well, and while He doesn’t have elite speed, he does get decent separation. Preseason will tell us if he is truly a number one receiver.
As for the Steelers number two receiver Emmanuel Sanders, this season will basically be his audition to other teams to showcase his skills so he can make a killing in free agency next year. He almost escaped by signing a tender sheet to the Patriots and Steeler nation is divided on whether Pittsburgh was right or wrong to match the Pats’ offer. At least Sanders can keep the second receiver spot warm for now until someone else steps up to take it. Whether Sanders will have the same attitude this year as Wallace did last year remains to be seen, but he does have the potential to be a nice compliment to Brown so long as he can stay healthy. However magical things happen to players on the cusp of free agency and it wouldn’t shock me to see Sanders get through the season without missing a game.
I like ten year vet Jerricho Cotchery (although I did lose a fantasy football championship eight years back because of him), I think he’s a solid number three, a good slot receiver and can be clutch when called upon. As for Plaxico Burress, I am puzzled why the team retained him for this year, he did nothing to warrant a return and I think his time is up. The treads on his tires are gone at this juncture, he offers zip to the offense. If the team were smart, he’ll be gone by June 1st to thin out the ranks a little and allow a younger player to step in.
Which now brings us to the collection of rookies and 2nd year players, of which there are seven in total. Obviously, the most attention is focused on third round pick Markus Wheaton of Oregon State. I’m not over the top of him, but I like his speed and his hands and he seems to bring a good attitude to the team. He was overshadowed by higher profile receivers in the Pac-12 like Keenan Allen and Marquise Lee, but Wheaton is as good as Allen and near the level of Lee. I think he’ll easily pass Burress(if he’s not cut by camp) and maybe Cotchery on the depth chart and will make an impact on special teams as well. With Sanders all but certain to depart after this season, Wheaton has every opportunity to prove he’s capable of being a solid second receiver.
After Brown, Sanders, Cotchery and Wheaton, the battle for the fifth receiver spot in my opinion comes down to sixth round pick Justin Brown, and 2nd year players Derek Moye and David Gilreath. Gilreath was activated towards the end of the season but had no impact, while Moye saw no action at all.Moye has nice size and soft hands, runs nice routes and is willing to go up and get the ball in traffic. the biggest concerns about Moye are his thin frame and lack of experience. Gilreath is raw and doesn’t have the size Moye does, his body type is similar to that as Brown and Sanders which does nothing to separate him from the pack. As for the third player in the mix, I think Justin Brown has a chance to stick as the fifth wideout. I know many draft experts gave his selection a grade of D or worse, but I don’t think they did enough homework on him, focusing solely on his work at Oklahoma. Brown adds a nice dimension to the return game which he showed while at both Penn State and Oklahoma, and while he wasn’t the primary receiver at Oklahoma that he was in Happy Valley, he has some play making ability and has good hands and size as well. If he doesn’t make the 53 man squad, he is a surefire practice squad addition. As for the remaining undrafted free agents Kashif Moore, Reggie Dunn and J.D. Woods, I’d say don’t hold your breath guys.
The 2013 receiving corps for the Steelers is an unknown commodity at this point. If Todd Haley can loosen the reins a little and let these guys run, we’ll see what we have. For Wheaton and Justin Brown, they need to showcase their skills in the return game as well as in the passing game, and I’d love to see the entire group as a whole get a little tougher and nastier as blockers as well, in the vein of Hines Ward. Who these guys are depends on who the coaches will let them be as well as the type of player they are motivated to be. I’m very curious to see how this group pans out. Right now I see it being A.Brown, Sanders, Cotchery, Wheaton and J.Brown with Moye on the practice squad and Gilreath on speed dial. What do you think?

Topics: Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders, Justin Brown, Markus Wheaton, Pittsburgh Steelers

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  • MFinn

    You mean reins, not reigns.

    • scott sinclair

      Yes, I do

  • Lori P.

    On Plaxico, when they signed him (at league minimum, I think) I remember thinking that they are just giving him the opportunity to retire as a Steeler and it will happen maybe by training camp.

  • Mike

    Scott: this unit reminds me of the 5-headed monster we had in the mid-nineties with CJ, Slash, Hastings, Mills and Thigpen. Scheme-savvy, all interchangeable and very hard to deal with.

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