Steelers WRs Long On Talent, Short On Experience
Offseason workouts have given the Pittsburgh Steelers much optimism on the potential of wide receiving corps despite limited proving grounds. However, playing without pads in the beginning of summer is completely different than playing with them during the regular season and preseason. This group of wide receivers may be stacked when it comes to depth, but QB Ben Roethlisberger will need production to compete within a division of tough defenses.
Offensive coordinator Todd Haley has been impressed with minicamp thus far. He made a statement to ESPN.com on the receiver group as a whole: “It’s as deep a group as I’ve been around from top to bottom,” Haley said near the end of offseason practices. “I think some guys that are pretty good football players probably won’t make the team.”
Haley is correct in pointing out the widespread capabilities of the depth chart, but potential won’t score points. A few of the wide receivers Haley refers to are still unproven, including projected starter Markus Wheaton, who had six receptions in his rookie year in 2013.
Second-year WR Justin Brown has turned heads in minicamp, but he’s working himself out of a disappointing hole he dug last year when he was a non-factor. He enters this year with a reformed work ethic for the game, but must make further strides before he’s making significant contributions on Sundays.
Both receivers signed in free agency – Lance Moore and Darrius Heyward-Bey – bring something different to the table. Much more was expected of Heyward-Bey, who has struggled mightily with poor hands but has incredible speed for a player of his size (6-2, 220), since he was taken with the seventh overall pick by the Oakland Raiders in 2009. Aside from 64 receptions for 975 yards and four touchdowns in 2011, he has yet to measure up to his perceived potential.
Moore, who lacks Heyward-Bey’s natural gifts but has proven to be a useful weapon out of the slot, can produce in bunches although he lacked consistency throughout his time in New Orleans. With the Saints, he built a reputation for scoring touchdowns as opposed to racking up yardage. What will hurt Moore's production most is if the Steelers are content with utilizing TE Heath Miller and newly-acquired RB LeGarrette Blount near the goal line, he may not get many chances to score.
When addressing rookie WR Martavis Bryant, we’re discussing what he could do with his talents and attributes and not what he’s done on the field as an NFL player. He's still a rookie with raw talent. Just as Wheaton and Brown continue to go through the process of establishing themselves as professional receivers, Bryant will go through the same rigorous process in 2014 and likely beyond. How well will he establish himself as another possible goal-line threat and security blanket for Roethlisberger?
Much of Roethlisberger’s season will be spent teaching and positioning his receivers for continuity. It’s going to take time before the offense flourishes the way Haley envisions it. Aside from Pro Bowler Antonio Brown, who has established a solid rapport with Roethlisberger, every receiver behind him on the depth chart has little no experience with their quarterback in a regular-season game.
Football is a game of nuisances and getting to know your teammates as well as your opponents in the film room. Pointing out missteps and areas of improvement on tape and on the practice field is part of the process of development. Without any track record or a very small sampling, it’s more of a “wait-and-see” approach based on trial-and-error. Roethlisberger will have to diagnose and help provide Haley with solutions on the fly. He’ll be held to task with sharing what oversights may have been missed during minicamps and the preseason. Potential is not a sign of strength until it’s been proven consistently.
When describing the Steelers’ wide receiving corps as a whole, you can use the terms “developing” or “budding talents”. Blount went as far as to say the offense will be “explosive” and this would seem accurate with the inclusion of the no-huddle offense in the game plan. The style of play will speed up the tempo and create more possessions per game, but the explosiveness will have to come from moving the chains fluidly. Implementing the new parts to the offensive game plan is the first step in the right direction, but it’s far from a well-oiled machine at this juncture.