2016 definitely did not go according to plan for the wide receiver group of the Pittsburgh Steelers. The plan coming into the season carried the expectation that Markus Wheaton and Sammie Coates would step up and fill bigger roles with the season long absence of Martavis Bryant, until that saying about the best laid plans reaered it’s ugly head. Both Wheaton and Coates had promising seasons lost to injury early on, leaving the receiver corps in a state of flux for most of the year, until a group of three young receivers, Eli Rogers, Cobi Hamilton, and Demarcus Ayers, stepped up to help stabilize the situation. The emergence of these three amigos, leaves the Steelers with some interesting choices to make during the offseason, leaving Darius Heyward-Bey with the greatest potential of being the odd man out. Here’s a look at, and a review of this evolving group of receivers.
By the standards he has set over the last four seasons, Antonio Brown looked to have a down season. Reality and the lack of a reliable number two option though, says that Brown may have had the best season of his career. Despite the season long presence of double coverage, and sometimes triple coverage, due to the lack of a consistent number two option, Brown still finished 2nd in the NFL in receptions, tied for 2nd with 12 touchdown receptions, and 5th overall with 1,284 yards. Those rankings would have been even higher had he not sat out the season finale with Cleveland. While he can be a small annoyance at times, per Art Rooney II, he is considered by his teammates to be a hardworking example to follow, and a pleasure to be around. Art Rooney II would like to get a new deal with AB done, to keep him around long term.
The season got off to a promising start for Sammie Coates, who had 19 receptions for 421 yards and 2 touchdowns over the first five games, until a pair of broken fingers and tendon damage on his left hand all but ended his season. During each of those five games, Coates recorded a reception of at least 40 yards, tying a Steelers mark and leading the NFL in the process. Having recently had successful surgery to repair the damage to his fingers, Coates should be 100% healthy and confident by the time training camp rolls around.
Eli Rogers did an admirable job stepping in for Markus Wheaton this season, tallying 48 receptions for 594 yards and 3 touchdowns. The second year receiver out of Louisville showed solid route running abilities, and no fear attacking the catch across the middle of the field. Last offseason, Antonio Brown took Eli Rogers under his wing to work on his hands and route running skills, and it looks to have payed off for Rogers who has earned his spot in this talented group of receivers.
Although he didn’t make his rookie debut until week 16 against the Baltimore Ravens, Demarcus Ayers made an impression in the four games he played in, two regular and two postseason. In all, Ayers caught 9 passes for 90 yards along with a touchdown, but most importantly, his catches kept the chains moving. What stood out about Demarcus Ayers to Mike Tomlin was the desire that Ayers has to be great and the work he is willing to put in to get there. At the very least, Ayers should enter training camp as a favorite to remain on the 53 man roster next season.
After bouncing around from the Bengals, to the Dolphins, and then to the Carolina Panthers, Cobi Hamilton seems to have found a home with the Steelers. Hamilton is an intriguing prospect because of his size and speed, making some clutch grabs during his first season with the Steelers, in which he totaled 17 catches for 234 yards and 2 touchdowns. Hamilton is the second wide receiver, was the first of two receivers, the second was Demarcus Ayers, who was promoted from the practice squad and gave the Steelers meaningful receptions. Just like Ayers, Cobi Hamilton should go into camp looking to keep a spot on the 53 man roster.
Since arriving in Pittsburgh, the former first round draft pick has been a positive presence in the locker room and very unselfish in his limited role on offense. DHB has also been a stalwart on special teams coverage. The big question with Heyward-Bey is do the Steelers really need to keep a guy around who is basically a well payed special teamer whose hands aren’t reliable enough to see regular duty on offense. Nothing against Darius, but while his speed is very appealing, they already have someone to fit the role he has been filling, Sammie Coates. Coates was on his way to a fantastic season until it was derailed by two broken fingers/tendon damage in his left hand, and like Heyward-Bey, made some very good special teams tackles on the coverage units. While DHB has made a few big plays on offense, his time in Pittsburgh could be coming to an end with the emergence of younger receivers.
The situation with former third round draft pick Markus Wheaton could turn out to be the proverbial blessing in disguise. Entering the final year of his rookie contract, Wheaton looked primed to break out this season and earn a nice payday in free agency. All of that promise potentially disappeared with a season ending shoulder injury. Wheaton’s potential loss should be the Steelers gain. Having been consistent, but never really standing out amongst his fellow receivers, the Steelers still know what they have in Wheaton, who shouldn’t command more that what his worth is. His season ending injury may even lessen that price for the Steelers. It would be well worth the investment for the Steelers to bring back Markus Wheaton, with an appropriate raise on an incentive-laden prove it deal. Injuries have robbed Wheaton of reaching his potential in two out of his four years. When he reaches his potential, it should be with the Steelers.
The return of Martavis Bryant gives the Steelers back what the offense missed the most this season, that reliable number two receiver and the deep threat that was truly missed. His return will surely put the bright smile back on the face of one Antonio Brown, because of all the double coverage he won’t be seeing. Perhaps if Sammie Coates hadn’t been slowed by injury, Bryants suspension wouldn’t have hurt the offense so bad, but either way, his return will surely make Ben Roethlisberger’s life much more pleasant and will immediately give the Steelers the most explosive offense in the NFL once again. Apparently, Bryant has put his suspension to good use, not only has he gotten himself clean, but it seems he has a newly found affinity for the weight room. If a 210 pound Bryant was enough of a nightmare for defensive backs, imagine a Martavis Bryant with an added 18 pounds of muscle, who is just as fast.
Projected Steelers wide receiver group for 2017
With the emergence of three new talents and the return of the game’s most dangerous deep threat, the wide receiver group of the Steelers should be quite formidable in 2017. To make this group the best and most efficient that it can be, would be to part ways with Darius Heyward-Bey and to bring back Markus Wheaton. The wide receiver group next year could look like this, Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, Markus Wheaton, Sammie Coates, Eli Rogers, Cobi Hamilton, and Demarcus Ayers, giving the Steelers the firepower they need to help get them past New England.