After losing the top receiver from their previous season's depth chart to free-agency, the Pittsburgh Steelers are finding larger question marks associated with the empty third slot.
When Mike Wallace took his talents to the Miami Dolphins, Antonio Brown became the top dog in a once-crowded Pittsburgh doghouse. Emmanuel Sanders followed suit, taking over the second chair; although with the new statistical goals the team has placed before him since matching his signed offer sheet from the New England Patriots, Sanders will be considered a co-starter for the second consecutive season.
With Sanders no longer holding down the slot in the Steelers smorgasbord of three-receiver formations, an opportunity is created for the remaining receivers on the off-season roster. In 2012, the Steelers began the season with only five WRs. If this was signaling the beginning of a trend, there are only three available seats on the bus behind Sanders and Brown. The slot duties become even more desirable when considering how few plays the team ran last year with four-or-more true receivers on the field.
The first and most obvious candidate is Jerricho Cotchery, who has now been with the Steelers for the past two seasons after beginning his career with the New York Jets. Cotchery has the proper skillset for slot work, however with Pittsburgh creeping ever closer to the NFL salary cap, it becomes hard to ignore the million dollars in cap space the team would save should they jettison Cotchery before the beginning of the season.
Fellow veteran Plaxico Burress was re-signed this off-season, after ending the 2012 season with the Steelers. Burress will not be considered a prime candidate for regular slot duty. His value comes in situations where his size and veteran guile give the team an advantage. Burress is by no means guaranteed to survive final cuts following camp, but the would not have brought him back if they didn't feel there were opportunities for him to contribute.
The Steelers grabbed Markus Wheaton in the third round of the NFL draft and while he fits the popular templates for a slot receiver, he is still a rookie. He, like his fellow draftees, will have to earn every step of the way. Wheaton will be focused on making the roster more than he will be aiming at significant roles. Same can be said for Justin Brown. It is not impossible for these new faces to break into the regular lineup, but it is unlikely the team will ask too much too soon.
The team also has a pair of youngsters whom they added to the mix from last season - David Gilreath and Derek Moye. Moye never escaped the practice squad, but Gilreath appeared in a few games during the 2012 season. Gilreath excelled last pre-season, forcing the team to notice him despite the presence of Toney Clemons, one of the team's four seventh-round picks last year. Clemons is now with the Jacksonville Jaguars, signed away from the Steelers practice squad. Gilreath suffered the same fate, being signed away by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers; but the Bucs released him soon after, when he swiftly returned to Pittsburgh.
Gilreath has an advantage over his younger counterparts, because he has experience in the offense and his ability to return kicks and play special teams. His extracurricular contributions could earn him a spot on the final roster, regardless of his position on the depth chart at receiver. He'll need all the help he can get considering the full stable the Steelers have to choose from. Throw in other camp bodies like Moye, Kashif Moore, and rookies Reggie Dunn and J.D. Woods; and it's not hard to see there aren't enough bones for all of these pups.
While none really stand out above the rest of the group on paper, this battle will be fought and won in training camp; where it should be. The Steelers will have a tough enough time deciding which five-or-six to keep on their final roster; but they will need to decide who their "other" co-starting receiver will be - whether it be a tenured vet or untested youth.
May the hungriest dog win.