The range of growth for a wide receiver in the NFL can be enormous. Some go from chump to champ in a season, while others can remain at the low levels they produced their rookie seasons.
Since 2006, the Steelers have drafted five receivers in the first three rounds - Santonio Holmes (first round, 2006), Limas Sweed (second round, 2008), Mike Wallace (third round, 2009), Emmanuel Sanders (third round, 2010) and Markus Wheaton (third round, 2013). Holmes was traded, Sweed never panned out, Wallace left via free agency and Sanders is likely to leave in this free agency period.
The career arcs of all five of those players varies quite significantly, but generally speaking, the Steelers have been successful in bringing in receivers who can produce within the timeframe of their rookie contracts.
The main issue has been retention after that development. If they're too good, like Wallace, he prices himself out of town. If they do nothing, like Sweed, it's a wasted pick.
Where does Wheaton - the youngest of this group - stand in comparison with the rest of them?
For the sake of drawing a reasonable comparison, we've eliminated Sweed from this study. Most Steelers fans would rather forget him anyway. We'll replace him with Antonio Brown, who has become one of the best receivers in the NFL despite being selected in the sixth round of the 2010 NFL Draft.
In these graphs, we see a few outstanding numbers for rookie wide receivers.
Wallace and Holmes both had great seasons for rookies, and both played on teams that were poised to leap into the conversation of better or best teams in the NFL. Their contributions, not coincidentally, helped make that distinction.
Wheaton spent a good chunk of his rookie year injured. He broke different fingers twice during the season, and ended up appearing in 12 games, but logging just six catches and 13 targets. It wasn't for a lack of effort; he got an average of one target a game, which was on the same level as Brown his rookie campaign.
The real question is how much Wheaton can put into his development the experience he gained after a late start to the 2013 season (NFL rules prohibit players from attending team activities until his college class lets out for the year).
Based on his Steelers receiver peers, he could follow the career progression archs of three of them that go in very different directions.
Sanders also struggled with injuries his first two seasons, and that really hit him in 2011, his second year in the league. He showed plenty of potential, as he has in his first four seasons, and his 13.1 yards per catch average is pretty decent, but like Wheaton's rookie year, Sanders missed a good chunk of his second season.
Brown, on the other hand, buried Sanders in terms of which 2010 draft pick would produce the most, after his Pro Bowl season in 2011. He became the first player in league history to log 1,000 receiving and 1,000 kick return yards in the same year. And Wallace became one of the most dangerous receivers in the NFL, with an eye-popping 21 yards per catch on 100 targets and 10 touchdowns.
Holmes, the highest-drafted player on this list, did very well in his own right. With 18 yards per catch and a very healthy 11.08 yards per target, he was efficient and dangerous as he began to emerge as one of the best young receivers in the league.
Just based on numbers, Wheaton appears to be much more Sanders than Brown, Wallace or Holmes. But the progress those three made, and the varied positions of spots at which they were taken all make for something of a muddled composition with health being the main factor.
No one questions Wheaton's work ethic, and any player can break a finger on any play; that's an injury that will affect a wide receiver very negatively, while, say, a linebacker or a safety could probably play through it. Judging by the difference between each receiver's first season and their second, Wheaton could feel optimistic he could produce at a high level as early as next year.
Sanders is the only one to have regressed (in a measurable way) statistically in any one category, and that can be directly attributed to the fact he missed five games with injuries and a death in the family.
While Wallace and Brown break the curve somewhat, Brown's statistical uptick couldn't have been expected by even the most optimistic Steelers fan - not to that degree.
So the question for Wheaton really is whether he's aiming to be more like Wallace or Brown in their second seasons, or more like Sanders. Considering Sanders likely won't be re-signed because of the presence of Wheaton, it would seem the team feels he's more like the former than the latter.
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