2013 Steelers position preview: Wide Receivers

Karl Walter

The most intriguing position group on the Steelers' roster heading into 2013, the Steelers are in the same spot they were last year with Mike Wallace - he's not there. Others will fill in for his absence, not through speed but through precision.

Former Steelers wide receiver Mike Wallace ended the 2012 season the same way he started it.

By being somewhere other than on the field with his teammates.

Wallace apparently strained a hamstring in catching one pass for five yards in a Week 16 loss to Cincinnati, causing him to miss the first game of his pro career - a throwaway against Cleveland.

Wallace did his Steve Miller impression Taking the Money and Running all the way to Miami, who paid him $65 million to help rejuvenate their stagnant offense.

Injured or not, justified or not, even righteous in his desire to leave the organization who selected him in the third round of the 2009 NFL Draft, it was a chain of events even average onlookers predicted well in advance.

The odds of whether Wallace would stay in Pittsburgh swung dramatically to the "no" column when he rejected an alleged 5-year, $50 million contract - roughly the same amount given to former Steelers WR Santonio Holmes in 2011, a year after the Steelers traded him to the Jets. The question then became what exactly the Steelers would do to replace the highly productive if not unsightly one-dimensional threat.

That question may not be answered yet.

In fact, the Steelers nearly got in even deeper to a shaky receiving depth chart that will need to produce even more with the possibility of tight end Heath Miller - and his 106 targets in 2012 - missing the beginning of the season. Wallace's heir apparent, Emmanuel Sanders, signed a tender offer with the New England Patriots in restricted free agency, meaning the Steelers faced the possibility of losing their top two split ends before the 2013 season, or giving Sanders a 50 percent raise from his original round restricted free agency offer.

They chose the latter, electing to match the Patriots offer, foregoing a third-round pick in the process. The fact the usually pick-friendly Steelers gave Sanders that much of a raise either speaks to a feeling Sanders is an integral part of this year's team, or a lack of desire to take a top 100 pick in a deep middle round draft in exchange for a player whose career highs are 44 receptions, 626 yards and two touchdowns.

It seemed more like a move for continuity, and Sanders' impending free agency will loom over this season, a small ripple compared to Tsunami Wallace that crashed into Pittsburgh last season.

The Steelers didn't need New England's third round pick to land a wide receiver of the future anyway. They selected Oregon State's Markus Wheaton with the 79th pick of the 2013 Draft - higher than the third round picks they used to select Sanders (82nd overall) or Wallace (84th overall).

Judging by his combination of speed, strength and smarts, Wheaton may be the best all-around receiver of the group starting their respective careers.

Graduation rules prevented Wheaton from practicing this offseason with the team, and that may hinder him come the start of camp. But understanding the nuances of an offense, and recognizing blitzes and running hot while on the same page with the passer are learned by more than just one minicamp. Wheaton showed examples of all of these things while shattering Oregon State's receiving records en route to Pittsburgh.

It's perhaps too bold to suggest he will have the same impact as Wallace did (756 yards, six touchdowns, 19.4 yards per catch) his rookie year, but the Steelers will look to incorporate Wheaton in their shorter passing attack, particular in three-WR formations. Through that, he may end up showing the Steelers aren't as down on their receiver luck as many believe.

None of this mentions the new leader of the group, fourth-year Antonio Brown. His dynamic athleticism and quickness turned heads (and ankles) as he became the first player in NFL history to catch for 1,000 yards and return kicks for 1,000 yards in 2011. He was taken off special teams, and his receiving numbers fell off dramatically, including dropping a deep touchdown against Philadelphia in Week 5 and fumbling after making a catch against Oakland, and fumbling a punt against Dallas. The Steelers lost those final two games, with both of those turnovers coming in the second half.

Brown will be featured in the slot for the first time in his career without Wallace, and the expectations of a guy who's yards per catch fell from 16.1 in 2011 to 11.9 last year are higher than he's seen in his short career. Establishing himself as both a reliable target (he caught 56 percent of his targets in 2011 and 62.8 percent of them last year) and a deep threat is difficult to the point of unfair. But he's easily the receiver with the best combination of ability and experience, considering Plaxico Burress and Jerricho Cotchery are the top competitors for the fourth and fifth receiver spots, and neither should consider themselves locks to make the team.

David Gilreath, a training camp darling from 2012, is back in camp this year, and Gilreath, along with sixth-round pick Justin Brown, could be outside contenders pushing the veterans Burress and Cotchery.

Kick return sensation Reggie Dunn is a name to remember, if for nothing more than an early candidate for this year's Training Camp Darling Award. With Wallace-like speed, it's not impossible, albeit unlikely, he simply takes his money and runs onto the roster.

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