Ignore his 4.5 40-yard-dash time that dropped him into the third round (Wallace ran a 4.28 and was taken 20 spots later in the third round in 2009).
Wheaton was not drafted to replace Wallace. He was drafted to do more.
Just maybe not right away.
Wallace had a big impact for the Steelers his rookie season. He led the NFL with 19.4 yards per catch and scored six touchdowns on 39 catches, and 756 yards. Playing alongside Super Bowl XLIII MVP Santonio Holmes and Super Bowl XL MVP Hines Ward certainly helped in that effort. But without a doubt, Wallace's deep speed transcended anything the Steelers had seen in decades.
Wheaton is not likely to duplicate that kind of a start. He is, however, far better suited for the specific offense the Steelers will employ in 2013 than Wallace was - who signed a $65 million contract with the Dolphins this offseason.
An archaic and nonsensical rule in the NFL prevents draftees from working with their teams until after the graduation date of their college class. This cost Wheaton critical coaching time through the Steelers' entire Organized Training Activities (OTAs) period. It's also likely to cost Wheaton playing time, especially early on. It's not rare, though, that a team creates a specific package for a player, aimed to harness specific skill sets for use in specific situations.
Haley's offense loves shorter, crossing patterns aimed at quick throws and yards after the catch. This fits Wheaton's skill set wonderfully.
Not only is he elusive after the catch, he's smart enough to set up his runs by recognizing the defense and using it (and the position of the official) to his advantage. His presence in the slot will garner the attention of linebackers, and, assuming he can learn enough fast enough, he can be an attractive hot read option against the blitz.
In a game against Cal this past season, Wheaton scored on what could appear as a fairly routine two-yard pattern that he ran in for a score.
More than that, though, he showed the kind of smarts that can make even a moderately gifted receiver into a big-time NFL player. Watch him as he curls inside, running hot due to the inside linebacker blitz. He stops, and notices the lone linebacker on that side is shading toward the running back, who runs a wheel to the outside.
Wheaton knows he's open underneath, and a quick throw will give him plenty of time to square his shoulders and find the goal line.
With all due respect to those who left Pittsburgh, this kind of heads-up play, not to mention the physical ability to avoid two would-be tacklers and get the ball across the goal line, can be just as valuable as the ability to out-run a cornerback in single coverage 60 yards down the field.
These kinds of players help protect a quarterback just as well as an outstanding offensive tackle can. Wheaton's ability to see the blitz and read the holes in the defense, then make a play, is going to get him on the field sooner rather than later.
What's almost more impressive than Wheaton with the ball in his hands is Wheaton without it. From that same game against Cal, the Beavers are in a twins formation, similar to what the Steelers ran often with Heath Miller, Antonio Brown and Wallace last year.
It's a bubble screen to the outside receiver, with Wheaton leading the block from the slot.
He isn't the strongest receiver on the planet, but blocking, especially on the edge like that, is more about preventing the closest man from blowing the play up before the receiver has a chance to accelerate down the field. Wheaton shows he's willing to play the game, as opposed to needing to be the star. More importantly, he continues with it, shoving the defender back, ensuring he's out of the play.
He's finishing his task before he's worrying about what's next. That's disciplined, aggressive football. The Beavers picked up a nice five-yard gain on the play. It's a low-risk passing play that only works if you can get a receiver to squeeze the cornerback back. Wheaton approaches the corner with good balance, and on his toes, ready to make contact. He's not going to play pattycake with the guy, he's going to do his job.
That kind of blue collar workman-like mentality plays pretty well in Pittsburgh.
As cheesy as that seems, it's hard to avoid using cliches like that to describe him. He plays the game the way it's meant to be played: tough, spontaneous, aggressive and smart.
This doesn't seem like much, but in Oregon State's game against UCLA last year, Wheaton is facing press coverage from the Bruins cornerback. He's going to run a quick slant off the snap, and he sees the cornerback drop into a zone. He breaks off the deeper slant, and cuts back in toward the quarterback to avoid the defender and his teammate setting a pick for him.
He also uses the official, juking inside him, then back outside, all the while, keeping his eyes on the quarterback, and feeling the defense behind him.
He makes the catch, squares his shoulders as much as he can and gets as far up the field and on the edge as he can.
Again, this isn't a highlight-reel kind of play,and while Wheaton does have examples of those, his ability to get on the field quickly in his career is going to be through his willingness to add value to his position in the short passing game - which can be a quarterback's best friend.
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