Steelers second-year wide receiver Markus Wheaton's career started behind the 8-ball, and it's now staring down the middle pocket.
Barely one broken finger into his time with the Steelers, the team that chose him in the third round of the 2013 NFL Draft, fans are already calling for his replacement, that mythical "tall receiver," the one that will make this franchise's passing game complete.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin isn't necessarily suggesting a replacement will be brought in - even though that is one of the purposes of the draft, as unpleasant a thought as it may be - tall, untall or some combination of the two. He is, however, expecting big things from Wheaton, perhaps bigger than any second-year player who barely saw the field his rookie season ever has.
Wheaton has neither the contract nor the rookie year heroics to bolster such optimism, which is what makes the attention being paid on him so unique. He brought with him to Pittsburgh a strong resume from college, Oregon State, where he played a season with Brandin Cooks, a player who destroyed any mark Wheaton may have set in one season en route to winning the Biletnikoff Award as the nation's top receiver. Cooks, standing under 6-feet tall, looks to be a first round pick.
Having seen his college legacy already having been outdone, the distance between himself and the sometimes proverbial concept of success grows wider when he's compared to other receivers coming off their second year. Needless to say, there are far more receivers taken in the first five rounds of the 2013 draft who netted six catches or more in 2014 than ones who received less than Wheaton's total (six).
Writers will then tend to point to two things to explain his potential - his 4.4 flat 40-yard dash time at the Combine (which the Steelers estimated as being on the lower side of his best range) and his work ethic.
Tomlin's quote, given to Post Gazette reporter Gerry Dulac, among others, at the league meetings in March, speaks more toward critical need for the team than unwavering optimism in his guy.
"It's tough to play wide receiver with broken fingers," coach Mike Tomlin said last week at the NFL owners meetings in Orlando, Fla. "I look forward to him taking a significant step for us. I know that we need him to."
No position was hit harder by free agency exodus than the wide receivers group that lost Emmanuel Sanders (expected) and Jerricho Cotchery (not expected). While Wheaton looked to fill in for Sanders this season, there should be an "at least for" placed after "Sanders" and before "this." The Steelers also need to groom a replacement for the soon-to-be-nameless train of veterans coming in and out of their slot receiver position. Cotchery handled a role that was split between a few different receivers, and it will now, presumably, be held by Lance Moore. After that, the Steelers don't appear to have many options as the team heads toward the draft about one month from today.
Needless to say, Wheaton has more to worry about than his size or digits. Odds are outstanding the Steelers will add at least one receiver, and while that receiver may not make a run at his job right away, a lack of production might compel them to ask why so much optimism has been placed on a player who hasn't done anything as of yet.