When Markus Wheaton was drafted in 2013, the Steelers' wide receiver group had just lost the speedster Mike Wallace to the Miami Dolphins in free agency, but had Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown as legitimate starters at the position. Wheaton's 4.45 40 yard dash time at the NFL Scouting Combine, as well as his 2994 yards and 16 touchdowns in his collegiate career at Oregon State, earned a status that got him picked in the 3rd round of the NFL draft by Pittsburgh, the same in which both Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders were picked in their respective drafts. His rookie season was marred with injury, and he only caught six passes for 64 yards.
2014 saw an emergence of Wheaton's production in Pittsburgh's passing game, as he logged 53 catches for 644 yards and two touchdowns. He also recorded five catches on six targets for 66 yards. Wheaton's rise was accompanied by the emergence of 2014 rookie Martavis Bryant, who put up less yards than Wheaton, but hauled in eight touchdowns. Those two players backed up the best receiver in the NFL in the past two years, Antonio Brown, and as a trio, complete a strong receiving corps for Ben Roethlisberger to work with in 2015.
But as more young stars begin to come to fruition for the Steelers, questions have to be asked as to who will the team be able to afford to keep. Wheaton is going to battle with Bryant over who will be the second option at wide receiver under Brown, and history has shown this franchise, especially at the receiver position, that when you have an abundance of receivers who make plays in their early years, it will be difficult to retain all of them after their rookie contract.
Looking at past successful receivers who played under other Steelers' greats in the Heinz Field era of the Steelers, there's definitely a trend of talented players whom were snatched up in free agency that played behind leading Pittsburgh receivers, Hines Ward and Antonio Brown.
Plaxico Burress was the eighth overall pick of the 2000 NFL draft, but lasted five seasons with the team until he went to the New York Giants in 2005.
Antwaan Randle El was a second round pick who posed as a dual threat, and averaged 503 yards and just under two touchdowns in his first four years in the NFL, all with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Randle El would get paid good money by the Washington Redskins, but never got close to having 1000 yards receiving in a season.
Nate Washington, an undrafted free agent for the Steelers, was a contributor to the Super Bowl championship team of 2008-2009. In his three years with the team after his rookie season, he averaged four touchdowns a season and was a solid option behind Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes, but was taken by the Tennessee Titans in the offseason following Super Bowl XLIII.
Emmanuel Sanders was a third round pick for the team that produced similar yardage to Wheaton in 2012 and 2013, but went to the Denver Broncos and recorded 1404 yards with Peyton Manning.
Now the Steelers have two young receivers in Bryant and Wheaton who are both still in their rookie contracts. While Bryant has only completed one season and isn't an immediate concern, Wheaton is entering his third season and isn't too far off from being a free agency concern for the Steelers. His second season saw a significant increase in his numbers, but with a third season on its way, his ceiling for production could be very high, and Steelers fans have every reason to be excited about what is to come.
When looking at both Sanders' and Randle El's careers, it was their third seasons when Pittsburgh saw a boost in their production and they became a more prominent threat in the offense. Wheaton's second season has already displayed similar numbers to what Randle El, Sanders and Nate Washington did in their third seasons with the Steelers, so the fact he has more time to show an increase in what he contributes adds to the anticipation for the 2015 season.
But down the road, if Wheaton increases his production, or even continues the level of success he had in 2014, can the Steelers really expect to financially keep him around? Wheaton could become a rising star in the NFL this year if things go right for the former Oregon State Beaver, and if it does, he could get paid a lot of money by whichever teams are lacking at the receiver position after the 2016 NFL season. Most likely, expect the Steelers to not be that team.
Pittsburgh was fortunate enough to pay Antonio Brown at a rate that keeps his cap number between $9,787,500 and $12,037,500 over the final three years of his current contract, but with a group of young players that will need to be paid in the coming years, such as Cameron Heyward and David DeCastro, Wheaton may fall to the wayside of priorities for the team to keep. There are plenty of wide receivers that can play second fiddle, or even third fiddle, in loaded offenses and might not command as much money as a young speedy talent like Wheaton might in two years time.
Wheaton will seek to prove his value to the team along with Bryant for 2015, but if both continue on the trajectory with which they were headed after 2014, they could both be hot commodities in the NFL when their current contracts expire. Wheaton's value just might prove to be too much when the time comes for him to stay or leave Pittsburgh.
It's very exciting to see a young group of athletic receivers such as Brown, Bryant and Wheaton in Pittsburgh, but how long can this trio expect to be together? Watching in 2015 for how all three develop around each other will certainly be one of the primary stories for the franchise moving forward.