One of the interesting, and important battles, which will take place during the preseason and early regular season is for the flanker WR position. Darrius Heyward-Bey has won over a lot of fans with his team-first attitude and timely contributions in a limited role, but I'm willing to bet that more than a few of you shuddered when you saw the caption for this article. DHB is a nice guy, but nobody wants him starting. Or do we?
No, we really don't. I'm just messing with you. Of course we all want Sammie Coates to breakout this year with the same level of playmaking ability as Martavis Bryant, but more consistency (and less drugs). That would put Markus Wheaton in the slot and DHB as the WR4 in spread formations and top backup, which is where the Steelers can really get great value from him.
I'm just saying it actually could be possible for Heyward-Bey to start, and it wouldn't be the end of the world. The worst case scenario (barring injury) is that Coates fails to develop much, trading off with DHB for slot duties while Wheaton mans the outside opposite Brown just like he did before Bryant's breakout in 2014. Fortunately, that scenario is unlikely. That's partly because Wheaton looks to have taken a real step forward last year and partly because Heyward-Bey could legitimately come and save the day.
All it would actually take for that scenario to take place is for Coates to not be ready to start. I'm not suggesting that DHB is better than Wheaton (although I'd leave that option open), but that given their skill sets it makes sense for DHB to play outside at flanker while Wheaton mans the slot in 3 WR sets. In 2TE formations, you might see Wheaton or Heyward-Bey lined up as the second WR. He might very well have fewer targets and even fewer snaps than Wheaton if Wheaton plays more in 2TE formations, but it could be a competition, he would at least be a regular feature on the outside, and all it would take would be a 3rd round boom or bust prospect not having a breakout sophomore year.
That's a little sobering no matter how optimistic you are about DHB, but, like I said before, it wouldn't necessarily be the end of the world.
Let's start by observing that Heyward-Bey is fast, and by fast I don't mean fast, I mean fast. As in, faster than Mike Wallace, faster than Martavis Bryant, too-fast-to-be-included-in-friendly-footraces fast. At only 29, there's no reason to believe he's lost a step either. He may just be a one trick pony, but he can at least force opponents to respect that trick.
Throughout his career, he's been held down by a combination of poor quarterbacks, bad coaching, unrealistic expectations, and an all around lack of offensive weapons that forced him to bear the focus of the defense's attention. He still put up 975 yards and 4 TD's in 14 starts with Carson Palmer in 2011, following up with 606 yards and 5 TD's the next year. Really, though, his value to the Steelers next year has more to do with his ability to play a role rather than the total production.
If forced to start, Heyward-Bey's involvement would increase, but his role wouldn't have to expand. He can be plenty serviceable just as a vertical threat. Mike Wallace and Torrey Smith are good examples of players who provide a fairly significant contribution just as vertical threats. Heyward-Bey can be that guy on the outside while Wheaton, Bell, and James/Green threaten the middle of the field. Heyward-Bey has been criticized for his hands, but his catch rate last year was the same as Bryant's, the same as Wallace in his last year in Pittsburgh (though slightly worse than Wallace's career average), and better than Torrey Smith's career average.
Mike Wallace and Torrey Smith have both found starting roles in the league without being able to do much more than run in a straight line fast, and their teams have had success with them. Heyward-Bey compares favorably to both players, and should be able to achieve the same results. The Steelers have a wealth of good receiving options over the middle, which means they don't need DHB to do anything but what he does best - run fast in a straight line. In fact, besides screens, that's really all Martavis Bryant did with much degree of success.
With that in mind, I'm going to suggest that it's possible DHB could provide us with sufficient and even solid offensive balance as a starter. I'm not saying Heyward-Bey is going to become a pro bowler even in Pittsburgh, far from it. The point is that the Steelers don't necessarily need a pro-bowler opposite Antonio Brown. Heyward-Bey's skill set and ability to contribute is limited, but there is plenty of opportunity and value for that limited role, as the Steelers have all their other receiving bases well covered, and I think he's definitely good enough for our offense to be very effective even if he sees substantial playing time.