There exists a common belief, particularly among fantasy players, that NFL wide receivers tend to enjoy a "breakout year" sometime in their third season in the league. Pittsburgh Steelers WR Markus Wheaton is a leading candidate to see his proverbial third-year breakout arrive one year too late.
Wheaton didn't do much in his rookie year, though he wasn't expected to, particularly given the fact that he was playing behind Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders and Jericho Cotchery. After Sanders and Cotchery departed prior to the 2014 season, Wheaton was expected to transition smoothly into a more prominent role. Despite being no higher than fifth on Ben Roethlisberger's route tree, Wheaton still caught 58 passes for 644 yards that season. His receptions took a slight dip in 2015, but his yards (749) and touchdowns (5) both saw a nice boost.
Wheaton is expected to assume an even larger role in Pittsburgh's offense this season, especially since WR Martavis Bryant will be sidelined for the duration of the season for violating the league's substance abuse policy.
Though Wheaton would almost certainly prefer the circumstances to be more favorable to his teammate, his opportunity for a career year has never been better.
There's no doubting that Wheaton's statistics thus far have been relatively pedestrian. However, it can be argued (albeit objectively) that Wheaton's gross numbers aren't wholly representative of what he brings to the table. Sure, his 749 yards last season ranked just 48th in the NFL, but his 17.0 yards per catch ranked 10th among players with at least 25 catches. He was fourth in the NFL in that category among players with at least 40 catches. Additionally, over 70 percent of Wheaton's receptions were good for first downs last season. That, too, is one of the highest percentages in the league. Finally, Wheaton dropped just two passes last season, making his 2.3 percent drop percentage the third-lowest on the Steelers among players with at least 50 targets (bonus points if you can guess No. 1).
These statistics, at least in my mind, tell a bigger story; Wheaton is no one-trick pony. His impressive yards-per-catch average indicates that he's a reliable deep threat, and the fact that he was responsible for 33 first downs proves that he has emerged as an effective security blanket. Most importantly, Wheaton, while admittedly not as dynamic as Bryant, appears to have much better hands than his lanky counterpart.
Now, all of this isn't to say that we can expect Wheaton to have a year-three breakout like Dez Bryant, Demaryius Thomas or his fellow 2013-draftee, DeAndre Hopkins. However, it's prudent to point out that Wheaton is entering a contract year. Wheaton might not command Julio Jones or A.J. Green money, but a five-year, $35-40 million contract is certainly within his wheelhouse if he has a better-than-decent year.
Given the circumstances surrounding Pittsburgh's offense (re: they are really, really good this year) and the golden opportunity that's been involuntarily bestowed upon the former third-round draft pick, it's not crazy to think that Wheaton could end up with 60 or 70 catches and somewhere between 900 to 1,100 yards. Before you jump down to the comment section to berate me for that guess, consider that 26 players gained 1,000 receiving yards last season. Eight of them (Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker; Larry Fitzgerald and John Brown; Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns; and Demaryius Thomas and Sanders) played on the same team and in passing offenses far less imposing than what Pittsburgh will field in 2016.
The return of Le'Veon Bell, the emergence of Sammie Coates and the addition of Ladarius Green could undoubtedly impede Wheaton's potential monster season, but it's tough to imagine he loses too many targets to his teammates. If this does indeed wind up being Wheaton's final season as a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers, you can count on it being a good one.