As if missing Martavis Bryant for the entire 2016 NFL season wasn't a tough blow for the Pittsburgh Steelers offense, missing their No. 2 wide receiver Markus Wheaton certainly won't help as the team prepares to head to FedEx Field to face the Washington Redskins on Monday night.
If you didn't notice, Wheaton was rule out for the game Monday in the final injury report released by the team Saturday, and not puts a major cramp into the Steelers offensive depth chart at wide receiver. When realizing the team will be without Wheaton, it brings up the question, "Who will step up in his place?"
First, it should be noted fans often overlook what Wheaton does on the field. No, he isn't the electrifying playmaker like Bryant and Brown, but what he does is run tremendous routes and has a very reliable set of hands which Ben Roethlisberger trusts in critical situations throughout the game. Replacing him, and his production, won't be as simple as just throwing another player onto the field.
What it does do is give a tremendous opportunity to three players in particular. Sammie Coates, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Eli Rogers, in no particular order. This trio was certainly going to see the field in Week 1 if Wheaton were in the lineup, but with him out of this game it only increases their snaps, and opportunities to prove their worth moving forward. To figure out which player will be used more, you have to look closer at their individual skills and positions.
Wheaton would be moved around the offense, but was primarily a 'Z' receiver in the Steelers formation, opposite Antonio Brown. It should be noted the Steelers offense isn't cut-and-dry, and Brown moves around the several offensive receiver positions. However, the 'Z' position is one Eli Rogers has played much this preseason, and shouldn't be expected to see much time outside of the slot in Week 1.
With that said, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Sammie Coates certainly are the more experienced players to step up and fill the void left by Wheaton's absence in the season opener.
Some will suggest Heyward-Bey be the player who sees the majority of the snaps, and rightfully so. After all, Heyward-Bey has proven himself as reliable and still having the ability to stretch the field and take some of the heat off of Brown on the other side.
Some will point to Sammie Coates as an up-and-coming player who is poised for a breakout, if just given the chance. In the 2015 AFC Divisional Playoff game, Coates showed just how dynamic he can be with the football in his hands, and although his preseason performances were sporadic and inconsistent, he has the look of a 'gamer'. A player who steps up to the stage they are currently on, and the prime time stage could shine bright for Coates on Monday Night Football.
The answer to the question of who will fill in for Wheaton is simple: All of the above.
The Steelers will continue to move players around, particularly Antonio Brown to give him matchups which will help increase his production, and by doing so will rely on Rogers, Coates and Heyward-Bey to all fill in at the other receiver positions. Ultimately, the team could very well stick with the hot hand on Monday night, and there should be solace knowing the injury to Wheaton just happens to be one of the team's deepest positions, in terms of talent.
Some will want a prediction and not a vague assessment, and in this case I have a feeling Coates and Rogers will shine bright under the lights of the NFL's prime time stage.