Around The League will profile the top 25 players we see Making the Leap in 2014. No. 20 on the list: Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Markus Wheaton.
Why Markus is on the list
This is a time of transition in the Steelers' wide receiving corps. Over the past 15 months, Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery have departed via free agency.
Antonio Brown is the undisputed No. 1 receiver. Lance Moore, signed in the offseason, should slide into Cotchery's role in the slot. Wheaton has a golden opportunity to take over Wallace's lingering vacancy as the X receiver.
A third-round pick in the 2013 draft, Wheaton has all the tools to become a favorite target of Ben Roethlisberger. A disciplined route runner with plus speed (4.4-flat forty at 2013 combine), strong hands and a high football IQ, Wheaton looked ready to break out as a rookie after an impressive preseason.
Disappointment followed in the regular season. Wheaton managed just six receptions and missed four games with a hand injury that eventually required surgery.
"It's tough to play wide receiver with broken fingers," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said in April, via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "I look forward to him taking a significant step for us. I know that we need him to."
The talent is undeniably there, and Tomlin doesn't hide the fact that Pittsburgh is depending on Wheaton to become a contributor. We think he'll step up.
The finger injuries had a detrimental effect on Wheaton's learning curve. He was on the field for just 161 snaps, including six games where he saw five snaps or less. He made one start, a Week 4 loss to the Minnesota Vikings in which he finished with three receptions for 26 yards. If the rookie year wasn't a complete washout, it was close.
Wheaton's biggest competition for the X receiver role is Martavis Bryant, a fourth-round pick out of Clemson. Bryant has the ability to develop into a legitimate red-zone threat for the Steelers, but consider it a surprise -- and a considerable disappointment for team brass -- if Wheaton can't hold off Bryant for the starting job.
Can Wheaton stay healthy? And if so, can he pick up the nuances of the Steelers' playbook? Roethlisberger said last month that Wheaton and Moore will be challenged to get up to speed with the Steelers' no-huddle offense, which the team found great success with in the back half of the 2013 season.
Wheaton's biggest challenge might be on the mental side.
Expectations are old hat for Wheaton. During his first training camp, former Steelers safety Ryan Clark said Wheaton was already a better and more complete receiver than Mike Wallace. Now Wheaton must prove he can capably fill his predecessor's shoes. Can Wheaton come close to replicating Wallace's production?
Wheaton should win a starting job out of camp this time around. Bryant will be in a developmental stage and free-agent signing Darrius Heyward-Bey is, well, Darrius Heyward-Bey. Barring injury, count on Wheaton to keep his gig and become a mainstay in Pittsburgh's attack.
Asking for a Pro Bowl-level season is pushing it, but we expect Wheaton to earn Roethlisberger's trust as the season progresses and make the progression the team hoped for in 2013.
Will Wheaton and Brown be in the conversation as the NFL's best wide receiver duo by January? Probably not, but don't be surprised if they crack the back end of the list this time next year.
In the latest edition of the "Around The League Podcast," the heroes talk "Hard Knocks" before delving into a new batch of rookie whispers.