Can Markus Wheaton Effectively Replace Emmanuel Sanders in Pittsburgh?

It is time for second-year wide receiver Markus Wheaton to emerge in the Steel City. Is he up to the task?

The Pittsburgh Steelers enter the 2014 season without two of their three top wide receivers from the 2013 campaign. Jerricho Cotchery is now in Carolina, while Emmanuel Sanders is in Denver. As a result, opportunity is knocking for second-year wide receiver Markus Wheaton to make some moves.

All reports from Steelers camp have indicated that Wheaton is running with the starters. Pittsburgh knows they need their second-year receiver to take a huge step forward in order for the offense to pick up where it left off at the end of last season. They also wouldn't be giving him this opportunity if he wasn't up for the challenge.

In a recent interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, offensive coordinator Todd Haley said that Wheaton is progressing quickly and has been impressive in OTA's. He went on to say, "He has a different confidence level in what he's doing and what we’re doing.” He mentioned that he was gaining a comfort level with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, which will be part of the key to his success in 2014.

The Steelers passing game emerged over the second half of the 2013 season, as offensive coordinator Todd Haley allowed Ben Roethlisberger to take over the offense. In 2013, Roethlisberger led the Steelers to the eighth-ranked passing offense when adjusted for strength of schedule, and Big Ben personally ranked seventh in the NFL according to our Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) metric. What's most impressive - and this goes to show how important it was to let Big Ben do his thing in the no huddle - was that the Steelers Adjusted Passing NEP rank through Week 8 last year ranked 18th in the NFL. In other words, they jumped 10 spots within the metric in just about half the season.

The improvement in the passing game doesn't automatically signal production for Wheaton in 2014 though. A healthy Heath Miller, veteran Lance Moore and rookie Martavius Bryant are all going to be involved. What Wheaton is being handed is opportunity. In fantasy circles, numbers matter most. The departed Sanders and Cotchery vacated a combined 113 catches, 1,342 yards and 16 touchdowns. What piece of that pie will Wheaton see?

Small Shoes to Fill

Markus Wheaton entered the 2013 season with expectations to contribute in the Steelers passing game as a rookie. However, numerous hand and finger injuries prevented him from making any impact on the field. Wheaton only caught six passes on 151 offensive snaps all season long, three in both Weeks 4 and 6.

Wheaton collected an 83.33% Success Rate according to our metrics - five of his six passes ended up contributing positively towards his NEP score. That makes sense, as five of those six receptions went for first downs, showing his ability to move the chains. Although Wheaton had a much smaller sample size, his rate compares favorably to Emmanuel Sanders 73.13% Success Rate, which ranked dead last among the 16 NFL receivers with 60 to 80 catches last year. Sanders struggled at times with consistently catching the ball in big moments, while Wheaton is known for his sure hands. That's a positive for Wheaton.

Within our advanced metrics among receivers with 60-80 receptions, Emmanuel Sanders may not be as big of a loss as it appears for the Steelers passing game. His company within this reception group includes 16 standouts in the NFL, like Vincent Jackson, Wes Welker, Roddy White, Victor Cruz, Mike Wallace and Steve Smith.

When looking at Target NEP, a metric that looks at how a wide receiver impacts his team per target he receives, Sanders posted a 10.42 mark in 2013. That total was only higher than Jacksonville's Cecil Shorts (-1.86) among our 60-80 reception group. Considering Sanders had Ben Roethlisberger tossing the rock his way, that's not very inspiring.

Sanders finished 9th out of 16 in catch rate at 59.82%, but finished dead last in reception successes with only 49. That was five fewer than Steve Smith, who was second-to-last at 54 reception successes. Sanders also finished considerably lower than any of the other wide receivers in the group with a 55.82 Total NEP (receiving plus rushing) rating. Steve Smith was, again, second-to-last with a 74.56 mark in that metric, far more productive than Sanders rating.

The worst part of this is that 2013 marked Emmanuel Sanders' best season, racking up 67 catches on 112 targets. If Wheaton does see a similar workload to what Sanders had in 2013, it seems as though he could easily outproduce Sanders given Sanders' lack of efficiency.

One realistic data point for comparison is Antonio Brown's leap from his freshman to sophomore seasons. In year two, Brown bettered his rookie season by 53 catches and 941 yards. Wheaton may not take that much of a step forward, but somewhere close would make the Steelers and fantasy investors very happy. I, for one, like Wheaton's chances.

Will Wheaton Emerge in 2014?

For fantasy football purposes, many times it comes down to talent aligning with opportunity. Speed, soft hands and great route running helped Wheaton excel during his time at Oregon State. The Steelers have had incredible success drafting wide receivers in recent years, and Wheaton appears to be the next in line. All he needed was an opportunity.

The biggest difference between Sanders and Wheaton is that Wheaton could see more deep targets in the Steelers passing game. Sanders had good speed, but Wheaton has blazing speed and consistently beat defenders deep in college and in the preseason last year.

With Lance Moore and Heath Miller taking many of the underneath routes, Wheaton will be able stretch the field and have opportunities for the long touchdowns that Mike Wallace became famous for during his time in Pittsburgh.

Overall, Markus Wheaton is a prime candidate for a breakout second year receiver. Take a flier on him late in your drafts, and you could just have yourself a gem. If anything were to happen to Antonio Brown, Wheaton could enter the WR2 conversation very quickly.