Is Markus Wheaton the Odd Man Out in Pittsburgh?

Was Wheaton's 2014 breakout legit, and can he keep it going in 2015?

I’m about to drop some real nerd references on you today.

Video games are a huge, booming industry these days, and it seems almost everyone in Generation Y owns at least one console. Since the dawn of virtual entertainment, however, it’s been computer games that have been the bastion of hardcore nerdery. The focus of computer or PC gaming has always been on storytelling and innovative game mechanics, and one development studio has exemplified these ideas.

Valve -- the developers behind Half-Life, Portal, and Team Fortress -- constructed a rich, engaging universe for gamers, full of cross-references to the other games, and never assuming the players were anything less than intelligent. For years, we’ve been tempted by rumors that they will be making full trilogies of each game, wrapping up the stories more completely. Every computer gamer worth their salt has discussed a Valve universe conspiracy theory at one point, and we want some answers. Still, however, we merely remain taunted by the idea of what might be.

Such is the sentiment of Pittsburgh Steelers fans and fantasy fanatics alike when discussing the outlook for third-year receiver Markus Wheaton. Wheaton was essentially redshirted in his rookie year but appeared to be poised for breakout in 2014. Very few of us counted on rookie Martavis Bryant usurping his snaps so fully by the end of the year. With the Steelers unbelievably re-signing Darrius “Why God Why” Heyward-Bey, will Wheaton still have a chance to shine? Or have his fantasy chances been hacked beyond repair?

The Science Gets Done

Let’s start with Wheaton himself. The former Oregon State Beaver -- whose skill set is eerily similar to former teammate Brandin Cooks -- got almost no run in his first year with the Steelers, after they selected him in the third round of the 2013 NFL Draft (79th overall). He saw a grand total of 13 targets and converted those into just 6 catches, as the Steelers used veteran wideout Antonio Brown to be the primary slot player that season.

In 2014, however, both Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery departed via free agency, and Wheaton seemed like a shoo-in for playing time. Maybe it wouldn’t be as an outside receiver -- putting him and Brown, both diminutive players, on the perimeter might not be a great strategy -- but offensive coordinator Todd Haley is notorious for creating mismatches well with his offensive pieces.

Wheaton did get a small chance to make some magic and greatly increased his counting stats. The table below shows his production in yards receiving, receptions, targets, and receiving touchdowns between his two years in the league. The improvement was drastic.

YearRecTargetRec YardRec TD

Wheaton was able to upgrade his production by a factor of 10 in both receptions and receiving yardage, just by receiving more snaps. His physical profile doesn’t indicate high touchdown production anyway, but he still was able to bring in his first two of his career in 2014. By NFL standards, it seems that his was a true breakout sophomore year. But will this be sustainable when we look behind the box score, as well as at his situation?

The Cake Is a Lie

So, how can we assess whether Wheaton’s breakout was legit or a flash in the pan? It becomes easy with numberFire’s advanced metric, Net Expected Points (NEP). NEP uses the foundational unit of expected points to assess the outcome of each play, which takes into account down and distance and the historical chance of scoring from that point on the field. The player’s production is then recorded based on how much he advances the team probability of scoring throughout the entire game.

The table below shows Wheaton’s production by Reception NEP and Target NEP. How does this hold up?

YearRec NEPRec NEP/TargetTarget NEPCatch %Success %

Not only did his overall value increase drastically, but also his per-play value skyrocketed in his second year in the league. By per-target Reception NEP, Wheaton ranked 58th in 2014 among pass-catchers (all wide receivers and tight ends) with at least 50 targets, after not even qualifying by volume for that amount in his rookie year. His Success Rate -- the percentage of plays in which the player made a positive contribution to NEP -- even rose, and his Catch Rate went up by about 20% as well. By all measures, Wheaton looks like he will be a solid contributor to the Black and Yellow going forward.

Gotta Go To Space

The only question is what his playing time will look like. Will Wheaton see enough snaps to make a meaningful dent for the Steelers in 2015 and onward? The depth chart isn’t so strong, as Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant should be his only competitors among other wide receivers. Heath Miller’s physical ability is waning as well, and he shouldn’t be a huge concern.

If the Steelers insist on running Darrius Heyward-Bey out there, though, this could prove costly to Wheaton’s playing time. In any logical world, this wouldn’t be a problem, but we can’t rule it out.

We can only hope he gets his completed trilogy and that the series keeps going onward. I have high hopes for it.