NFL: Wheaton hoping to catch on with Steelers
LATROBE — Markus Wheaton realizes the pressure is there, but he doesn’t mind.
The Pittsburgh Steelers’ second-year wide receiver figures to be the best shot to replace departed starter Emmanuel Sanders, so Wheaton is OK with the early elevated expectations despite a bumpy rookie year in which he struggled to stay healthy.
“I feed off the pressure and embrace it,” Wheaton said. “Pressure is always good, I feel. Pressure can push you to get a lot better or it can break you. I feel that the pressure is always good for me because it always pushes me to get better.”
The rejuvenated Wheaton welcomed the start of training camp after a lost rookie season that resulted in two broken fingers and just six receptions for 64 yards.
“It was frustrating not being able to progress like you want to progress,” Wheaton said. “Having a setback, it feels like you’re starting over a little bit.”
Wheaton is indeed starting over, but that might not be a bad thing. He has full mobility of his pinkie finger, which required minor surgery, and said he’s healthy. Wheaton, a third-round pick out of Oregon State in 2013, also went through full offseason workouts for the first time and feels comfortable entering his second training camp.
“I’m just more relaxed,” Wheaton said. “I can go out there and play whereas last year I was thinking a lot. I feel like when you’re thinking you can’t play at the speed you want to play at.”
He’s working on his relationship with Ben Roethlisberger too, joining his quarterback and a group of teammates in California during the spring. The extra work already appears to be paying off as Roethlisberger floated a deep pass down the left sideline during practice on Sunday and Wheaton sprinted between two defenders to track it down. Roethlisberger expects more of the same this season.
“I’ve put a lot on him,” Roethlisberger said. “The expectation level is high. He was doing some really good things last year until he got hurt and kind of lost some confidence I think in himself, but he’s got it back.”
And he’s got an opportunity to turn that confidence into significant playing time.
Sanders left for Denver a season after finishing with productive 67 catches for 740 yards and six touchdowns. Jerricho Cotchery, an 11-year veteran, followed suit to Carolina.
The Steelers brought in Lance Moore, who spent his first eight seasons in New Orleans, and speedy six-year veteran Darrius Heyward-Bey. They also used a fourth-round draft pick on 6-foot-4 Martavis Bryant, who starred at Clemson.
Wheaton looks to have the early inside edge on the starting job, lining up with the first team throughout organized team activities and minicamp, but he is still motivated to earn his spot.
“Whether you’re a veteran that’s been here for a long time, or you’re an undrafted free agent, you still have something to prove,” Wheaton said. “You still have a lot to prove to hold onto your spot or to get a spot.”
Moore feels it’s a good outlook to carry.
“This is the time where it really counts,” Moore said. “You can show up in the offseason when we’re in shorts and do a lot of great things, but once you really start to put stuff on film in training camp, that’s when the coaches are going to be like ‘ok, this guy is ready. He definitely has the ability and the skills. He is going to be an emerging player.”
Wheaton said it doesn’t matter where he plays. He learned intricacies of the outside and the slot and is OK with no matter where he lines up as long as he’s healthy.
“I just want to be on the field and make plays for my team,” Wheaton said.
NOTES: RB Le’Veon Bell left Sunday’s practice with tightness in his hamstring, while Bryant (groin) and WR C.J. Goodwin (shoulder) also sat out. ... C/G David Snow has a foot fracture that requires surgery. Sunday’s practice ended 10 minutes early because of a thunderstorm. The Steelers will practice in pads for the first time today.