he Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Ed Bouchette has lamented Mike Tomlin’s mastery of the “informationless press conference” on more than one occasion. But in this week’s conference, Mike Tomlin shared a news bit that is important on several fronts:
- Darrius Heyward-Bey will start opposite Antonio Brown vs. the Ravens
This announcement of Darrius Heyward-Bey’s starter status Steelers Nation three important pieces of information.
First, the move represents a huge win for Darrius Heyward-Bey. When the Steelers signed Darrius Heyward-Bey during the 2014 off season, you could safely classify the move as another bargin-basement free agency signing made out of desperation by the salary capped Steelers. The Oakland Raiders had made the former Maryland Terrapin the 7th pick overall in the 2009 NFL Draft, and he was now signing a free agent minimum deal.
But Heyward-Bey buckled his chin strap, and reinvented himself on special teams, settling for a mere 5 pass targets from Ben Roethlisberger during the 2014 season. Darrius Heyward-Bey got more opportunities during the 2015 season, earned a new contract, and teamed with Landry Jones to give the Steelers offense some fireworks in their loss to the Patriots.
- Second, the move tells us that Sammie Coates still isn’t ready to assume the number 2 slot, either because of injury or his development.
The third piece of information perhaps carries some ominous implications for the incumbent starter Markus Wheaton.
Worse News Ahead for Markus Wheaton?
The Pittsburgh Steelers made Markus Wheaton their third round pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, with an eye towards grooming him as Mike Wallace’s replacement. Injuries ruined Wheaton’s rookie season, but he rebounded to start 11 games in 2014.
Fans won’t soon forgive or forget Wheaton’s drop in the 2014 road loss to the Ravens, but during latter half of the season, Wheaton flew under the radar to make any number of drive-extending catches. Wheaton also had a shaky start to 2015, but came on strong late in the season.
- With Martavis Bryant serving a season-long suspension, Markus Wheaton looked primed to help fill the void in the Steelers high-octane offense.
Unfortunately it hasn’t worked out this way. Perhaps the one negative piece of news to come out of the Steelers preseason offensive masterpiece over the New Orleans Saints was Markus Wheaton’s shoulder injury. Wheaton missed Pittsburgh’s first two games, making his return in the Steelers disastrous loss to the Eagles.
- Markus Wheaton certainly doesn’t deserve blame for a team-wide “Below the line” performance, but his drops set the tone early on.
Wheaton did rebound with a nice touchdown catch vs. the Kansas City Chiefs, and caught two short passes against the Jets. He’s been injured since and Darrius Heyward-Bey starter status is not good for Wheaton, neither the news on Ladarius Green.
- If the Steelers activate Ladarius Green they must let someone else go to make room on the roster.
Markus Wheaton’s demotion despite his apparent return to health could be the first sign that he is a possible candidate to get a visit from The Turk. The Observer-Reporter’s Dale Lolley has thrown out that Wheaton’s roster spot could be in jeopardy, although Lolley did not indicate that he was basing this on information gleamed from inside sources. ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler also suggested Wheaton might be a trade target.
Of course, the NFL trading deadline came and passed without a serious whisper about Wheaton being on the block so Fowler’s comment was more about filling space in a mandatory ESPN column than anything else. But the fact that two major Steelers beat writers are even classifying a former starter as dispensable is not something to ignore.
- It’s unusual for the Steelers to cut a starter at midseason, but it did happen with Isaac Redman in 2014.
The odds are against the Steelers cutting Markus Wheaton to make room for Ladarius Green, but clearly Mike Tomlin and Todd Haley’s decision to name Darrius Heyward-Bey starter that Markus Wheaton’s stake in the Steelers offense is declining.