Pittsburgh Steelers: Who will make the big catches this year?


Jul 29, 2013; Latrobe, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Plaxico Burress (80) jokes around with Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown (84) during practice at St. Vincent College. Mandatory Credit: Vincent Pugliese-USA TODAY Sports

Veteran linebacker Larry Foote said it best recently in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette: No matter the odds, the Pittsburgh Steelers will be contenders this season because they have the “goods.”

Those “goods” he referred to are quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and the NFL’s No. 1 defense in 2012. According to ESPN QB expert Ron Jaworski, Ben Roethlisberger is the seventh-best NFL signal-caller.

Jaws has it wrong. The Steelers have the fourth best NFL QB on their roster — just behind Aaron Rogers, Tom Brady, and Peyton Manning. And Roethlisberger is the No. 1 quarterback outside the pocket.

Of course, if the Steelers don’t deliver a good set of receivers for him to throw the ball to, Roethlisberger won’t have a chance to prove it. The top two targets from 2012 won’t be available when the real games begin in September, as Mike Wallace is a Miami Dolphin and tight end Heath Miller is still recovering from his late-season knee injury.

Fortunately the Steelers were able to keep their predicted No. 2 receiver Emmanuel Sanders after he nearly left for New England. But behind Sanders and top pass-catcher Antonio Brown, who will be grabbing the spirals this season? The Steelers will likely keep five or six wide receivers and four tight ends.

1. #84 Antonio Brown (Split End)
2. #88 Emmanuel Sanders (Flanker)

Incumbents: #80 Plaxico Burress (12 years NFL), #89 Jerricho Cotchery (10 years NFL), #18 David Gilreath (2 years NFL)
On the Rise: Markus Wheaton (R-Oregon State), Justin Brown (R-Oklahoma), Reggie Dunn (R-Utah), #14 Derrick Moye (signed at end of 2012 season), #17 J.D. Woods (R-West Virginia), #19 Kashif Moore (1 year NFL-Connecticut)

May 3, 2013; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers sixth round draft pick receiver Justin Brown (15) participates in drills during Steelers rookie mincamp and orientation at the UPMC Sports Complex. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The upcoming exhibition games will be used to sort out which of these nine receivers deserve the remaining three to four spots. In all  likelihood, it will be four spots at the start the season due to the situation at tight end.

With both Miller and hybrid David Johnson both on the PUP list, the pickings are slim at tight end. This benefits the taller receivers such as 6-foot-5 Plaxico Burress, 6-3 Justin Brown and 6-5 Derrick Moye, who are all vying to serve as the red-zone target while Miller is out.

Burress has reportedly been getting work on end-zone fades in training camp. But rookie Brown isn’t making it an easy decision. He was drafted in the sixth round for his good hands and punt-return abilities. So far in camp, he has demonstrated the ability to get open and catch the ball in the red-zone traffic. If he wins the punt returner role, it’s still possible he and Burress could both remain on the roster.

When Wallace left, most believed Cotchery would slide into the slot position as the No. 3 WR. That was before rookie Wheaton arrived in Pittsburgh. Wheaton’s development may signal the end of Cotchery’s time in Pittsburgh.

Wheaton has assimilated quickly into offensive coordinator Todd Haley’s offense and is already practicing as the No. 3 slot receiver. He runs smooth routes and has shown the quickness he displayed at Oregon State. He also has 4.3 speed in the 40 and is strong (20 bench reps at combine). Even Roethlisberger has remarked on what a “great” job Wheaton is doing thus far in camp. Wheaton is also a candidate to return punts.

Reggie Dunn, Kashif Moore, and David Gilreath are all fighting for a returner spot to make the team. Dunn is incredibly fast (4.24 speed) and holds the NCAA record for kick returns for TDs (four).

He will need to beat out LaRod Stephens-Howling at kick returner and improve his punt returning skills to earn a helmet. Gilreath is yet another under 6-feet tall receiver who fought his way onto the active roster last season. He also fielded two punt returns last season

At tight end the Steelers have last year’s backup Paulson and Matt Spaeth. Jamie McCoy (2012 Steelers practice squad) sits in as the No. 3 TE and back-up fullback. TE Peter Tuitopu from San Jose State was picked up in June after David Johnson had a setback in his recovery. Better hope the injury bug is done attacking this group as neither McCoy nor Tuitopu are ready to take over.

Marking down Wheaton as the slot receiver leaves the veterans Burress, Cotchery, and Gilreath fighting it out with a slew of young players. On Saturday they get their first chance to make an impression on coach Mike Tomlin.