Rookie Wheaton makes an early impression

PITTSBURGH -- The injuries that have hampered running back Le'Veon Bell have also obscured the early returns on the Steelers' 2013 NFL draft haul are promising. It is way too early to evaluate the rookies as I am a firm believer that it takes at least three years to accurately gauge a draft class.

But first-round pick Jarvis Jones is pushing Jason Worilds at right outside linebacker after playing extensively with the first-team defense last Monday night at Washington. The former Georgia star looks like he will contribute this season even if he doesn't beat out Worilds.

Fourth-round pick Shamarko Thomas, meanwhile, should provide much-needed depth behind Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark at safety. He has impressed with his physical style of play, and Thomas had six tackles and a forced fumble in a 24-13 loss to Washington.

Then there is third-round pick Markus Wheaton.

The wide receiver has been a quick study after missing most of the Steelers' offseason practices because of a rule that doesn't allow draft picks to report to their new team until their school's spring quarter has ended.

"We're going to get some good work from [No.] 11," quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said of Wheaton. "I believe that."

Roethlisberger and Wheaton didn't start working together until training camp but the latter has made quite an impression on the Steelers' franchise quarterback -- and the player whose locker is next to Wheaton's at the team's practice facility.

There is a lot to like about Wheaton. He was extremely productive in college -- his 227 career catches are the most in Oregon State history -- and he put his blazing speed to use as a wide receiver and return man as well as a sprinter for the Beavers' track team.

What has resonated with Roethlisberger is how much Wheaton carries himself like a professional.

"You don't see him make the same mistake twice," Roethlisberger said. "So when you tell him something he works on it and to me that's big when it's a young guy. If they make the same mistake over and over it means they're not focused, they're not working at it. He works hard and wants to be great, and that's what you want to see from a young guy."

It is way too early, and probably unfair, to tab Wheaton as a successor to the departed Mike Wallace, perhaps the top deep threat in the NFL. But there are similarities between the two.

Both have excellent speed and both were third-round picks by the Steelers. Like Wallace in 2009, Wheaton will have a chance to contribute right away.

The Steelers have nothing in the way of experience behind starters Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders and No. 3 receiver Jerricho Cotchery, and Wheaton is more than just a speed guy.

The 5-foot-11, 182-pounder has drawn good reviews from teammates for his polished route running, and he caught three passes for a game-high 52 yards last Monday night at Washington. That included a 45-yard catch after Wheaton blew by a Redskins cornerback on a go route.

Look for the Steelers to try and get Wheaton more involved Saturday when Kansas City visits Heinz Field for a 7:30 p.m. game. And look for Wheaton, who is also getting a look as a punt returner, to make the most of the opportunities he receives.