PITTSBURGH -- Soft-spoken and humble, Markus Wheaton is in many ways the anti-wide receiver -- or at least the preening, me-me-me player that has become the caricature of the position.
Far from demanding the ball, Wheaton won’t even say the Pittsburgh Steelers' starting job opposite Pro Bowler Antonio Brown is his to lose even though he occupies it at the outset of offseason practices.
“There’s a lot of guys chasing that spot and hopefully I can get it first and go from there,” Wheaton said. “They’re pushing all of us to get better, and whoever wants it the most will take it, so I’m going to do what I can to get that spot.”
Such, ahem, bravado, won’t ease the anxiety of Steelers fans who have concerns about a receiving corps that lost two of its top three players from last year and 16 touchdowns alone from Jerricho Cotchery and Emmanuel Sanders.
But Wheaton appears ready to emerge in every way except for his decidedly non-cavalier attitude.
The finger injury that required multiple surgeries last season and limited Wheaton to 157 snaps is behind him, he said. Wheaton and fellow wideouts Derek Moye and Justin Brown also spent a week practicing with Ben Roethlisberger in California this offseason, taking the Steelers' quarterback up on his invitation to work on timing and other aspects of the passing game.
With Sanders in Denver -- he signed a three-year deal with the Broncos in March -- Wheaton has a clear path to the field.
And someone has to step up with Antonio Brown certain to see all kinds of extra attention this season.
“I’m excited to see what he can do,” Roethlisberger said. “He’s a guy that wants to prove that he can be a starter.”
Wheaton did not get to show much last season after breaking his right pinkie in several places in the fourth game of the season. The injury, which also damaged a joint, effectively forced Wheaton to redshirt his rookie season, but it did not stop the third-round draft pick from doing everything he could to learn a new offense.
And when the 5-11, 182-pounder had one of his many questions, he could turn to Cotchery or Roethlisberger, whose locker is next to Wheaton’s at the Steelers’ practice facility.
“Being able to sit out last year pretty much helped me,” said Wheaton, who caught six passes for 64 yards in limited action. “I learned a lot of the coverages, the adjustments Ben throws at us, the playbook.”
How much Wheaton can transfer what he has learned to the field will be critical to Roethlisberger developing the kind of trust in him that will allow the Steelers to run their no-huddle offense with the same frequency as in the second half of last season when they won six of eight games.
“We lost two starting wide receivers that knew the no-huddle so well, so we’re going to need the new guys and the young guys to pick it up quick,” Roethlisberger said.