Markus Wheaton next rookie up for Steelers

PITTSBURGH -- It took Jarvis Jones all of two games to crack the starting lineup. Shamarko Thomas has played significant snaps as a nickel back, and Vince Williams is splitting time at strong-side inside linebacker.

On deck from the Pittsburgh Steelers' promising rookie class is wide receiver Markus Wheaton.

“I think you’ll start to see him getting in more this week,” quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. “For me, he’s more than ready to get in and start doing some stuff for us.”

Roethlisberger has been full of praise for the player whose locker is next to his and can make a mime seem like a motor mouth. And it is time for the Steelers expand Wheaton’s role in the offense given his grasp of the playbook and the speed he would add to an offense that needs all of the playmakers it can get.

Wheaton has played just 12 snaps -- he is still looking for his first NFL catch -- but coach Mike Tomlin has also said that it is time to get him more involved in the offense. The 5-foot-11, 182-pounder was extremely productive at Oregon State, and the Steelers’ third-round draft pick last April has already earned the trust of his quarterback.

Not that the Steelers should necessarily expect the kind of impact from Wheaton that Mike Wallace made as a rookie in 2009 when he caught 39 passes for 756 yards and six touchdowns. Wallace quickly emerged as the Steelers’ No. 3 receiver that season, and Wheaton is the No. 4 wideout behind Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery.

For now anyway.

It wasn’t too long ago that only a couple of rookies, if any aside from specialists, made a significant impact in their first season with the Steelers.

But the Steelers’ roster is no longer filled with established veterans who have won Super Bowls. Relying more on rookies isn’t a tacit admission that the Steelers are rebuilding as much it is an acknowledgement that times have changed.

That is why all indications are that the training wheels will come off for another rookie Sunday night when the Steelers host the Bears.

Wheaton is ready in at least one sense.

“Smart guy, has a good understanding of the offense,” Roethlisberger said. "If he makes mistakes it’s not really running the wrong route, it’s more just depth here or there or maybe trying to shake too many guys like he’s in college. I’m trying to really develop a relationship with him on and off the field. I think it’s important because I think he is a guy that we can use as a weapon.”