WIDE RECEIVERS – 10** (Free Agent Scorecard: 1 unrestricted – Markus Wheaton)
Drafted in the seventh round in 2016, Ayers came to the Steelers as a slot receiver, and while he also had punt returning on his college resume he was able to manage only 14 yards on five returns during the preseason. Because Eli Rogers was a better version at both of those jobs, Ayers was waived and then put on the practice squad. Injuries at receiver had the Steelers add him to the roster for the final three games of the regular season, and his highlight was a five-catch, 53-yards and a touchdown contribution against the Ravens on Christmas Day. Heading into this offseason, Ayers finds himself in a similar position to the one Rogers was in last offseason – needing to make an impression to separate himself in the eyes of the coaching staff.
What does management think of Antonio Brown? "I would call them little annoyances. Emphasis on little, as far as I am concerned," said Steelers President Art Rooney II. "Antonio is a good guy, a good person. I enjoy our personal relationship. His teammates like to have him on the team. He is a hard worker. He is another player I would hope we would address his contract and have him here for the long-term." What do his teammates think of Antonio Brown? Recently via Instagram, Maurkice Pouncey offered this blunt assessment in response to suggestions that Brown was less than an ideal teammate: "Can't hold my tongue anymore tired of all the hate, bull(bleep) stories!! AB is a team player loved by all his teammates especially ME! You against him you against me! #SteelersNation @ab" So in summary, I would maintain that when it comes to Brown, he's viewed in light of the last nine seconds of Christmas Day vs. the Ravens more than he is in light of Facebook Live from Arrowhead Stadium by the people who matter.
In the first five games of the season, Coates had a reception of 40-plus yards in each one. In the next 12 games, he caught four passes total. The Steelers have admitted to picking Coates as a hedge against Martavis Bryant getting suspended, but so far they're still waiting for the kind of production/impact they were expecting. Coates already has had surgery to repair the broken fingers that served to sabotage his 2016 season, and maybe he fulfills his potential during his third NFL season. But it would've been nice when the Steelers needed a big, fast wide receiver during the playoffs that Coates, who is big and fast, couldn't deliver for them in some way. By the end of the 2017 season, that either will be a distant memory, or will be viewed as the harbinger of their ultimate disappointment.
It's a nice story. The former sixth-round pick who bounced around to five different teams before joining the Steelers last summer after training camp started, then doing enough to catch on as a guy on their practice squad, and then stepping up from the practice squad when injuries depleted the depth at wide receiver and making some plays for the team down the stretch of a regular season that ended with a division title. In 11 games, Hamilton finished with 17 catches for 234 yards (13.8 average) and two touchdowns. What's going to happen with Hamilton now is that the Steelers will spend part of this offseason determining where they need to improve their roster, and it would seem one of their conclusions would be that there's a need to be more dynamic at wide receiver. Then the issue switches to Hamilton, and can he improve enough to remain in the conversation at the position. Hamilton is another in that group of players from the 2016 Steelers who are going to have to make the team if they want to be contributing parts of the 2017 Steelers.
With two years left on a contract carrying a very reasonable salary, Heyward-Bey is a player who will be evaluated strictly on the basis of the football value he provides. In 10 games, he caught six passes for 114 yards (19.0 average) and two touchdowns, and he also had three tackles on special teams. Heyward-Bey will be 30 soon, and he's another guy who will have to win a roster spot for 2017, and that competition most likely will happen at Saint Vincent College. With him, don't discount the maturity, professionalism, and team-first mentality he brings to work every single day. The coaches don't.
Now that he's got his foot in the door, Rogers has to work to hold onto what he carved out for himself over the course of the 2016 season. Rogers is the team's slot receiver, and over the course of catching 48 passes for 594 yards (12.4 average) and three touchdowns during 13 regular season games, Rogers also developed a trust with Ben Roethlisberger. All of those are good things, and what's easier about Rogers' task this offseason is that he's a known commodity. But this former undrafted rookie should understand that players in his situation have to re-prove themselves every offseason. He's not the kind of dynamic talent who is granted leeway, but over the course of the previous offseason he improved from just a name on the practice squad into a player who is the team's slot receiver.
Signed as an undrafted rookie following the 2016 draft, Severin was waived injured on Aug. 5, a time when camp is starting to rev up and walking wounded are less likely to be tolerated. The companion move to this was signing Landry Jones, and Severin and Hamilton are similar players. Both 6-foot-2, neither one possessing difference-making speed, both looking to catch on in the NFL by grabbing one of the lower spots on a team's depth chart. Severin should get another chance to make an impression at training camp, and this time it would behoove him to stay healthy.
One of the 11 guys signed to futures contracts on Jan. 24, Stewart (6-2, 200) played four seasons at Division II Ohio Dominican, where in 43 games he caught 196 passes for 3,197 yards (16.3 average) and 25 touchdowns. He has had flirtations with Tampa Bay, Washington, and Green Bay after leaving college, and that interest might have something to do with him running a 4.43 in the run-up to the 2016 draft.
A graduate of Northern Michigan, Tucker caught 168 passes for 2,330 yards and 20 touchdowns over three seasons there, but most interesting to Steelers fans might be the 25.7 average he posted returning 62 kickoffs. Tucker is back for another shot at making the Steelers roster. He caught three passes for 23 yards during the 2016 preseason with the team.
A potential unrestricted free agent on March 9, Wheaton seemed to be developing nicely during his first three seasons after being a No. 3 pick from Oregon State in the 2013 draft, but then his 2016 was ruined by a shoulder injury that landed him on the injured reserve list in mid-November. In 2015, Wheaton had a regular role on offense, and he finished with 44 catches for 749 yards (17.0 average) and five touchdowns. Last season, Wheaton was a No. 3 to Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant, but when Bryant's one-year suspension was announced in March 2016, the expectation was that Wheaton would step up to No. 2. It didn't happen because of the shoulder injury that also ruined what would've been his contract year, and so Wheaton is in a strange situation with free agency approaching. If he were dissatisfied with his role here and looking for a fresh opportunity, what might be available for him after four catches for 51 yards this past season? As the Steelers ponder their receiving corps for 2017 and beyond, Wheaton's nine catches for 201 yards in Seattle in 2015 might serve as a tantalizing reminder of how things again could be, and re-signing him could serve to render wide receiver an afterthought come the 2017 draft.