As receiver Markus Wheaton looked back at his rookie year, he said he had fun getting to do what he loves, which is playing football. There was just one problem. He wishes he would have played more, especially on offense.
Wheaton was hampered by a broken pinky finger on his right hand that required surgery and forced him to miss four games in the first half of the season. Once he got back on the field November 10 against Buffalo, his opportunities were limited as the fourth receiver behind Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery. And then another injury, this one to the middle finger on his right hand, slowed him down again.
"The injury set me back. I felt every time I took a couple of steps forward there was a setback with an injury," said Wheaton. "That was frustrating. You can't expect to go through the season without any injuries. That is always something that is going to happen I feel. I just kind of accepted it and dealt with it. There was nothing I could so I tried to get better while dealing with it. Hopefully in 2014 there aren't as many setbacks so I can continue to progress."
Wheaton, the Steelers third round draft pick in 2013, finished the season making contributions on special teams, but with only six receptions for 64 yards. While the numbers were low, there was plenty he took from his rookie season to build on. He grew as a player, learning how to read NFL coverages and how the defenses disguise things better than in college. He gained a better understanding of what the quarterback is thinking in regards to coverage and picked up the offensive concepts.
"I did learn a lot, which is always a good thing. I feel like I picked up the offense," said Wheaton. "I feel comfortable out there. I am not thinking as much when I am out there playing. I felt like a couple of games into it I started to get comfortable. When I got hurt I sat out a couple of games, came back and it started over. That was stressful. I just want to be comfortable with the offense and be able to play without over-thinking things."
Wheaton definitely had plenty of resources when he needed help getting comfortable, including quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, whose locker is next to Wheaton's.
"Any time I had questions he is right there," said Wheaton. "I don't have to go too far for him. He is always helping me. I am always in his ear when I do have a question. It's been very helpful."
But it was Cotchery, a player he was trying to move ahead of on the depth chart in training camp, who unselfishly guided him through his rookie season.
"I pretty much followed him around everywhere," said Wheaton. "Whether it was pre-practice, meetings, post-practice, drills, or watching film. He taught me a lot and helped me with a lot. He taught me how to do a lot of that stuff. I thought I knew how to do it coming in, but he taught me a lot of stuff I need to look for in this league that I didn't look for in college.
"He was always there for me. I was right behind him coming in to camp and he still helped me. I bothered him so much and he still helped me."
There are some question marks at receiver heading into the offseason. Cotchery, Sanders, and Plaxico Burress, who spent the season on injured reserve, are all free agents. Whatever happens, Wheaton said he wants to be someone that steps into a bigger role for 2014.
"That is something that personally I would love to do," said Wheaton. "That is what I came here to do. Even if we had free agents come back, I want to be able to move up in the ranks at the wide receiver position. Next year I am hoping to be more of an offensive guy and contribute on special teams too, just doing as much as I can."