Less than seven days after being chosen by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the third round of the NFL Draft, former Oregon State wide receiver Markus Wheaton flew to the Keystone State for his indoctrination into pro football.
The Steelers, one of the most successful franchises in the history of the NFL, were one of several clubs to hold rookie mini-camps from May 3-5, and the experience opened Wheaton's eyes to the high level of physical and mental demands that he will encounter in the Steel City, especially since the last time he had been on a football field was the Alamo Bowl in late December.
Even though the players wore just helmets, shirts and shorts, the three-day exercise fed Wheaton's appetite for football.
"I hadn't played football in a while, but it was fun to get back out there, put the helmets on and get back to it," said Wheaton, who will wear No. 11, when he spoke with Pittsburgh's official web site. "It was kind of like the week of the Senior Bowl. The install was similar and we had some of the same plays. It wasn't too tough on me. I had fun meeting new people and I'm excited."
The 5-foot-11, 189-pound Wheaton's familiar blazing speed and versatility (he can line up on the outside or in the slot and carry the ball on fly sweeps) drew immediate comparisons to former Steelers receiver Mike Wallace, who signed a lucrative free agent contract with Miami two months ago following four seasons with Pittsburgh in which he caught 235 passes for 4,042 yards and 32 touchdowns.
Perhaps the most frequently asked question in Pittsburgh nowadays is whether Wheaton will be able to adequately replace the once popular Wallace.
"He has a little different skill set than Mike other than the speed," Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley told Pittsburgh reporters shortly after they picked Wheaton in the middle of the third round with the No. 79 overall pick.
"Mike is more of an outside receiver that plays outside the numbers. (Wheaton) is a guy that played in the slot a bunch when he wasn't outside. He has a little wider base and is built more like a running back. It's hard for anyone to run faster than Mike, but Markus does play fast."
Pittsburgh was understandably attracted to Wheaton because of his career production (school record 227 receptions for 2,994 yards and 16 touchdowns) and the fact he can do so many different things on the field.
"He's a four-year guy that had great production as a receiver," Haley said. "And he also handled the football as a runner a bunch, which we also like from a versatility standpoint. He's a good solid football player that brings speed to the team. He's a fast guy, make no mistake about it, a guy who can stretch the field. He plays inside and out, so he is pretty versatile."
Wheaton routinely ran in the 4.3s during his distinguished career at Oregon State, but dropped off to 4.45 at the NFL Combine. Haley, though, vehemently contended Wheaton plays faster on tape.
"He's one of those guys that you like, so you're not rooting for them to run fast and get a lot of attention," Haley said. "I know it hurt his feelings and made him feel bad, but we were happy because when you put on the tape, he plays fast and quick. He's going to be an exciting guy to have around.
"We needed competition at the receiver position going into the draft. We like the guys we have here, but when you get another young guy in here to compete and push the other guys, that's always a good thing."
Wheaton averaged 13.2 yards per catch in his Oregon State career, a nice number but not one that pops out at you. Nonetheless, his 'wow' factor supplanted any concerns about yards per catch, Haley insisted.
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"The numbers aren't huge from a yards per catch standpoint, but he's one of the guys we thought that when the ball is in his hands, he really gets even more exciting," Haley said. "That leaves the door open to be able to do a lot of things with him, which fits with A.B. (Antonio Brown) and Emmanuel (Sanders). He will be a good guy to have in that group. We'll get him coached up. He's a smart football player and he understands (what we're doing)."
Haley noticed on film that Wheaton often lined up at the outside 'X' receiver spot in two-back sets, but also lined up at the 'Z' spot in addition to the slot and backfield throughout the course of a Beavers game.
"That tells us the coaches were comfortable moving him around a bunch," Haley said. "That's good. Right now, we have a good mix of inside and outside guys. To have a guy that could contribute early on special teams and then knows multiple positions, that's a big positive with Markus."
While Wheaton participated fully in Pittsburgh's rookie minicamp two weekends ago, he will likely be prohibited from taking part in the Steelers' full team minicamps from May 21-23, May 28-30 and June 3-6 (commonly known as "OTAs" in NFL lingo, abbreviation for 'Organized Team Activities", which are strictly regulated under the CBA) due to the controversial rule forbidding rookies from working out with the veteran players on their new teams until they have graduated.
Oregon State's commencement exercises are scheduled for June 15 at Reser Stadium. Pittsburgh officials said Wheaton may participate in the Steelers mandatory minicamp from June 11-13.
Whenever Wheaton returns to the practice field, he looks to impress Steeler coaches with his unique ability to perform various roles.
"I envision myself anywhere," Wheaton said. "I played a lot of outside in college. Obviously, it's not the same as the league, but I feel I can produce outside. If I do need to play inside, I feel I can do both. I like being all over the place. The defense can't really plan for you when they don't know where you're going to be. So I like being all over the place.
"With (Oregon State) moving me around a lot, I had to know everything out there. I had to know all the concepts and everything about the offense. I'm going to a good organization. I'm excited to get on the field and show those guys what I can do."