LATROBE – When Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley called the team’s receiving group the deepest he’s been around in his years as an NFL coach during minicamp, some viewed that as hyperbole.
After all, how could a group with just 28 career starts with the Steelers – 27 by Antonio Brown – be considered deep?
But after a week of training camp practices, Haley isn’t backing away from that statement.
In fact, the way the receivers have played thus far at Saint Vincent College, it has apparently only solidified Haley’s belief.
“Really, the whole group, from top to bottom, you have a lot of guys with some ability, a lot of guys with some defining characteristics,” Haley said. “It’s creating some great competition.”
The Steelers released their first depth chart Sunday. Listed opposite Antonio Brown, a two-time Pro Bowl player, is Markus Wheaton, a third-round draft pick in 2013, who had six receptions for 64 yards and one start in a rookie season cut short by a broken pinkie on his right hand that required surgery.
His backup is Lance Moore, a 10-year veteran who came to the Steelers as a free agent to help offset the losses of Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery as free agent.
Moore had 37 receptions for 457 yards and two scores in 2013 after making 65 catches for a career-high 1,041 yards and six touchdowns in 2012. He quickly earned the trust of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who praised him often as a quick study.
Behind Antonio Brown is 2013 sixth-round draft pick Justin Brown, who spent all of last season on the practice squad, veteran Darrius Heyward-Bey, a former first-round draft pick of the Oakland Raiders, and rookie Martavis Bryant, a fourth-round pick this year.
Haley said he is particularly impressed with the improvement of Wheaton and Brown.
“I think that the guys that we were kind of excited to see them take the next step, Justin Brown and Markus Wheaton, they’ve done that,” Haley said. “They’ve come in and are competing hard. They’re making plays consistently. They’ve built a higher level of trust with Ben, which is a big component of this.”
The Steelers want to see a steadiness out of the group as a whole, something Wheaton and Justin Brown have worked hard to do.
In fact, Justin Brown went straight to the source, Antonio Brown, after minicamp to ask how he could improve.
“He worked with me a little bit this summer. He’s motivated and hungry. He’s been making some great strides,” Antonio Brown said.
How did it go, working out with Antonio Brown, whose maniacal workouts are legendary?
“He fell asleep a couple of days on the sled. Right on the turf, asleep,” Antonio Brown said with a grin. “I was a little nauseated. But I didn’t go to sleep.”
The wildcard in the group might be Bryant, who broke perennial All-Pro receiver Herman Moore’s NCAA record for career yards per catch average of 21.96 by averaging 22.2 yards on his 61 collegiate receptions.
At 6-4, 211 pounds, Bryant has imposing size, but also possesses 4.4-second speed in the 40-yard dash.
He’s made a number of impressive plays in training camp thus far, but is still learning the nuances of the game.
Working in red zone drills Saturday, Bryant showed off his excellent ball skills and leaping ability by jumping over 6-1 corner Cortez Allen to catch a pass with one hand and tap both feet in the corner of the end zone before falling to the ground.
“Martavius seems to make a play every day,” Haley said. “He’s still got a lot of work. A lot of it is new to him, some of the adjustments and things that he has to think about are slowing him down early on, but as long as we’re seeing those flash plays, we’re encouraged. You say, ‘Hey, this guy might be able to help us.’”
When it has all worked itself out at the end of the preseason, Haley said he expects a group that will have been battle-tested, even if it doesn’t have a ton of experience outside of Antonio Brown and Moore.
“When you have great competition from top to bottom, usually good things come out of it,” Haley said.
Odds and end zones
Rookie Ryan Shazier, the team’s first-round draft pick, injured his right knee Sunday after tackling running back Le’Veon Bell near the end of practice Sunday. He immediately limped to the team trainers, who wrapped the knee in ice. Head coach Mike Tomlin called the injury a “boo-boo” and said it’s not considered serious. … Roethlisberger got the day off from practice Sunday. … Nose tackle Steve McLendon, Heyward-Bey (concussion) and rookie linebacker Jordan Zumwalt (groin) were also held out. … Rookie corner Shaq Richardson, who had been out with a groin injury, was back at practice Sunday. … The Steelers will hold a 3 p.m. pratice today that is open to the public.