It’s not necessarily a surprise that two Pittsburgh Steelers wide receivers were named the second-best NFL duo of the past decade, not when Antonio Brown was employed by the team for most of that time frame. What is a shock is the other half of the pairing.
According to Pro Football Focus, in 2015 Antonio Brown and Markus Wheaten teamed up to be the second-best wide receiver duo of the 2010s—at least from a Wins Above Replacement (WAR) perspective.
According to PFF, the only better wide receiver combo of the past ten years was Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb of the Green Bay Packers in 2014.
The third-best WAR combo during the 2010s? That would be Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods of the Los Angeles Rams in 2018.
Markus Wheaton’s Third Season with the Steelers
At this point pretty much all NFL fans are aware of the wide receiving prowess of Antonio Brown; less well-remembered are the exploits of Markus Wheaton, who was drafted by the Steelers in the third round of the 2013 NFL draft out of Oregon State.
Wheaton didn’t contribute much during his rookie season, but he came on during his second year, catching 53 passes for 644 yards and two touchdowns.
But in 2015, his third season, Wheaton had a career year, catching 44 passes for 749 yards for five touchdowns. His longest reception—a 72 yard TD catch—came during a Monday Night Football game vs. the San Diego Chargers, a game that featured Michael Vick at quarterback for the Steelers, but is perhaps best-remembered for being placekicker Chris Boswell’s NFL debut.
The game came to a thrilling conclusion when Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin went for the win in lieu of a game-tying field attempt. With five seconds to go, Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell took a shotgun snap from center and managed to just barely break the plane of the goal line before his knee was down, allowing Pittsburgh to escape San Diego with a tension-filled ‘walk-off’ victory that was recently re-aired on ESPN.
The ‘Wins Above Replacement’ Factor
Of course, the ‘wins above replacement’ influence on the above-named pairings cannot be overlooked; it presumes that the receivers who would have stepped in for Brown and Wheaton were a big step down.
In this scenario one of the substitutes would have been Martavis Bryant, who caught 50 passes for 765 yards and six touchdowns—stats that exceeded those of Wheaton, despite the fact that he appeared in—and started— fewer games.
The other potential substitutes were indeed a huge step down. Special teams ace Darrius Heyward-Bey served as a spot starter that season yet caught just 21 passes for 314 yards and two touchdowns, while rookie Sammie Coates caught just one pass for 11 yards.
Meanwhile, Antonio Brown had a monster year, catching 136 passes for 1,834 yards and ten touchdowns, this in spite of the fact that Ben Roethlisberger started just 11 games that season.
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