High Praise For Rookie Wheaton

Markus Wheaton (LeClaire/USA TODAY Sports)

Tim Brown might be a Cowboys fan and a former Raider, but he was talking to a Notre Dame fan site about Markus Wheaton. More in today's notebook.

LATROBE -- Markus Wheaton scored another couple of touchdowns Thursday afternoon by catching short passes in the red-zone drill and cutting and darting and spinning and diving his way into the end zone.

It's becoming commonplace at Steelers practices, and something former Oakland Raiders great Tim Brown can see happening all season.

"This guy, I believe, is going to really, really light it up," Brown said of Wheaton to SI.com's Notre Dame site. "Keep your eye on this kid. I worked out with him back in February or March and it is just incredible to see this kid run routes, catch balls and do the things that he is capable of doing. And what I like about him is that when you look at his numbers from Oregon State he was a guy that caught 92 balls for about 1,300 yards. He wasn't one of these guys catching 50 balls for 1,000 yards. When you catch 90 balls for 1,300, you're putting in work."

Wheaton caught 91 passes for 1,244 yards his senior season. What's difficult to believe, considering his skill set, is he only returned 3 punts and 4 kickoffs. He'll likely return half that many kicks Saturday night, and should be able to show off the outstanding hands, toughness and running skills he's displayed thus far at training camp.

"We had a return guy named Jordan Poyer at Oregon State and he was really good," Wheaton explained. "When we were young, coming in, he was The Natural and I struggled. Once he got a hold of the spot, he kind of held on to it, so it was hard to get any work there."

Does he fit in with Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders as the Steelers' slot receiver?

"I feel good. I feel comfortable," Wheaton said. "I still have a lot of work to do, still have a lot to learn, but I do feel comfortable out there."

Wheaton's base position is flanker -- Hines Ward's old position and Sanders' current one -- with the second team.

NEW NICKEL CORNER

Shamarko Thomas won't start at safety or return kicks Saturday night in the Steelers' preseason opener against the New York Giants, but the fourth-round draft pick could enter the game as a cornerback.

So much for that learning curve.

Thomas, the 5-9 strong safety who packs a wallop as a striker in the run game, has played plenty of nickel cornerback with the second team these last few days of training camp. And, really, it's had nothing to do with the Steelers being down four cornerbacks due to injuries.

"He has done a nice job," said Coach Mike Tomlin, "and oftentimes you can tell his growth and development just simply by his willingness or ability to communicate in walking-like settings, the work that we do in the a.m. Day by day, you hear him more verbal in communication and that is a big part of that position. It is kind of the hub of communication. It is package football. He is embracing that. We will continue to put it on his plate and see if he can execute in a game-like setting situation. I just think he adds value to himself the more he is capable of doing. Obviously, he has a physical skill set that is geared toward that flexibility and we are not going to take it for granted."

Thomas admits that his talking on the field as "the hub of communication" needs work.

"I feel like I'm getting the playbook down," he said. "There are little things I've got to work on like communication and stuff, but it's getting better."

A third-team strong safety behind Troy Polamalu and Damon Cromartie-Smith during spring workouts and most of training camp, Thomas "loved it" when he was used as the nickel Wednesday. It's where he spent much of his time in college.

"No matter where I play, I just have to be me," he said. "They drafted me for being me, so I'm just going to be me out there and do that. I'll be very focused and just read my keys."

THE REAL MCCOY

Jamie McCoy has used up all of his practice-squad eligibility and was looking at the end of his football career this month, before a rash of injuries at the tight end position opened the door wide for him.

"It sucks to have guys go down with injuries. I want everybody to be healthy," said McCoy. "But right now I just happen to be in a position where I can contribute to the offense and do some things with some guys injured, so I'm trying to make the most of it."

McCoy was on the Rams' practice squad in 2010, the Steelers' practice squad in 2011, and split time with the Steelers' and Chargers' practice squads in 2012.

Cut five times by the Steelers, McCoy was re-signed last December and activated for the regular-season finale, his first NFL game.

A 26-year-old out of Texas A&M, the 6-3, 240-pound McCoy will see plenty of time Saturday for the Steelers as an in-line tight end if Matt Spaeth can't play, and Spaeth missed Thursday's practice with a foot injury.

McCoy is also the team's only back-up fullback and backs up move tight end David Paulson.

With Heath Miller and David Johnson continuing to re-hab ACL injuries, McCoy appears to be a lock to make an NFL opening-day roster for the first time in four August attempts. It would end a long journey.

"Honestly it's very hard," he said of his four-year trek through waiver wires and practice squads. "I mean, You put in the same work that a lot of these guys put in for so many years and to a certain extent it kind of hasn't paid off for you. You're back and forth with the practice squad, on and off the team. It definitely takes a toll emotionally, but you just have to realize it's something that you want to do, a childhood dream, and really you've just got to stay strong. Just like right now, you never know what can happen on any day. Two, three people can go down. You just have to be ready."

But the payoff's coming, isn't it?

"Yeah, yeah, I think so. I really can't focus on it. I've just got to keep doing what I do and keep my head down and stay strong and try to go out there and play mistake-free."

BURRESS, WHIMPER HURT; TE ADDED

Plaxico Burress went up for a jump ball during Thursday's practice but instead came down to the ground and injured his right elbow. The extent of the injury is unknown, but Burress was spotted later in the cafeteria with a sling on his arm.

Whimper, the backup offensive tackle, left the field on a cart with an unspecified injury. Tomlin was unavailable for comment on either injury after practice.

Also sitting out of practice with minor nicks were defensive end Cameron Heyward and wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders. They joined injured cornerbacks Cortez Allen, DeMarcus Van Dyke, Terry Hawthorne and Curtis Brown, and defensive end Nick Williams, on the sidelines.

After practice, the Steelers cut tight end John Rabe to make room for Michael Palmer, a 6-5, 252-pound tight end who was waived Wednesday by Seattle. Palmer, out of Clemson, caught 21 passes for 123 yards and 3 touchdowns in three seasons with Atlanta.

SteelCityInsider.net Recommended Stories