September 4, 2010; the date of the last Oregon State football game where Markus Wheaton did not catch a pass. That was 35 games, 215 catches, 2,853 yards, and 16 touchdowns ago with the Alamo Bowl left to play. The two-sport athlete (Wheaton also runs track) is more known for speed than his production outside of the Oregon State fans in Corvallis. While his physical tools are impressive, Wheaton has had three productive years for the Beavers and earned an invite to the Senior Bowl. Wheaton has a few rough edges still to be worked out, but he is more polished than some are giving him credit for and he should be able to contribute immediately. Combined with his speed and potential for the position, his name should be called somewhere in the second round with the possibility of sneaking into the back end of the first.
Wheaton’s physical ability is impressive. He has track speed and it translates to the field without issue. In fact, his experience in track shows up on the football field. He has a good stance and comes out like a gun shot with his acceleration. Watching the tape and then going to check his height and weight, it was surprising that he was only listed at 6’1” 182lbs; he looked bigger. And that is not to say that his size is detrimental, because he is fine in that regard. He just looked bigger on tape. It should not be a big surprise if Wheaton is one of the top competitors to have the fastest time at the combine, but it does not matter. No one should need a stop watch to know that Wheaton can fly.
Wheaton has a natural set of hands and catches the ball cleanly. His catch radius is solid but it can improve. He has not really shown up on tape as someone inclined to really stretch out and put his body at risk to go get the football, but there were not many opportunities where he would do that either. Because he is willing to catch the ball away from his body, he is able to quickly transition to ball carrier and take advantage of his speed.
As a route runner, Wheaton runs the routes Oregon State asks him to run well. However, in the game tape he was exclusively on the outside and did not run a wide variety of routes. He ran fades, posts, flags, bubble screens, comebacks, and the occasional drag route. All of these routes are designed to take advantage of his speed and that makes a ton of sense. He has great feet and good body control, so he does not waste a ton of movement. To Wheaton’s credit, he does show some veteran savvy and will change up how he runs his routes to create separation. Most notably, his hesitation move can really give defensive backs fits. He will sell like he is going to cut a route off and if the defensive back bites, it is over. Wheaton is too explosive and too fast. If a defensive back makes a false step or bites on a fake, he will make them pay for it as long as the quarterback can get him the ball.
Speed receivers traditionally have trouble when it comes to operating within the red zone. Wheaton took steps to work on this in his senior year and because of his ability to go up and compete for jump balls, use his body to shield out defenders, and ability to cut well, he has improved in this area; going from a combined 5 touchdowns in his first two seasons to 11 as a senior.
At this point, it is difficult to project him to anywhere but as an outside receiver with confidence. The fact that he spending the majority running the routes mentioned would make critics curious about the others. While he is not afraid to compete in coverage for the ball, Wheaton is not going over the middle; he is working exclusively on the outside or the deep middle of the field. Most of what a team would want from Wheaton would be on the outside, but no one is going to be upset if he shows he is able to catch a slant and take it to the house.
When Wheaton is a ball carrier, he has the tremendous open field speed that teams love, but he can make moves in the open field without killing his speed. His stopping and starting ability with his incredible acceleration is just part of what makes him a nightmare in the open field. Wheaton also shows the ability to make good cuts in the open field, but does it while continuing to go North and South which makes him look that much faster. The Beavers used any excuse to get Wheaton the ball including as a runner on end arounds. He also projects to be a dynamic kick returner.
When it comes to Wheaton's blocking, saying he has not really made this a priority is being kind. He gets in the way, but that is mostly it. He is going to catch defenders rather than attack them. Wheaton is actually at his best as a blocker when he is running defenders off instead of actually blocking them. His speed is dangerous enough where defenders have to make sure they respect it the entire way or they could look really bad. Hopefully Wheaton will continue working on his blocking in the NFL but right now it is a work in progress.
Markus Wheaton accepted an invite to the Senior Bowl in January. His situation with the Senior Bowl is a little unique compared to the average prospect. The reason is simple; all Wheaton has to do is prove he belongs with the other guys there. He does not need to blow away the competition. Because of his overwhelming physical tools, if he just looks the part of the caliber of players that are there, he will do no worse than maintaining his draft stock. If he does blow away the competition, the hype around this guy will be out of control, because there is no doubt he will blow up the combine and pro day workouts. The discussion will change to not only can Wheaton go in the first round, but how high he can go.
Wheaton's best fit in the NFL will be on a team running a predominately vertical/Coryell inspired offense. Something along the lines the Patriots or Chargers run. Pending the system change in San Diego, these are two teams that Wheaton would be great fits that could both use him. The Beaver offense does most of its passing going vertical and there are times when the receiver fire off the line like it is a track meet, racing to see which outside receiver can get down the field first. This is not suggesting Wheaton can not play in other offensive schemes; these just happen to be type of system he where he has excelled. While he shows the potential to be a #1 receiver, ideally, he comes in as a #2 working on the outside and stretching the field deep to open things up for teammates.
Another good fit for Wheaton would be the Pittsburgh Steelers, especially if they decide to let Mike Wallace go in free agency. Wheaton plays a very similar game as Wallace. Both shine in a vertical pass offense and can punish teams with their deep speed. Both are also slightly taller than the stereotypical speed receiver and can make plays with the ball in their hands. And while both can be a #1 receiver, they are probably better suited to be the #2.
Markus Wheaton is not quite a finished project, but if people dismiss him as a track athlete playing football, they are selling him short. So much about Wheaton’s stock will be about physical tools and his potential, but he does show enough to where he can come in and contribute and will not deem a ‘project’ label. If he can prove to evaluators that he can be a weapon in the slot as well as the outside, his value goes up dramatically and suddenly he looks like he could be someone in the Percy Harvin mold. If not, he comes into the draft as someone who can only be counted on as an outside weapon and some teams may knock him for not being able to be as versatile as they would like. The bottom line is because of his triangle numbers and potential, Markus Wheaton could find himself getting some talk at the top of the second round and even the bottom of the first, especially after he runs the 40 yard dash. And while it is possible he could go that high, he could also end up going in round three because of the depth at the position. More than likely, he will end up being a solid second rounder based on the tape and his potential.
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