The strange NFL career of wide receiver Markus Wheaton has landed in Philadelphia, and every day Wheaton looks to be better than the previous one. He is keeping his mouth shut and his eyes narrowed and his focus only on what he can control. For a guy who, in 2015, had 44 catches for 749 yards and five touchdowns, the moral of the story is that the National Football League is a topsy-turvy, unpredictable, and never settled world.
Things change in a hurry.
“I’m a lot different now than when I was a younger player,” said Wheaton, a third-round draft pick of the Steelers in 2013. “I’m not as hard on myself. I understand you’re going to go through ups and downs in this league and in life. For me, now, I can only focus on what I’m doing and not what’s going on around me.”
Once upon a time, and not all that very long ago, Wheaton was a wide receiver on the rise, a 5-11, 180-pound speedster with big-play ability. He caught 53 passes for 644 yards in 2014, his second season in the league. The next year, he had the 44 catches and 749 yards. Put those two seasons together, and Wheaton averaged 14.4 yards on 97 receptions. Problem is, Wheaton produced just 10 more in his other three NFL seasons, playing in only 26 games.
“It’s been up and down as I’m sure most guys’ careers have been,” he said. “I had a lot of success in Pittsburgh and almost entirely the opposite in Chicago (2017, three receptions in 11 games). I’ve learned that the only thing you can do is stay positive and keep grinding.”
So what happened to Wheaton? A shoulder injury in 2016 limited him to three games with the Steelers, who then allowed him to become an unrestricted free agent. After signing with Chicago last spring – the Bears hoped he would help replace the production of wide receiver Alshon Jeffery – Wheaton suffered an emergency appendectomy and then, shortly after his return, fractured a pinkie finger.
Obviously, his season was in the dumps. Wheaton’s “big game” of 2017 came when he caught two passes for 42 yards against Detroit on December 16. He hasn’t recorded a catch in a game since then. It’s been a long time. Too long.
How does Wheaton see his situation with the Eagles, who are stacked at wide receiver?
“I’m not sure,” he said. “Honestly, I don’t know how to answer that question. All I can do is go out and have my best day every day and then get ready for the next day. I’m here to show the coaches what I can do, pick up the offense the best I can, and play my best football. When I was young, I looked at too much. Too much going on around me. Now, you go through life and you understand what you need to do to have success.
“Here, there is opportunity for me. We have a great offense and I’m getting my reps and I’m pleased. But I know how much work I have to do to get to where I want to be. It’s good for me to be in this environment. This team won the Super Bowl last year. I’m a little bit jealous. I’m a lot jealous, actually. But you see how positive everyone is here and how good the people are and you want to fit right in. That part has been easy. I’m coming along. I think I’m playing good ball and putting a lot of good things on film.”
It won’t be easy for Wheaton, who certainly didn’t think, back when he was a longball threat in Pittsburgh, that he would be on his third team in three seasons. But that’s how it is in this league. If you aren’t producing, you aren’t playing.
So maybe this is Wheaton’s last chance. Who knows? He’s 27 years old, still has his wheels, and he’s got a new lease on his football life. He is in a winning world again, and that feeling is contagious. Everyone wants him to succeed. So maybe the last chance for Wheaton is that he’s found a home for a while with the Eagles.
“One day at a time,” he said. “I can still run, I feel great, and it’s coming together for me, but I’ve learned just to keep that focus on day by day.”
Good idea. Live in the moment. Wheaton is trying to crack a crowded depth chart, and to do so he’s going to have to stand out every day. He’s up for the challenge.
“I’m glad to be here,” he said. “We’ll see where this goes. I’m excited to be an Eagle.”