Unless his role in the Steelers’ offense changes, Martavis Bryant wants out of Pittsburgh, according to ESPN’s Josina Anderson. No doubt ears perked up across Chicago — and perhaps too at Halas Hall — with these comments and Bryant’s various social media postings over the last 48 hours.
The Bears need a wide receiver (or two), and Bryant ostensibly is doing whatever he can to make himself available before the NFL’s Oct. 31 trade deadline. But that doesn’t necessarily mean this is a match. A few thoughts here:
Why would Pittsburgh want to trade him?
NFL coaches hate drama and “distractions,” and Bryant has now seemingly caused both in Mike Tomlin’s locker room. But follow the money: Bryant isn’t a free agent until after the 2018 season and is making $615,000 this year and $705,000 next year, the final two seasons of the former fourth-rounder’s rookie contract. For perspective, his combined 2017-2018 salary of $1,320,000 is only slightly higher than the $1 million the Bears guaranteed to Kendall Wright this year; if Wright is active in all 16 games, he’ll make $2 million in 2017, according to Spotrac. Tre McBride’s salary in 2017 is $615,000, too, according to Spotrac.
The point: Bryant is cheap, and it’s a lot easier to put up with a malcontent who isn’t being paid much than one who could be cut or traded for salary cap savings. Bryant’s representatives actually asked for him to be traded three weeks ago but the Steelers, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, have no plans to follow through on that request.
While Bryant’s role has decreased with the emergence of second-round pick JuJu Smith-Schuster (26 targets, 17 receptions, 231 yards, three touchdowns), he’s still the third-most targeted player on the Steelers (36) behind Antonio Brown (84) and Le’Veon Bell (42), though that seems likely to change after Bryant was only targeted five times in his last two games. Pittsburgh is 5-2 and looks ticketed for the playoffs, so removing someone from their offense — even if that someone is disgruntled — who isn’t making much money and is under team control through 2018 doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense.
Why would the Bears want him?
The obvious answer to this question is the Bears need all the help they can get for a wide receiver unit that’s been targeted only five times (between two players — Wright and Tanner Gentry) on Mitchell Trubisky’s 23 throws in the last two weeks. Bryant is an explosive receiver who’s averaged 16.5 yards per reception and has 15 touchdowns since debuting with the Steelers in 2014. He’d certainly give opposing defenses pause in stacking the box with eight defenders against Jordan Howard.
The upside here is making a win-now move to provide a jolt to the offense. It could be a low-risk move in a sense, maybe costing a seventh-rounder to get him, and then if he doesn’t work out, it wouldn’t hurt too much to cut him after the season. But there are downsides here.
First, if the Steelers are actually willing to trade Bryant — again, a cheap player who’s under team control for another year and a half — it could mean he’s *really* a problem in the locker room. And that’s a locker room full of veterans, led by Ben Roethlisberger (though offensive lineman Ramon Foster's comments may indicate a breaking point is near).
Second, the Bears traded away two of their most productive offensive players — tight end Martellus Bennett and wide receiver Brandon Marshall — in recent years in the name of locker room harmony. John Fox is no different than most NFL coaches in not wanting drama in his locker room. Bryant was suspended by the NFL for the entire 2016 season for repeated drug violations, which raises a “character concerns” flag around the league.
Third, if those concerns turn out not to be founded, and Bryant were to arrive in Lake Forest with a fresh outlook, another pressing question should be asked: Why did he lose his once-prominent role in the Steelers’ offense?
We saw it first-hand in Chicago in Week 3, when Bryant burned Marcus Cooper downfield but had Roethlisberger’s deep heave glance of his fingertips. He’s only been targeted five times in Pittsburgh’s last two games, catching three passes for 30 yards. It’s worth questioning if Bryant’s year-long suspension has hurt his play in 2017.
Bryant, too, has had success playing opposite Brown, one of the very best receivers (if not the best) in the NFL. How would he handle being the No. 1 focus of opposing cornerbacks and defenses? That’s a question better answered by scouting departments around the league, but if the Bears were to determine the answer to that question as “not well,” he might not help the receivers as much as it may seem.
So there are a lot of layers here that would have to be dug through for anything with Bryant and the Bears to materialize. It’s possible that could happen, but it’s not as simple as saying "the Bears need a receiver, so they should try to get Martavis Bryant.”