In a week of huge guaranteed contracts and gross overspending, the season-long suspension of Martavis Bryant stole the overall headlines, but not because it was particularly surprising. Bryant was suspended four games for violating the substance-abuse policy last year, and Steelers president Art Rooney II admitted in January the team was working with Bryant to “make sure he takes care of his business off the field.”
Unfortunately, that did not happen. The main focus, of course, should be on Bryant, who is reportedly battling depression and has checked into rehab, but while we obviously hope the fantastic young receiver can get his life together and find happiness off the field, what now happens on the field for the Steelers is an unavoidable topic of discussion.
The biggest beneficiary on paper is Markus Wheaton, who is expected to be the “clear-cut No. 2 receiver” with Bryant suspended. That is all well and good, but the reality is Wheaton was expected to be the clear-cut No. 2 receiver when Bryant was suspended at the beginning of last season...and he ended up catching just nine passes TOTAL over the five games Bryant missed. Wheaton showed more chemistry with Ben Roethlisberger down the stretch and is entering a contract year, but the reality is he is simply not that good. Perhaps, as ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler suggested, the Steelers funnel the screens and reverses that were going Bryant’s way late last season to Wheaton, but he does not have the same playmaking skill to do otherworldly things on those types of plays. Despite the apparent opportunity, it is likely Wheaton is heavily over-drafted this summer.
A better sleeper in the receiver corps could be Sammie Coates, although his hype train has already left the station and should be full steam ahead by this summer. Coates was drafted in the third-round last season because of the uncertain off-field future of Bryant, and it makes perfect sense for him to slide into the No. 3 slot now that Bryant is suspended, especially considering his competition is glorified blocker Darrius Heyward-Bey. The issue is Coates played just 36 regular-season snaps last year, playing behind the aforementioned glorified blocker until the playoffs. It was his rookie season, and Coates was raw coming out of Auburn. Still, it is not a foregone conclusion he is the guy.
All of that said, Coates is the best like-for-like replacement the Steelers have for Bryant. An explosive athlete (41-inch vertical, 131-inch broad) who eats up ground quickly (4.43 forty) and has the size (6’1, 212) to dominate in the air, Coates can be the deep threat Pittsburgh will need with Bryant sidelined. It is not a complete shot in the dark, either. We saw a glimpse of what Coates can do when he caught two passes for 61 yards in the playoff loss to Denver. If he grabs the role, the sky is the limit.
Another potential big winner is a player we have not even seen in black and gold. Signed to a four-year, $20 million contract early in free agency, Ladarius Green has the physical attributes and playing-making ability to take up some of Bryant’s slack. An exceptional athlete at the position who ran a 4.53 at the combine in 2012, Green finally found some sunshine seeping through Antonio Gates’ massive shadow last season. In the four games he played without Gates, Green averaged 12.2 fantasy points (half-point per reception) and posted a TE1-level game in three of those contests. He also has the look of a potential playmaking tight end and has averaged 1.55 fantasy points per target over his career. Even if sees just the 85 targets Heath Miller averaged over the last three seasons, that rate of production would put him squarely in the back-end of the TE1 group. Even if his per-target production dips, which it likely will in a bigger role, he now has a decent shot to top 100 targets in a suddenly needy offense. As long as he does not creep too far up the ADP ranks, Green will be a primary target in drafts this summer.
The big on-field loser in all of this is Ben Roethlisberger, who scored 5.6 fewer fantasy points in the nine games he played without Bryant over the last two seasons. He threw for .78 fewer touchdowns per game in those contests and 57 fewer passing yards. Some of that disparity came down to attempts – six fewer without Bryant in the lineup – but a large reason for the lack of attempts was a sputtering offense. Le’Veon Bell did not see considerably more carries with Bryant out of the lineup, so the lost attempts were not funneling to the running game. They are just plays which are lost because the offense has not worked without Bryant in the fold, a fact which is supported by the team managing 6.4 fewer points per game without Bryant the last two years. All of this adds up to Roethlisberger being overvalued at his current QB5 ADP. Unless that falls before draft season, he will be a player to avoid.