Martavis Bryant suspension alters the fantasy landscape
The explosive 24-year-old Steelers wide receiver, Martavis Bryant, is facing a possible season-long suspension for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy.
Bryant was suspended for the first four games of the 2014 season for his first violation of the policy. Upon his return, from Week 6 through the end of the regular season, Bryant showed fantasy owners what we had all been waiting for, ranking 15th in targets, 16th in yards, 17th in touchdowns, and 16th in fantasy points.
Despite also losing their starting quarterback for four full games, the Steelers averaged the fourth-most points per game and the third-most passing yards per game last season. The offense generated 12 WR1 weeks, eight WR2 weeks, and eight WR3 weeks for fantasy owners. Now that their second-most targeted receiver may be forced to sit out all of 2016, fantasy owners are scrambling to find out what this means for one the league’s most prolific passing attacks.
Perhaps the recent signing of former Chargers tight end Ladarius Green makes more sense in light of these recent developments. Green will also be filling in for Heath Miller, who is leaving behind 5.4 targets per game in the wake of his retirement. The bulk of the eight targets per game Bryant will be leaving behind, however, will most likely be consumed by fellow wide receivers Markus Wheaton, Darrius Heyward-Bey, and Sammie Coates.
Wheaten struggled attempting to replace Bryant during the first five games of last season. Although Roethlisberger missed two of those games, Wheaton played poorly, catching nine passes on 17 targets for 228 yards and a touchdown. Heyward-Bey outproduced Wheaton in fantasy during this stretch, garnering 25 targets for 17 receptions, 209 yards, and two touchdowns.
After posting five straight games playing on at least 55 percent of the team’s snaps with Bryant on the bench, Heyward-Bey would not again record more than 26 percent of the team’s snaps until Week 17. Wheaton’s snap percentage, meanwhile, hovered around 65 percent for the rest of the season. Sammie Coates, the team’s third round draft pick in 2015, had one catch on two targets for 11 yards during the entirety of the regular season. However, he also caught two passes for 61 yards on 3 targets in the divisional game against the stout Denver Broncos’ secondary, with Antonio Brown out with a concussion.
Although Wheaton struggled throughout Bryant’s absence last season, he became an entirely different player following the Steelers bye. From Weeks 12 through 17, Wheaton was fantasy’s WR16 while Bryant was only WR35. During this stretch, Wheaton caught 28 of 46 targets for 476 yards and four touchdowns.
It’s also interesting that over this stretch quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was most efficient when targeting Wheaton, posting a 106.8 QB Rating. He was at his least efficient when targeting Bryant, with a WR Rating of 67.1. Also, during this stretch, Wheaton dropped only one ball on 46 targets, while Bryant dropped eight of 49.
The fact that he was already outperforming Bryant toward the end of the regular season last year is very promising for his potential next season. Though he was less effective than Bryant in the playoffs, catching seven of 13 targets for 53 yards in two games, he likely still has the best chance of assuming the now vacant WR2 role. It’s hard to say who now assumes the WR3 role. Heyward-Bey was mostly phased out of the offense following Bryant’s return. Coates was barely used at all, but as a recent draft pick has far more potential than the 29-year-old Heyward-Bey. This may be a battle decided in camp or a position filled by a committee of the two.
It’d be fair to move Roethlisberger down a very slight nudge in your rankings, while bumping up Wheaton, Green, Coates, and possibly Heyward-Bey, who should all see a bump in targets. The roles of Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell are secure enough as to remain mostly unaffected. Wheaton and then Coates, especially, get the biggest boosts, but neither will likely put up the kinds of numbers we’ve seen from Bryant.