Is There Any Reason to Believe Markus Wheaton Is a Better Option Than Martavis Bryant?
Let’s cut to the chase and answer the question posed in the headline.
In short, no.
To be a little more thorough, heck no.
I know what Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said, coming out and stating Markus Wheaton, not Martavis Bryant, is the team’s second receiver behind all-everything Antonio Brown. I also know what’s happened in the first two preseason games, during which Wheaton has repeatedly played over Bryant in two-receiver sets.
You know what else I know?
That Bryant is a whole lot better at football than Wheaton.
That assertion is backed up by my eyes when I watch each of them play. (I’m equal parts mesmerized and need-to-be-strapped-down-to-the-couch excited when I watch highlights of Bryant’s performance against the Colts, when he had five catches for 83 yards and two scores.) It’s also backed up by their 2014 on-field production -- or lack thereof in Wheaton’s case.
Using our in-house Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, which allows us to see how much each play influences the outcome of the game by adding down-and-distance value, we can evaluate the two wideouts in terms of how they impacted Pittsburgh's scoring chances last year.
Both have admittedly small sample sizes with which to work, but Bryant’s Reception NEP per target of 0.95 was tied for second best among 99 receivers with at least 40 targets. Wheaton’s clip of 0.64 checked in 51st. Despite getting 38 more targets (86 to 48) and hauling in 27 more catches (53 to 26), Wheaton was only able to accrue 9.07 more total Reception NEP than Bryant.
All that is a fancy way of saying Bryant, who was a rookie in 2014, got fewer opportunities last year than Wheaton did, but he did significantly more with those opportunities.
At 6-foot-4 and owner of a 4.42-second 40-yard dash and 39-inch vertical, Bryant showed his penchant for big plays and touchdowns last season. Do you know what helps win fantasy football matchups? Ding, ding, ding! Big plays and touchdowns.
Bryant -- despite playing in just 10 games and on 43 percent of the snaps last season -- hauled in 26 balls on 48 targets for 549 yards and 8 scores. He found the end zone once every six targets and racked up 21.1 yards per catch. He led all receivers in fantasy points per target (2.087) and points per snap (.357). The touchdown-per-target rate is obviously unsustainable, but it shows his big-play prowess nonetheless.
Bryant ranked among the game's elite in yards per route run. He checked in third at 2.75, finishing behind A.J. Green and Demaryius Thomas while coming directly in front of Odell Beckham, Julio Jones and Dez Bryant. That's a nice table at which to own a seat.
This whole debate over who’s second on the depth chart is somewhat insignificant anyway because Pittsburgh ran three-receiver sets 66 percent of the time in 2014. If the Steelers have three receivers on the field this year, Bryant is going to be one of them 1,000 times out of 100.
It’s pretty simple -- Bryant should play more because he’s the Steelers’ second-best receiver, and Pittsburgh is interested in winning more games.
So why are the Steelers, Roethlisberger in particular, chatting up Wheaton? I don’t know. My best guess is it’s in an effort to motivate Bryant. There were rumblings last year Bryant’s low snap count was due to not knowing the playbook, and the label on him out of Clemson was that he had attitude and work ethic problems.
Any issues he had with the playbook seem to be a thing of the past, at least according to Roethlisberger.
“Last year,” Roethlisberger told Steelers.com on July 27, “We just kind of put him in there and gave him a couple of things to do, which he did really well. Now, we’re asking him to do more. We’re asking him to move around a little bit, front side, back side, and to know things better. I’m going to count on him in the no-huddle (offense). Last year he’d ask everyone what to do. Now we feel more comfortable with him knowing what to do.”
Of course, those quotes didn’t get near the play as Roethlisberger's praise of Wheaton.
What’s comical is I thought Wheaton’s 15 minutes of fame was going to be the best thing to ever happen to Bryant’s average draft position (ADP), but it’s hardly affected it at all.
According to Fantasy Football Calculator, Bryant entered August as a late fourth-round pick. He briefly dipped to the fourth selection of the fifth round on August 14, but he’s risen back into the fourth round as of August 25. Of course, in early August, Bryant missed time with an elbow infection, and that could have been the reason for the drop in ADP.
Even as the 19th receiver off the board, Bryant can still provide value if he hits his ceiling, although not as much as when he was a seventh-round choice back in January. Because of his touchdown dependence, he is a very enticing weapon in best-ball formats, but if he sees the field often and consistently, he could just as well be a threat in re-draft and weekly formats.
In summary, you needed this article for the same reason I did -- to tell you what you already know. Martavis Bryant is a better receiver than Markus Wheaton. Don’t overthink it.