What Does Martavis Bryant's Potential Suspension Mean for the Steelers and Fantasy Football Owners?
With Martavis Bryant facing a possible four-game suspension for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy, you have to wonder what the Steelers knew. After all, third-year wideout Markus Wheaton -- not the uber-efficient Bryant -- has been getting breakout hype from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger this offseason, and Pittsburgh went out and drafted Sammie Coates in May's draft, a player who has a profile that sort of mirrors what the team already had in Bryant.
Did the Steelers know about this possible suspension?
Answering this question isn't really what we're about here at numberFire. Instead, let's take a look at the impact this breaking news would have on the team, and which players will benefit.
Turning Around an Offense
Among all wide receivers with 40 or more targets last season -- which was one shy of 100 -- Bryant ranked second in Reception Net Expected Points (NEP) per target (read more about NEP in our glossary). In other words, as a rookie, you could make a pretty easy case that he was one of the most efficient wide receivers in the entire league.
What's interesting about Bryant's emergence is how it correlated with success from the Steelers' offense. Whether Bryant was the cause of this or not can be up for debate, but the numbers are really interesting.
|Adjusted NEP||Per Game||Adjusted Passing NEP||Per Game|
For those who are unaware, the Steelers didn't start using Bryant until their Week 7 game against the Texans last year. From that point on, they had a per-game Adjusted NEP -- expected points added versus expectation, adjusted for strength of schedule -- of 12.00. Extrapolated over the entire season, and the Steelers would have ranked first in Adjusted NEP, four points ahead of the Packers.
As you can see, the six weeks before Bryant entered the lineup, things weren't ideal. In fact, Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger -- who ended the season with the best cumulative numbers of his career -- had the Steelers ranked 26th in passing offense through the first six weeks of the season last year. And three of those six contests were against teams ranked in the bottom half against the pass, per our metrics.
It's hard to believe, but at the beginning of last season, the Steeler offense wasn't clicking.
I'm sure Bryant didn't have everything to do with this turnaround, and some of the Steelers' ridiculous numbers down the stretch have to do with back-to-back six touchdown games from Big Ben, buoying those totals. But to ignore Bryant's presence when thinking about this suspension wouldn't be right, either, because he really played a big role for the Steelers in stretching the field and making big plays during the second half of the 2014 season.
Is Wheaton Ready to Step Up?
With Bryant out, Markus Wheaton is certain to get more volume in the Steelers' passing attack. And for Pittsburgh fans, this probably isn't a good thing.
Among the same cohort of 40-plus target receivers last year -- you know, the one where Bryant ranked second in efficiency -- Wheaton was 51st, sandwiched between Justin Hunter and Roddy White. Wheaton's Reception NEP per target average wasn't bad at 0.64, but it kind of was when you compare it to Antonio Brown (0.84) and Bryant (0.95) within the exact same offense. Even Lance Moore, who was fourth on the team in wide receiver targets, finished with a better rate of efficiency than Wheaton did last year (0.66).
Things were a lot worse with his small rookie year sample, too. Among all Steeler wide receivers, Wheaton's 0.36 Reception NEP per target -- on only 13 targets, mind you -- was worst. And actually, it was one of the lowest rates in the entire NFL.
Clearly the 2014 season should hold more weight given his role in the offense, but statistically, things aren't pointing in the right direction.
It doesn't get a whole lot better from a measurables standpoint, either. According to MockDraftable.com, Wheaton's list of comparables is essentially a bunch of players you'd pick up in free agency in your Madden franchise just to fill your wide receiver roster obligation. At 5'11'', 189 pounds, you can't expect Wheaton to just fill the shoes of a 6'5'', 200-plus pound Bryant.
And he really won't. Without Bryant, this Steelers offense is bound to play closer to the line of scrimmage given the team's personnel -- you now have two possession receivers as Roethlisberger's top targets, and an aged Heath Miller running (dad running) down the middle of the field. Le'Veon Bell would be a nice asset to have out of the backfield but, hey, guess what? He's out for the first two games of the regular season thanks to an incident last offseason.
So is Wheaton ready to step up? Well, if you're expecting him to fill the shoes of Martavis Bryant, then no. Because it wouldn't make a ton of sense for him to play the same role Bryant did, given his overall efficiency and physical build. Instead, we should expect a decent amount of highly-efficient throws to go Wheaton's way, boosting his PPR value in fantasy leagues.
But as Rich Hribar noted on Twitter shortly after the suspension was announced, don't expect the world from Wheaton. When Bryant wasn't involved in the offense last year, Wheaton's weekly wide receiver ranks in PPR leagues were 28th, 32nd, 58th, 47th, 75th and 63rd. So even if opportunity is there, we shouldn't assume he's a locked-in starter in pretend pigskin.
What This Means for Pittsburgh in 2015
Ben Roethlisberger is going to need to pull some Houdini-like stunts for the Steelers to start the year. And unfortunately for them, they'll face the Patriots, 49ers, Rams and Ravens to start the season. New England had the fourth-best pass defense last year according to our numbers, while San Francisco ranked 14th, St. Louis 10th and the Ravens 16th. New England will more than likely not be as strong given their loss of Darrelle Revis, and the 49ers are a mess given the team's personnel changes. But the opening schedule, overall, isn't a cakewalk for any passing attack.
Things were already going to be a little difficult given Le'Veon Bell's suspension, and our algorithm gave the Steelers just 25.8% odds of winning the division, a number far lower than the Ravens' 39.2%. Now without Martavis Bryant -- a key reason this offense has been trending up -- the Steelers are going to have little room for error. And that's scary considering how bad the other side of the ball might be for them this season.