Can Martavis Bryant Keep Getting Better?
With just 18 NFL games under his belt, it’s already abundantly clear that Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Martavis Bryant is uniquely gifted.
As a rookie in 2014, Bryant made 26 catches for 549 yards and 8 touchdowns while playing sparingly -- 52 percent of the Steelers’ offensive snaps -- over the course of 10 games. His 0.95 Reception Net Expected Points (NEP) per target ranked third among wide receivers with at least 25 catches.
Despite the limited sample size, his average draft position (ADP) climbed steadily throughout the offseason, peaking in the fourth round before he was slapped with a four-game suspension in late August.
Through seven games in 2015, Bryant has not disappointed in his sophomore campaign.
His snap count has risen to 68 percent, and his per-game target total has ballooned from 4.9 to 9. Taking full advantage of the increased opportunity, he has compiled 31 catches for 623 yards and 6 touchdowns -- a season-long pace of 71 catches, 1,424 yards, and 14 touchdowns.
Bryant’s 0.81 Reception NEP per target ranks 13th -- five spots better than his teammate, Antonio Brown -- among wide receivers with at least 50 targets. His cumulative 51.27 Reception NEP ranks 40th among wide receivers despite having played just seven of 12 games; on a per-game basis, Bryant’s 7.32 Reception NEP ranks 13th among qualified receivers.
The impact Bryant has had on the Steelers’ offense is undeniable. In the 14 games Ben Roethlisberger has played with Bryant in the past two seasons, he has averaged 342 passing yards, 2.14 touchdowns, and 8.52 yards per attempt. In the nine games without Bryant, Roethlisberger has thrown for just 280 yards and 1.33 touchdowns per game on 8.35 yards per attempt.
Few, if any, players in the league can match Bryant’s rare combination of red zone and big play ability. The Steelers are successfully scheming to take advantage of the mismatches he creates with his exceptional athleticism and his 6’4” frame. Boasting 4.42 speed and a 39 inch vertical, Bryant ranks second in yards per reception (20.1), and his 1.86 red zone targets per game is tied with Alshon Jeffery for the league lead.
Room to Grow
The NFL.com pre-draft scouting report called Bryant “a lean, long-limbed, rangy, outside-the-numbers, big-play receiver.” But, overshadowed at Clemson by DeAndre Hopkins and Sammy Watkins -- first round picks in 2013 and 2014, respectively -- Bryant fell to the fourth round of the 2014 Draft in part due to concerns about his inconsistent hands and his unpolished route running.
Despite his success, the knocks on Bryant coming out of Clemson continue to plague the young receiver. Among the 66 wide receivers with 50 or more targets, his 7.9 percent drop rate and 49.2 percent catch rate rank fourth worst and sixth worst, respectively. Bryant’s 19.1 yards average depth of target (aDOT) suggests that his route running remains at least somewhat one-dimensional. Indeed, 41 percent of his targets this season have come on go routes.
To some extent, the pre-draft depiction of the inconsistent and unpolished fourth-rounder from Clemson still holds true a year and a half later. But when it comes to late-round wide receivers who have overcome early-career imperfections, there is perhaps no better example than the other half of the Steelers’ receiving duo, Antonio Brown. Five years ago, the characterizations of the sixth-rounder from Central Michigan -- an inconsistent receiver with “decent” hands and route running skills that “could use some refinement” -- sound nothing like the elite playmaker we see on the field today.
So just how good could Martavis Bryant become if -- or when -- he too overcomes his flaws? Already a uniquely dominant force, he may have only just begun to scratch the surface of his potential.