Fantasy Football: What Does Martavis Bryant's Potential Suspension Mean for the Steelers' Offense?

There's a chance Martavis Bryant is suspended for the 2016 season. How should fantasy football owners react?

When Ladarius Green inked a deal with the Steelers a couple of days ago, the NFL world questioned how anyone would stop the Steelers.

That was fun while it lasted.

Today, there was breaking news that Martavis Bryant, the athletically-gifted, number-two wideout for Pittsburgh, is facing a season-long suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy.

As a result, that potentially lethal -- perhaps historic -- Pittsburgh offense has become a little more mortal. And the Steelers are going to have to use their other weapons to fill the Bryant void.

Will anyone step up?

Filling the Gap

In 2015, Bryant ended with 50 catches for 765 yards and 6 scores, finishing as fantasy football's 39th-ranked PPR wide receiver. That doesn't look great, but it is when you consider he played just 11 games -- among wideouts with 10 or more games played, Bryant's fantasy points per game average was 11th best.

Much of this success has to do with his knack for the end zone. Over the last two seasons -- these are Bryant's first and only two years in the league -- the Steelers' wideout has scored more times through the air than all but 19 wide receivers in the league. But what's even more impressive is that, among the 36 wide receivers over the last two years with 10 or more touchdowns, Bryant has the best touchdown per target ratio in the entire league, scoring once every 10 targets.

The reality is, the only Steeler wide receiver who can do things that Martavis Bryant can do is Antonio Brown. But we already know AB is going to get his -- what about the other receivers?

It seems like the overwhelming thought among fantasy circles is that Markus Wheaton would be the next man up given Bryant's absence. At the surface that seems logical, as Wheaton finished third in targets last year for Pittsburgh. But judging by last year's five-game sample of the Pittsburgh offense without Bryant, it doesn't seem like Wheaton will really see much of an uptick.

Receiver Targets Per Game Without % Team Targets Targets Per Game With % Team Targets
A. Brown 10.0 34.01% 13.0 32.28%
M. Wheaton 3.6 12.24% 5.6 13.91%
D. Heyward-Bey 5.2 17.69% 2.2 5.46%
H. Miller 4.2 14.29% 6.0 14.90%

Brown, Wheaton, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Heath Miller finished as four of the five most targeted receivers in Pittsburgh's offense last season, with Bryant being the fifth. As you can see from the table above, it's very clear who benefited most from Bryant's absence last season: Darrius Heyward-Bey.

And it makes sense. Bryant is Pittsburgh's field stretcher -- the guy who opens things up for the entire offense. He's fast and athletic. He's a freak.

While Heyward-Bey doesn't profile identically to Bryant, he served the same role -- thanks to his speed -- for Pittsburgh while Bryant was out last year. He ended up averaging 5.2 targets per contest, while that dropped to just 2.2 when Bryant came back. That fall in market share was clearly -- clearly -- the biggest one seen by relevant Steeler pass-catchers.

Unsurprisingly, Heyward-Bey's volume had to do with him being on the field a lot more when Bryant was out last season. During this time, DHB saw no fewer than 58.9% of Pittsburgh's offensive snaps, peaking at 81.0% against Baltimore in Week 4. When Bryant came back to the lineup? Everything changed -- over 45% of Heyward-Bey's games saw him play fewer than 20% of the team's snaps, while DHB was able to hit the 30% mark just twice.

Of course, it's not so simple to say, "Draft Darrius-Heyward Bey." The fact of the matter is that our sample without Martavis Bryant last year also features two-and-a-half games without quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, which can certainly skew things a bit. But the snap percentage here is key -- that's more of a coaching choice, and it's very clear, according to that, who stepped into Bryant's role when Bryant wasn't a thing.

There's even more complexity, though. 

The Steelers also didn't have Le'Veon Bell for a good portion of the non-Bryant games, Ladarius Green wasn't on the team (who, to be honest, could see more targets than Heath Miller did last year), and Sammie Coates, a rookie, wasn't at all developed.

All of this makes it feel as though the person filling in for Bryant -- the guy who could succeed most in fantasy football with Bryant out of the lineup -- will be the guy who is able to find the end zone most in his absence, not the player who's going to see a massive uptick in targets.

That's much more of a crapshoot to figure out, but it shouldn't surprise anyone if that player ends up being Ladarius Green, a move tight end who physically compares to Greg Olsen. After all, the other non-Antonio Brown wide receivers haven't exactly made names for themselves as red zone threats.

Meanwhile, it'd be a little surprising if Heyward-Bey, who signed a new deal days ago, didn't play more snaps than he did down the stretch last season. The snap percentage evidence above is pretty telling. This is, of course, if Sammie Coates, who came out of college also as a vertical threat, doesn't step up.

So who should you target for fantasy purposes? 

If anyone, Ladarius Green probably gets a decent boost given the potential for touchdowns, while DHB or Coates would be a deep league flier or early-season waiver wire pickup. Wheaton, though, will more than likely be looked upon too highly given the way fantasy owners tend to think.

Unfortunately for Steeler fans and fantasy owners, it's simply tough to just replicate -- or come close to replicating -- Martavis Bryant.