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Player Spotlight: Martavis Bryant

A detailed look at Martavis Bryant's fantasy prospects for 2017.

Positives

  • Martavis Bryant is a threat to break a huge play every time he touches the ball.
  • He’s an elite touchdown producer. Bryant is the only wide receiver since 1962 to catch 14 touchdowns in his first 21 pro games.
  • If the Steelers are paying attention, they’ll get him on the field as much as possible. Since 2014, their points per game average has increased by 23% in games Bryant has played vs. those he missed.
  • Bryant has said and done all of the right things since getting suspended for the 2016 season last March.

Negatives

  • He may be saying and doing the right things, but Bryant remains one misstep away from a suspension that will end his season and perhaps even his career.
  • The Steelers investing a second round pick in JuJu Smith-Schuster can be viewed as a lack of confidence in Bryant’s ability to stay clean.
  • Bryant and Ben Roethlisberger don’t seem to be on the best terms.

A Polarizing Figure

Depending on which Footballguys staffer you ask, Bryant will finish as high as WR13 in the coming season, or as low as WR73 -- by far the biggest disparity in our staff rankings. The case for Bryant as a WR2 with upside is plain:

  • Bryant has either caught a touchdown or gone over 100 receiving yards in 15-out-of-24 career games (playoffs included). 
  • When he last took the field in 2015, Bryant finished as the cumulative WR13 from Weeks 6-17 (his only games played due to suspension).
  • Bryant is a bonafide downfield playmaker. From Weeks 6-17 in 2015, his six receptions and three touchdowns of 25+ yards both led the Steelers and placed him near the league lead in each category.
  • He’s far from a one-trick pony. Bryant can score from anywhere on the field. He began his career in Week 7 of 2014 by scoring six touchdowns in his first four games as a pro. Ben Roethlisberger continued to rely heavily on Bryant when the Steelers got within scoring range in 2015. His nine targets from inside the opponent’s 10-yard line were second on the team to Antonio Brown’s 12. Brown appeared in six more games than Bryant.

So how can a Footballguy rank a player with a borderline WR1 profile outside of his top-70 wide receivers now that Bryant has been conditionally reinstated from last year’s season-long suspension? Andy Hicks explains:

“There are some in fantasy football who fall in love with a player’s upside and ignore the mess around him. Such is the case with Bryant. There is no doubt he’s a talented player when he’s on the field -- WHEN HE’S ON THE FIELD. Bryant has missed 20 games due to drug related suspensions since entering the league in 2014, including all of the last season. Here’s a list of players who have been suspended for a full year due to substance abuse in recent years -- Rolando McClain, Randy Gregory, Josh Gordon, Aldon Smith, Dion Jordan, Daryl Washington, Justin Blackmon. The common thread between these players is they all slipped up again once the league began testing them more vigorously due to their previous violations. The Steelers investing a second round draft pick in JuJu Smith-Schuster this spring is proof they’re not counting on Bryant. Let’s see him make it through training camp and the preseason without failing another test before even thinking about drafting Bryant at his current ADP”.

Convincing stuff from Mr. Hicks, which illustrates why such a rigid dichotomy exists between the pro-Bryant and anti-Bryant camps in fantasy football. So which is it going to be for Bryant in 2017 -- a return to prominence as the Steelers de facto lid popper and end zone threat, or another lost season?

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

It’s impossible to know exactly what’s going through Bryant’s head, but at least he has sounded genuinely contrite and focused during the offseason. Here are a few sound bites:

“I know it’s my last chance,” Bryant told ESPN’s Dan Graziano during a featured story on SportsCenter. “I’m not going to think every day when I wake up ‘Oh it’s my last chance, oh it’s my last chance.’ No. I know that. It’s all about correcting what I did. I got stuff set up to prevent me from going down that path.”

“I know this is my last chance,” Bryant told reporters after their first OTAs. “I put the right people around me. I have things set up in place for me to succeed and maintain my sobriety…I developed better habits, also who I hang around. I’m a family man.”

“The smoking part, yeah, it clicked in me I can’t do it anymore,” Bryant said. “I wanted to be better than I was before. In order for me to be better than I was before, I had to put more into it. I’ve been training this offseason. I’m taking a different approach.”

It would be easy to write these quotes off as lip service, if not for the actions backing them up. 

  • Bryant is literally a family man now, having welcomed an infant son to the world back in March. It may sound cliché, but having children does change people.
  • He absolutely took a different approach to training in the offseason, adding over 10 pounds of muscle to his frame.  
 
  • Bryant says he is being tested for drugs multiple times each week, and as far as we know, he hasn’t failed a test since his year-long suspension was handed down last March.

Players in and around the Steelers organization are also bullish on Bryant’s 2017 prospects:

Martavis Bryant, I’ve never seen anybody his height do the things that he’s done, that I’ve seen him do. You see Megatron, and you are like, that is insane. I’m not sure how fast Megatron was, but I’m almost sure Megatron wasn’t a 4.25. He’s 6-foot-4, 6-foot-5, 225 and ran a 4.25. I’m a let you do the numbers...I’m 100 percent sure that he can and he will (put his problems behind him).” - DeAngelo Williams, speaking on Adam Schefter’s No Them From Adam Podcast

“He looks like a stud, as usual.” - Roethlisberger, last month.

Speaking of Roethlisberger

Sports media thrives on drama, so it should come as no surprise the quote from Bryant’s Sportscenter interview receiving the most press is this one directed at Roethlisberger:

"We should have a man-to-man. Because some of the things he put out there about me, I kind of didn't agree with how he did it. So I want to sit down and hear his own opinion, man-to-man, about why he did that."

The “things” Roethlisberger put out there last March, Bryant is referring to:

“We talked a lot, every day during his suspension we talked. And then, when [the second suspension] happened, we talked, as soon as the news broke I kind of asked him what happened. He said some things that were just kind of disappointing...I just think the approach, the denial of everything. Looking me in my eye and denying everything, it’s tough. It disappoints you as a man and a guy who cared so much about him. I obviously care a lot about him as a person and a football player...I kind of put it on his plate. I would love to talk to him, but I have to let him make the move, he needs to reach out to me because I’ve tried and done those things. I’m not trying to be rude or mean, but I think he needs to do that, like grow up and reach out and talk to me, anybody.”

Could there be a rift between Bryant and his quarterback?

Maybe.

It does seem a little strange both Bryant and Roethlisberger have publicly called for a one-on-one meeting and it apparently hasn’t happened yet, despite sharing a field at OTAs.

Does it matter for fantasy football?

Not one bit.

Roethlisberger, the Pittsburgh front office, and every other person who has been paying attention to football over the last few years recognizes having Bryant on the field is transformative for the Steelers offense. Check out their game splits with and without Bryant in the lineup since 2014:

Steelers With Bryant Without Bryant
Games 21 27
Points per game 29.3 23.8
Points per drive 2.33 2.06
Point differential 7.1 3.04

Not surprisingly, the contrast between Roethlisberger’s numbers with and without Bryant in the lineup is equally jarring:

Roethlisberger With Bryant Without Bryant
Games 19 23
Pass TDs per game 2.11 1.78
Pass yards per game 336.6 275.7
Fantasy points per game 25.5 21.5

Make no mistake -- Roethlisberger wants Bryant on the field, even if he has no interest in being pals with him off it.

Final Thoughts

You probably didn’t have to read this far to reach the conclusion drafting Bryant is a high risk/high reward proposition. How high is the risk? As of this writing, he’s not even allowed to practice with the team at training camp while he awaits “full reinstatement” from the league. This became a news story on July 27th, and it’s unclear at this time exactly when Bryant will be fully cleared.

But even though the league has made some wonky decisions on suspensions in recent years, we’ve been given no indication Bryant isn’t progressing through his reinstatement as expected. Hopefully, this news puts a dent in Bryant’s early-fifth round ADP which is already too low for a difference maker of his caliber.

As both a premier deep threat and red zone weapon, Bryant is one of the few receivers in the league capable of singlehandedly winning your weekly matchup, as he proved several times in 2015. Bryant plays in one of the league’s better offenses, benefits from favorable coverage playing opposite Antonio Brown, and has zero competition at outside receiver, even if the Steelers wide receiver depth chart looks crowded on paper (Eli Rogers plays inside, Smith-Schuster also worked from the slot in OTAs, and Sammie Coates Jr is equal parts terrible and injured).

For as long as Bryant is available at a high-end WR3 price point, he’s one of the best values in 2017 drafts. The other receivers usually available in the same ADP range -- think Michael Crabtree and Jarvis Landry -- offer considerably higher floors, but even on their best days, they’re incapable of lighting up box scores the way Bryant did when we last saw him on the field. Think of the leverage you gain on your opponent when your WR3 goes off for 8-137-2 (Bryant’s Week 6 stats from last year) and his (or her's) posts an ordinary 6-75-0 receiving line. The term league-winner has become somewhat of a misnomer, but in Bryant’s case, it still applies.

Projections

Staff Member Receptions Rec Yards Rec TDS
Dodds 56 862 6
Wood 61 950 7
Henry 58 950 9
Tremblay 62 842 5
Alexander 70 1070 10

Other Viewpoints

The Fantasy Footballers' Michael Wenrich believes Bryant has a high probability of finishing as a WR1:

"As shown with his career stats, Bryant's expectations already fall on the low-end of the WR1 thresholds across the board, with almost no improvements over his rookie and sophomore seasons. I believe that with just slight improvements in target share and catch rate Martavis Bryant has a very high probability of finishing as a WR1 and a great value in drafts for 2017."

Walter Football's Chet Gresham believes Bryant is committed to playing 16 games this season, but is more cautious in dynasty leagues:

"Bryant was away from the NFL for over 400 days after his last suspension and will be on an extremely short leash from here on out. But seeing him go through the rigors of getting reinstated after missing so much time does give me some confidence that at the very least, he'll be committed for his 16 games this season. In dynasty, you might worry a bit more, but as usual, your choice will be influenced by his asking price. I like Bryant quite a bit, so I'm willing to pay more than others, but there is of course a tipping point."