Player Faceoff: WR Martavis Bryant, Pittsburgh

Two staffers go head-to-head and discuss Martavis Bryant

The staff members at Footballguys are full of opinions. In a Faceoff, we allow two members to voice their opinions on a specific player. One picked the high side, and the other took the low side.

High Side: Matt Waldman

The greatest concern about Martavis Bryant is his ability to stay clean. The fact that he’s knee-deep in the NFL’s substance abuse program concerns fantasy owners who have fallen victim to Josh Gordon’s suspensions. There are also concerns that the potential development of Sammie Coates Jr, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and Eli Rogers could limit Bryant’s upside. While I like Smith-Schuster and Rogers as football players and Coates is an athletic freak in many respects, none of them hold a candle to Bryant when he is “right.”

By all accounts, Bryant is right. Before Bryant’s latest suspension there were offseason rumblings that indicated Pittsburgh was getting in front of that event with recent moves. One could claim that the addition of Smith-Schuster is a hedge against Bryant having another lapse in judgment. I see it as a hedge against Coates’ development. Coates has issues tracking the football and his hand-eye coordination at the catch-point is troublesome. His best game last year included multiple dropped passes and while he was dealing with some hand issues, this tracking problem has been a part of his game since his days at Auburn.

The fact that the Steelers are already using Smith-Schuster in the slot during training camp says that the rookie will compete with Rogers for playing time and that Coates will have to earn his time at the expense of Bryant. This is not going to happen if Bryant is healthy. Bryant is a superior route runner, he wins the ball much better in traffic, and he’s nearly Coates’ equal in the open field despite lacking the freakish level of athletic ability. Bryant is physical, fast, and understands how to set up blocks. Moreover, he understands how good routes put him in a position to catch the ball in stride, which leads him into open zones.

Ben Roethlisberger already told the media in June that Bryant looks like the same stud he’s always been. With Ladarius Green gone, Coates proving last year that catching the ball is like doing calculus he doesn’t always understand, and Antonio Brown dominating top cornerbacks on a weekly basis, I expect Bryant to earn a lot of mismatches and produce in a big way. Fantasy owners are always scared of suspensions and if that issue and side bets on less talented Steelers receivers are the noise distracting them from the signal that is Bryant’s starter skills and Pro Bowl potential, I’ll exploit it.

Low Side: Andy Hicks

It is easy to fall in love with the upside that Martavis Bryant presents us. In 21 games he has 14 touchdowns. His yards per catch is elite at over 17 yards a reception, and one quarter of his games are 100 yarders or more. Fantastic, or so it would seem.

The Pittsburgh Steelers have played 54 games since Martavis Bryant entered the league in 2014. Bryant has missed 30 of those games - 23 due to suspension and 7 due to injury or immaturity. Most of the games missed due to injury or immaturity occurred in his rookie season where coaches were concerned about his maturity and readiness to play in the NFL. The 23 missed games due to suspension are where we need to be most concerned.
Martavis Bryant is reported to have failed at least four drug tests at the NFL level and missed tests as well, which is as good as a failed test according to the NFL’s substance abuse policy. This doesn’t take into account the issues he had at Clemson, where he was suspended for a bowl game and had maturity issues that scared off most NFL teams. Missing 23 games due to multiple suspensions is bad enough, but one more offense and he is likely to be out of the league. The only thing keeping him in the league right now is his talent and even that is on thin ice.

A 12-month/indefinite suspension is a major red flag for an NFL player. Let’s just have a quick look at players who have earned this dubious honor in the 10 years before the suspension of Martavis Bryant (five players have been handed an indefinite or year-long suspension since Bryant’s was announced):

  • Frank Alexander – Now playing in the CFL
  • Aldon Smith – Still not reinstated
  • Dion Jordan – Hasn’t played since 2014
  • Josh Gordon – Hasn’t played since 2014 and not yet reinstated
  • Daryl Washington – Hasn’t played since 2013
  • Justin Blackmon – Hasn’t played since 2013
  • Tanard Jackson – Suspended indefinitely after returning from a year-long suspension
  • Dominic Rhodes – Never played in the NFL again
  • Johnny Jolly – Returned to play one season after missing 3 seasons
  • Travis Henry – Never played in the NFL again
  • Odell Thurman – Never played in the NFL again
  • Koren Robinson – Played one more season, 12 games for 400 yards and 2 touchdowns.

The last player to successfully return from a year-long suspension is former Saints/Dolphins/Ravens running back Ricky Williams. In other words, only one player of the last 13 suspended by the NFL for a year for substance abuse has returned with any kind of success. Only three have played another down. Those are very poor odds indeed.

The Pittsburgh Steelers have Bryant on thin ice. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was reportedly extremely annoyed and disappointed in Bryant, with the receiver allegedly having lied to Roethlisberger and as a result let the team down. He not only will need to earn back the trust of his quarterback, but the whole team and franchise. Pittsburgh will move on quickly if he does what usually happens to guys suspended for a year. Helping the Steelers is the tremendous depth they have at the position with Antonio Brown one of the best in the league. A 2nd-rounder was spent on JuJu Smith-Schuster, Eli Rogers put up almost 600 yards last year, and the Steelers still have faith that Sammie Coates Jr can be a productive receiver. Pittsburgh is used to not having Martavis Bryant around, they’ve had plenty of practice and have barely skipped a beat. The key nucleus of Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell is much more important that a speedy receiver who can’t keep his head together.

Is there any guarantee that Bryant makes it to the field for Week 1? Until he can actually prove his substance abuse issues are in the past and can return to an actual live NFL game, he is worth a late round flier only. Gambling more is just asking for punishment.

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