PITTSBURGH -- A wide receivers coach by trade, Todd Haley believes he doesn’t whiff on pass-catching evaluations very often.
So when Martavis Bryant fell into the middle rounds of the 2014 draft, the Steelers offensive coordinator spoke up inside team headquarters, reiterating what the Pittsburgh Steelers scouting already had revealed: This guy is different from anyone on the current roster.
The Steelers were not taking a receiver high, so Haley looked for unique qualities. A lanky 6-foot-4 receiver with sub-4.4 speed and serious hops certainly qualified. But Bryant was an imperfect prospect, buried behind Sammy Watkins and DeAndre Hopkins on Clemson’s depth chart and absent from a bowl game for disciplinary reasons. In two NFL seasons, Bryant, who went No. 118 overall, has given Pittsburgh touchdowns (15 scores in 20 games) and headaches (four-game suspension for failed drug tests).
“Whenever he does something wrong, I hear about it,” said Haley, who acknowledges he was “pounding the table” for Bryant. “But when we see a big guy that has a chance to be something special, obviously we will fight for those guys.”
That fight has helped produce one of the league’s fiercest receiving corps. The 9-6 Steelers will miss the playoffs if the Jets beat the Bills on Sunday, but to explain why AFC wild-card opponents want nothing to do with Pittsburgh in January, look no further than the production of the franchise’s receivers selected in the mid-to-late-rounds in the last six years.
Before the passing game struggled in Sunday’s 20-17 loss to Baltimore, the trio of Antonio Brown (sixth round, 2010), Markus Wheaton (third round, 2013) and Bryant had averaged 295 receiving yards per game from Weeks 9-14. They have combined for 21 touchdowns (two non-receiving) despite quarterback Ben Roethlisberger missing four games and Bryant missing five.
The Steelers also plucked prodigious midround talent from the 2009-10 drafts with Mike Wallace, who became a 1,000-yard receiver before landing a big contract in Miami, and Emmanuel Sanders, who never flourished in Pittsburgh but has posted two straight 1,000-yard seasons in Denver.
Those guys left, the Steelers missed on tailback/receiver Dri Archer in the third round of 2014, and yet they’ve never been better at the position thanks largely to Brown, an undersized receiver out of Central Michigan who carries a chip on his shoulder the size of the Allegheny River.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin simplifies the orchard of playmaking as a byproduct of basic scouting and coaching. But even the Steelers’ toughest rival has noticed the success.
“They’ve hit on some mid-to-late-round draft choices. They’ve drafted the right guys,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “Credit their coaches and the scouting department.”
The Steelers’ evaluation process isn’t overly scientific. Both Bryant and third-rounder Sammie Coates, a rookie who is fifth on the depth chart, say the Steelers didn’t treat them differently than other teams during the draft. They interviewed with the team and saw Steelers reps at their workouts. When Bryant left Pittsburgh after his pre-draft visit, he wasn’t sure the Steelers were high on him. He couldn’t figure it out.
Those who understand the Steelers’ strategy say the catalyst is identifying unique qualities, and the franchise will always know more than the player does about where he stands. As Haley puts it, “very rarely” is the team surprised by a player’s emergence late in the process. They’ve already dedicated hours to that player’s background and route tendencies.
With Brown, the team saw an all-around receiver. The 5-foot-10 playmaker could line up anywhere and had great hands. But he wasn’t a stopwatch blazer (40 times as opposed to game speed) and was pegged as a product of inflated small-school production. He was great value in the sixth round.
“I knew I could do anything the big guys could do,” Brown said.
With Wheaton, the Steelers saw crisp route running. They liked his chances to master the precision part of the position and realized this early.
With Bryant, Colbert also liked Bryant’s raw playmaking early in the process. The question internally was, were the Steelers going to draft a receiver in the middle rounds for the second straight year? They took a calculated risk.
“They saw the potential of what I could be,” Bryant said. “When they drafted me, they told me to come in and work hard and I’m starting to reap the reward from it.”
Roethlisberger’s presence is the common thread fueling offensive success. Roethlisberger’s comfort level in Haley’s offense has ballooned receiving totals for everyone involved. But the way Roethlisberger sees it, Brown is crucial to the development of the supporting cast because of the daily example he sets.
The Steelers figured Brown could be good. They didn’t expect him to be this good, with a three-year stretch that rivals Jerry Rice and Marvin Harrison. Brown has had back-to-back 120-catch, 1,600-yard seasons.
Turns out that Roethlisberger, a fellow Mid-American Conference player, could relate to Brown’s motivations early on.
“He was kind of bound and determined to not just be the small guy that was your typical wide receiver,” Roethlisberger said. “That always pushed him -- small school, multiple colleges, maybe people not always believing in him.”
The Steelers watched Brown’s detailed note-taking and precise route running become guides for younger players. “Is there a guy you’d rather be watching on a daily basis?” Haley asks.
Brown bounces between helping teammates improve and getting his. He’s the lead-by-example type, not much on pep talks.
“We’re competitive, but we hold each other accountable,” Brown said. “I’m sure guys know [I’m always the No. 1 option]. It’s a tough situation for receivers, but it’s kind of my time.”
Meanwhile, the Steelers laud the work of assistant coach Richard Mann, who operates a fast-paced wide receiver room. Players can be called out at any time in this space. Receivers fine each other for dropped passes, late attendance to meetings and running wrong routes in practice. He doesn’t treat Brown differently.
As he is being interviewed, Mann, a 31-year NFL veteran coach, pulls out a long black-and-white sheet that looks like a grid, pointing to the dozens of rectangular spaces he just filled with observations from a two-hour practice.
He’s heading to the receiver room, where he rehearses every line to his players.
“We teach everybody the same thing -- we critique it, what’s good, what’s bad,” Mann said. “If they ain’t doing it, we coach them up some more. If it ain’t working, we change it.”
And when they are done working, they go to Georgia to work some more. For a few days each offseason, Roethlisberger hosts receivers at his Lake Oconee, Georgia, home for workout sessions at University of Georgia during the day and barbecue hangout sessions by the lake at night. It’s a chance to “be grown men and relax,” Bryant said.
The way Wheaton sees it, the relaxation part is usually minimal.
“We all grind,” Wheaton said.