Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown are healthy, happy and ready to connect a gazillion times over the next eight months. This much we know. This lethal combination is one reason why the Pittsburgh Steelers' high-powered offense won't flinch over a few questions about its roster. Completion after completion, they are always there.
But while Brown and Roethlisberger reconvene this week and running back Le’Veon Bell progresses on his knee rehab, the plans for replacing suspended receiver Martavis Bryant will take shape over the next few months, starting Tuesday at organized team activities.
The Steelers will fill this need by committee. They won't replace Bryant's dynamic playmaking with one person. They will need Markus Wheaton, Ladarius Green and Sammie Coates to do it, plus more help.
Wheaton's next step: Wheaton has played the complementary role. He has played the slot receiver role. Now, in a contract year, he's got a legitimate chance to be a No. 2 receiver. Wheaton has good speed, and the Steelers will want him to utilize it more often when shaking defenders and making aggressive plays on the ball. Wheaton's sluggish start to 2015 while Bryant was suspended for four games can't happen again. Don't be surprised if Wheaton plays frequently on the outside this year. That's natural to him, but Bryant's presence forced Wheaton inside.
The new vertical threat: The Steelers' reconfigured tight end position could feature less singular all-around play, which was Heath Miller’s signature, and more specialized play. Fifth-round pick Jesse James can man the traditional inline tight end role, used for primary blocking and over-the-middle catches. Meanwhile, new tight end Green offers explosion. That's why he got a $4.75 million signing bonus to come to Pittsburgh. He's 6-foot-5 and fast. If you don't have Bryant's skill set any longer, try to find something close to it. In this case, the Steelers found that at tight end. Think vertical with Green. He can stretch the field. He says he has improved as a blocker -- and blocking is necessary in this offense -- but that's not why the Steelers signed him. Green injects more athleticism into the position. Let's see how the Steelers utilize Green and James in red zone packages. They might roll both out together because of their length.
A renewed Coates: After making minimal impact his rookie year, Coates intensified his training, lost some weight and earned the coaches' trust during the offseason. The next four months will be big for his development. Where Coates can separate himself is with big plays, which the offense needs without Bryant. He was a deep-ball specialist at Auburn, and though he wants to be a complete player, his biggest strength is winning downfield with his rugged running style and his size/strength combo. The Steelers will give him every opportunity to earn a solidified role. Year 2 should show a more polished receiver than last offseason, when at times Coates looked hesitant, maybe a little lost.
The deep ball to DHB: The team quickly signed Darrius Heyward-Bey to a three-year deal after learning of the Bryant suspension, which shows the trust Roethlisberger and Todd Haley have in him. He's not a game-breaker, but he's a solid option and there's still speed inside those legs. Heyward-Bey is a productive downfield blocker too. Early in the year, he'll likely get adequate reps as the team searches for a rotational rhythm. Haley isn't afraid to mix and match personnel groupings to strike the right balance. Heyward-Bey will be involved, but if he outplays Wheaton and Coates, that's not a good look.
Don't sleep on Eli Rogers: The Steelers were high on him before a preseason knee injury forced him to injured reserve. He's not a lock to make the team but might earn snaps from the slot with shifty play. He understands the nuances of the position and felt underutilized coming out of Louisville.