When the Pittsburgh Steelers signed tight end Ladarius Green on Thursday, they seem to have put the finishing touches on an offensive juggernaut primed to obliterate defenses in 2016. It now appears the 6-foot-6, 240-pound seam stretcher won't be as much of an addition as he will be a replacement for Martavis Bryant.
Bryant, who has seemingly been on the cusp of superstardom since midway through his rookie season in 2014, has hit another roadblock in his career, as he faces a one-year suspension for another violation of the NFL's substance-abuse policy.
Bryant, who turned 24 in December, missed the first five weeks of last season due to a suspension and an injury. Upon his return, he immediately took over as Ben Roethlisberger's No. 2 target behind Antonio Brown. Bryant was on the field for 78 percent of the team's pass plays from that point forward. He handled just under one quarter of the targets, and he carried the ball eight times.
The area where Bryant will surely be missed the most is the red zone. A favorite target of Roethlisberger's as the goal line approaches, Bryant's 29 end zone targets are fourth most in the NFL since he made his debut in Week 7 of his rookie season. He trails only Mike Evans (31), Alshon Jeffery (30) and Brandon Marshall (30) during that span. Including the playoffs, Bryant has racked up 1,697 yards from scrimmage, and he has scored 17 touchdowns in 24 career games. That's even more impressive when you consider that he was on the field for less than half of the team's pass plays in seven of those games.
Needless to say, the Steelers have some big shoes to fill.
After signing Green to a four-year, $20 million contract, Pittsburgh will certainly be looking to him to pick up some of the slack, especially near the goal line. Green was a situational player behind Antonio Gates during his first four years in the NFL, but his combination of size and 4.5 wheels make him as dangerous a playmaking threat, as they come at the tight end position. Green should be viewed as a mid-to-back-end TE1 with significant upside.
In addition to Green, Markus Wheaton is in for an increased role. A 2013 third-round pick, Wheaton has yet to emerge as a starter at the pro level, instead settling in as Pittsburgh's No. 3/slot receiver. He has shown some flashes (see his nine-catch, 201-yard performance against Seattle last year), but he also failed to emerge during stints as the No. 2 receiver in both 2014 and during Bryant's suspension last season. If Wheaton is able to nail down an every-down role opposite Brown, the volume alone in Pittsburgh's pass-heavy, high-scoring offense will put him in the WR3 mix.
Of course, Wheaton will need to fend off Sammie Coates for the gig. A third-round pick last season, Coates caught only three passes during what was essentially a redshirt season. Standing 6-foot-1, weighing 212 pounds, sporting 4.43 wheels and having shown off his playmaking skills during his time at Auburn, Coates is very much a threat to emerge in his second season in the pros. We'll need to monitor Coates' progress during training camp and the preseason, but in the meantime, he has the looks of a strong high-ceiling target during the late stages of your draft. Keep in mind that the Steelers have ranked no lower than eighth in the league in three-plus wide receivers when passing over the past three seasons. Even if Coates doesn't pass Wheaton, Pittsburgh's No. 3 receiver will be plenty involved.
Veteran wideout Darrius Heyward-Bey and second-year tight end Jesse James are two other players whose stat lines figure to benefit from Bryant's suspension, but neither will enjoy enough a boost to warrant your attention on draft day.
As for Roethlisberger, the loss of one of the game's top young wide receivers is certainly a roadblock, but he still has Le'Veon Bell, Brown, DeAngelo Williams, Wheaton, Coates and Green in his arsenal. This knocks him down a peg or two, but Roethlisberger still belongs in the second tier of quarterbacks behind Cam Newton. He'll make for a strong QB1 option most weeks.
Finally, what do you do with Bryant?
For starters, keep in mind that he is appealing the suspension, so don't jump the gun and sell low. Assuming the suspension holds up, however, you'll need to consider his value to your team. If you're in a league that only keeps a few players, there's no sense in saving a slot for a player who won't play next season. If you're in a full-on dynasty league, remember that Bryant is only 24 and has elite upside. As was the case with Josh Gordon last year, Bryant is well worth stashing in leagues with reasonably sized benches. If he's on your team, hold tight. If someone drops him, scoop him up. If you can get him for a mid-to-late-round rookie pick, go for it. There's obviously some risk involved, but Bryant's long-term upside makes him well worth the investment.