With starting flanker Martavis Bryant suspended for the 2016 season, the Steelers look to continue their great tradition of filling the void with a strong performance by the "next man up". But who is that going to be?
In some cases, it's pretty clear. Le'Veon Bell's likely suspension leaves DeAngelo Williams set to reprise his role from last year as the next man up, with a little help from next man up backup Fitzgerald Toussaint. It's neat, it's tidy, and it's a heck of a lot clearer than who exactly is going to fill in at WR during Martavis Bryant's suspension.
Just who is the next man behind Martavis Bryant and how will that work? How will the Steelers pick up the slack created by his absence? Three wide receivers seem to be involved, Markus Wheaton, Darrius Heyward-Bey, and Sammie Coates, but free agent TE acquisition Ladarius Green also looks to be involved somehow. The exact nature of this combination has yet to be determined, but we can get a clue by looking at how they've been used in the past. Let's introduce our contestants.
A breakout season by "Wheaties" has been expected for each of the past two years. While he hasn't really put himself on the national radar, he has at least improved each of those seasons. Last year, Wheaton posted 749 yards and 5 TD's and an impressive 17.0 yards per reception as he really came on late in the year, highlighted by a 201 yard game against Seattle. Could this finally be the season he emerges as a star opposite Antonio Brown?
I'm going to say probably not. If you look at Wheaton's production last year, his yards per game actually went down when Bryant was out of the lineup, from 76 to 48. Likewise, his targets went down to only 3.9 times per game while Bryant was on the bench compared to 5.6 targets per game when Bryant was active. Wheaton actually played a lot better when Bryant was on the field. Thus, despite his impressive emergence as a top 10 deep threat last year, he's really more of a complementary player who fed off of the gaps created by Brown and Bryan rather than possessing the necessary traits to replace Bryant.
It would be nice to say Wheaton is enough of a baller that with Bryant gone he will see more opportunities and pick up a lot of Bryant's production. Based on last year, though, the loss of Bryant's production will also diminish Wheaton's production. I'd pretty confidently project for Wheaton this year something like 800 yards and 6 TD's, assuming a healthy Big Ben, as he soaks up some of Heath Miller's looks from last year (more on that later) but he'll have his work cut out for him just to equal last year's production without the elite talent of Martavis Bryant drawing defenders away from him.
Green finally gets his chance to emerge from the shadow of Antonio Gates this year, and there's no doubt that he was seriously held back playing second fiddle to the future Hall of Fame tight end. Last year, Green's season stat line of 429 yards and 4 TD's in 13 games hardly screams elite potential for a 4th year player, but playing Robin to Antonio Gates' Batman for 9 of those games is no fair test of what he could do in Pittsburgh.
Fortunately for us, Green got to play 4 games at least with Gates on the sideline (in his prior 3 seasons he only had 1 game without Gates looking over his shoulder), and the difference in production in those games is stark. With Gates out of the lineup, Green on average saw 2.5 more targets per game, made 2.4 more receptions, caught 0.65 more TD's per game, and if you're tired of fractions the neat and pretty number is 30 more yards per game. Green's production in those 4 games would've put him on pace for 72 receptions, 880 yards, and 10 TD for the season without Gates ahead of him on the depth chart.
Weighing in at 238 pounds and running a 4.53 forty yard dash, Green (who went to Ike Taylor's alma mater, Louisiana-Lafayette) fits the Jimmy Graham model of TE that is really more of a super-sized WR. He's not nearly as fast or quick as Bryant, but he'll be matched up against LB's and safeties rather than CB's, and at 6'6'' he's an even bigger target than Bryant in the red zone. Like Bryant, he's clearly too much of an athlete for opponents to handle at times. Even though he plays a different position, the burden of "next man up" falls at least partially on Green because he has the ability to play a similar role. He should be able to take a portion of Bryant's production and role in the offense so that whoever wins the WR2 spot doesn't have to do it all himself.
But before he can do that he has to learn the playbook. And before that he has to recover from ankle surgery. In reality, a pessimist could question if he'll see the field before week 8. It's probably best not to count on him being a staple of the offense this year, but let's face it, Bryant only played in 21 games in 2 seasons and only started 8. Green would be trying to replace a guy who has only been available part of the season each year himself.
Haley also will have the luxury of being able to keep it simple for his new TE, much like he did for Bryant. Again, we're not talking about needing somebody with the versatility to be a primary threat. I'm looking for Green to probably start as a red zone specialist and run an occasional deep seam route looking for a big play up the middle to keep the safeties honest. He may not make a lot of plays, but the plays he makes will count, and that will help a lot. Something like 10 catches over 20 yards and 6 TD's, around the 8th best TE in the league in those categories.
And no, I'm not forgetting that Heath Miller's 535 yards, 2 TD's, and clutch safety valve receptions last year need to be replaced too, but I actually don't think Green will factor into that substantially this year. He could if he heals fast and learns faster, but I'm expecting him to be used like a rookie Martavis Bryant, TE edition, while Jesse James, Markus Wheaton, and Le'Veon Bell soak up most of Heath Miller's production.
It's easy to view DHB as an afterthought after he proved the world right and Al Davis wrong by demonstrating in Oakland and Indianapolis that he is not a feature player. The news actually gets better here, though. That's because the Steelers have something that neither Oakland nor Indianapolis had, and that is Antonio Brown. Brown's ability and reliability makes the rest of the WR corps merely supplementary, and the attention he demands opens up opportunities for big play specialists to thrive without having to carry a load they're ill equipped to shoulder. Brown is going to be the primary receiver the vast majority of plays and that removes the burden of reliability from his partner on the other side of the field.
As "The Steelers' Other WR," you don't have to be open on 90% of your routes, that's what Brown does for you, but if you can get open deep for at least one 40-yard catch every game you've done your job. And that's exactly what Heyward-Bey did last year in 3 games with Ben under center and Bryant suspended or injured, snagging passes for 43, 41, and 66 yards. As the clear "next man up" during Bryant's suspension last year, Heyward-Bey averaged 5.1 targets, 47 yards, and 0.3 TD's per game in 6 games (including 2.5 games with Vick under center, arguably playing the QB position). That production jumps to 71 yards per game only looking at games with Big Ben at QB, which would equate to over 1,000 yards in a season, so it's not crazy to say DHB could be poised for a big season.
The Martavis Bryant role is really a natural one for DHB. While he lacks a couple inches of Bryant's height at "only" 6'2, he's still a fairly big guy (and a 39'' vertical doesn't hurt). More importantly, he's got speed to spare, and impressive stop/start to go with it. You can see in his highlight videos some pretty Bryant-like things with and without the ball in his hands, taking the top off the defense, breaking tackles after the catch, grabbing the fade in the red zone, and busting loose on designed running plays.
Heyward-Bey's fit as the same style of receiver as Bryant is also apparent in the fact that when Bryant came back, DHB became almost entirely superfluous, gaining only 8 targets in 10 games. Bryant during that time would average 9.2 targets, 76 yards, and 0.6 TD's per game, almost double DHB's production in the same role during his absence. Bryant's increased production seems to be target driven, implying that as Haley and Ben develop greater confidence in DHB he might see his targets and his production increase to match Bryant's, but you also have to recognize that Bryant was likely earning targets by being open more, not just by having the confidence of his coordinator and QB based on his breakout rookie year. Still Heyward-Bey's similar production per target is no accident.
In Oakland, with Carson Palmer, and as the primary receiver for his club, Heyward-Bey was able to post 975 yards and 4 TD's on 115 targets in 2011. In 2012, he put up 606 yards and 5 TD's on only 80 targets (roughly what he would get in a full season at the rate he was targeted with Bryant out in 2015). That's clearly less than the 1,000 yard 10 TD season Bryant is capable of, but it's good to know that DHB offers a pretty high and stable floor, and certainly could have the best season of his career in a situation that is significantly more favorable than any he's been in before. With the offensive superiority of the Steelers compared to the 2012 Raiders giving him much better opportunities with his targets, his six-game 2015 pace with Bryant on the sidelines of 750 yards and 5 TD's should not only be sustainable but a fairly safe number to expect from DHB in 2016, minus any production by Sammie Coates, if Roethlisberger stays healthy this time around.
Speaking of Sammie Coates, he is the wild card here as the least proven player on the list. To find any data with a reasonable sample size we have to go back to college, so let's start there.
Then we'll get to the obligatory Broncos game.
At Auburn, Coates was a deep ball specialist par excellence. His 7 TD receptions did not come from the red zone, averaging 54 yards in length. Running a 4.4 forty at 6'1, 212lbs, with a 41 inch vertical it's no surprise that he was just too much for college CB's, racking up a 21 yards per catch average. He had his best games against the biggest opponents too, with 206 yards and 2 TD's on 5 catches at Alabama in 2014. It seems like the only thing that could stop him was his own hands. His drop rate of 19% was as shocking as his yards per catch. Don't blame the drops all on Coates, though. His QB was good enough to start a game in the NFL last year... as a CB.
That's more than can be said of Coates in his first season, but what do you expect on a team with Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, Markus Wheaton, and Darrius Heyward-Bey? With Antonio Brown out in the playoff game against Denver, fans got to see exactly what they hoped for from Coates, with receptions of 24 and 37 yards in the contest that showed an ability to turn a short catch into a long gain besides his much publicized ability as a vertical threat. It's a nice game against an elite defense, but it's just one game.
Coates was drafted by the Steelers specifically to provide insurance against Bryant's risk of suspension. So you can bet he'll be in competition with DHB (with the support of Ladarius Green and in support of Markus Wheaton). So is Heyward-Bey or Coates the next man up at the WR position?
I'd like to tell you that Coates is ready to take over the league this year. It even may be that he is. But there's no solid evidence to support such a prediction, and the argument from silence is that he's probably not going to be a dominant player for the Steelers this year. Even in a crowded receiving corps, special players force their way onto the field. Sammy Coates saw the field on offense in only 3 games (weeks 3-5) and 29 of his 36 snaps in week 4 where he was targeted twice and caught one pass for 11 yards. His lack of production would be easily attributable to Vick's ineptitude at QB except that the coaches you can bet were watching his every move with an eagle eye, and they "liked what they saw" enough to bench him for the rest of the season after only 4 more snaps the following week. Coates would remain on the bench even when Bryant was pulled with a neck injury in week 17 against the Browns.
I could argue devil's advocate against myself and point out that Coates may have simply been in Tomlin's doghouse for his lack of conditioning, which would surprise nobody. I could also point to Colbert's track record drafting WR's. But "may have's" and "might be's" won't take you very far, and Colbert's track record applies just as much to Wheaton and Demarcus Ayers as it does to Coates. Right now, Heyward-Bey is the man whose job it is to replace Martavis Bryant's role in the offense, and Sammie Coates' job is to replace Heyward-Bey.
He should get plenty of opportunities with a less competitive WR corps ahead of him and coaches eager to get production out of their second year player, but he probably has a way to go before he puts DHB on the bench. I'd be delighted, and not terribly surprised by a breakout year from Coates, but I'm not expecting it. A performance roughly equivalent to fellow 3rd rounder Markus Wheaton's sophomore year of 650 yards and 2 TD's is probably on the optimistic side of realistic for a player who for all we know could still end up a total bust.
At the end of the day, the call of "next man up" really affects several players. Ladarius Green will be called on as a red zone threat and athletic mismatch down the field, assuming he can get on the field. Sammie Coates will be called on to realize the potential that led the Steelers to draft him for this potential situation, making plays and keeping safeties honest with the threat of big plays down the sideline on his side of the field and moving the chains by overwhelming CB's with his athleticism for yards after the catch on short passes.
Most directly, though, the man who was Bryant's immediate backup last year, Darrius Heyward-Bey, is the man who should be looked to first to step up. This sets the table for an awesome redemption story if he can seize the opportunity, and I think chances are great that he can fill in at least as Cody Wallace did last year in Maurkice Pouncey's absence. Is it possible he could do more? Well, Ted Ginn, Jr. has 15 TD's in 31 games as a Panther after scoring only 6 times in 104 games as a Dolphin, 49er, and Cardinal. It happens.
Markus Wheaton, surprisingly (to me anyway), ends up something of an odd man out. While earlier in the year I thought that Wheaton may be able to fill in to some extent for Bryant in his absence, looking at his performance with and without Bryant in the lineup I'm not so sure. He likely will be more involved in replacing Heath Miller and Le'Veon Bell 's receiving than in filling in for Bryant.
However it shakes out, though, the Steelers depth at receiver (and superstar QB capable of making receivers good) puts them in good shape for somebody to step up as the "next man up."