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Looking Ahead: Martavis Bryant’s return in 2017 could put Steelers offense over the top

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After serving a season-long suspension, Martavis Bryant should add a new, dynamic edge to Pittsburgh’s offense in 2017

NFL: AFC Divisional-Pittsburgh Steelers at Denver Broncos Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Steelers averaged nearly 25 points and 376 yards per game in 2016, all without the help of a consistently reliable No. 2 receiver. So just imagine the potency of that offense with Martavis Bryant in the lineup. In fact, Pittsburgh’s second-leading receiver, Le’Veon Bell, not only missed the first three games of the 2016 season, but only had half as many receiving yards as Antonio Brown, who finished with 1,284 yards, his lowest single-season total since 2012. Aside from Brown, no player on the Steelers has more than three receiving touchdowns. Bryant missed five games last season, but still caught 50 balls for 756 yards and six touchdowns.

Suspensions and injuries have complicated the beginnings of Bryant’s career—the soon-to-be 4th-year receiver has played in just 21 games. If you project his career stats to a 16-game schedule, however, Bryant is a 1,000-yard receiver who averages more than 17 yards per catch. He also has 14 career receiving touchdowns.

Bryant’s value to the Steelers is further reflected in Brown’s “down year.” That’s a difficult term to use, given that Brown will secure his second-consecutive, first-team All-Pro nod, even as opposing defenses have been committing extra resources to stop the prolific receiver.

All things considered, Bryant’s impact on the Steelers is remarkable, especially when considering that he likely hasn’t even scratched the surface of his professional potential. Character concerns and iffy hands caused every NFL franchise to pass on Bryant at least three times in the 2014 NFL Draft, with the Steelers eventually taking a flier on the former Clemson standout in the fourth round. Obviously, his off-field issues have inhibited his professional growth, but Bryant will be returning to an ideal scenario if he can stay on the straight-and-narrow moving forward.

Based on this season’s success, it’s easy to picture the Steelers as AFC front-runners once again in 2017, assuming that Bryant returns to the lineup. In addition to Bryant, Pittsburgh will return almost every member of one of the league’s most prolific offenses. Bell and receiver Markus Wheaton are both set to hit free agency, but Bell will likely be re-signed or franchise tagged, while Wheaton could seek to reinvent himself elsewhere after an injury-plagued 2016 campaign.

More importantly, second-year receiver Eli Rogers has proven himself to be a viable target, while major free-agent acquisition Ladarius Green has had success in limited game action in 2016. Ben Roethlisberger certainly will have plenty of mouths to feed, but that qualifies as a good problem to have.

On the other hand, none of Pittsburgh’s receivers, Brown included, can boast Bryant’s raw physical skills. Bryant is by far Pittsburgh’s biggest receiver and, aside from Darrius Heyward-Bey, might also be its fastest. Additionally, Bryant’s season-long suspension is essentially a de facto professional red-shirt, as the Steelers will have an additional year of control over Bryant’s rookie contract. In other words, Bryant could very well emerge as one of the league’s best bargains by next season.

Of course, all of this is entirely dependent on Bryant’s ability to handle his off-field issues. While “off-field issues” admittedly is a blanket term that enables media people to tactfully address a variety of problems, it’s prudent to mention that Bryant’s alleged marijuana habit stems from depression, as initially reported by one of his agents back in March. As such, Bryant entered a rehabilitation clinic and seems to be doing well, at least according to his social media accounts. He should be reinstated without the league kicking up too much of a fuss (presumably sometime in March, after the beginning of the new league year) and will be set to return in 2017.