Martavis Bryant became a superstar on January 17, 2016.
That night, against the Denver Broncos in the Divisional Round of the AFC playoffs, Bryant recorded 154 receiving yards on nine catches and 40 rushing yards on two carries. Without the services of Antonio Brown, DeAngelo Williams, Maurkice Pouncey, Le’Veon Bell and a completely-healthy Ben Roethlisberger, Bryant’s performance was still almost enough to help the Steelers win a game that they had no business winning.
Even in defeat, Bryant provided the Steelers with a glimpse into the future: in 2017 and beyond, Pittsburgh would be able to luxuriate in the services of a viable no. 2 receiver who boasts at no. 1 skillset.
This newfound confidence was short-lived. Several months after his remarkable performance against Denver, Bryant was busted for failing drugs tests. Per the NFL rulebook, he was suspended for the entire 2016 season.
Bryant’s rise to superstardom—and, unfortunately, his subsequent fall from grace—is abstract and complicated, but not unprecedented. Justin Blackmon was a top-five draft choice whose career was derailed by substance abuse issues. Josh Gordon, who appeared to be the second-coming of Terrell Owens in 2013, has not played since 2014 and was denied his most recent reinstatement request. He, too, has been plagued by his off-field struggles.
Fortunately for Pittsburgh, the fallout from Bryant’s most recent suspension has been minimal. Sans Bryant, the 2016 Steelers had one of the NFL’s top-five passing attacks and advanced to the AFC Championship Game. This offseason, the Steelers signed former second-round pick Justin Hunter to a one-year contract and drafted former USC star Juju Smith-Schuster in the second round of the 2017 NFL Draft, moves that suggest Pittsburgh not only fully understands the precariousness of Bryant’s NFL future, but also that they are ready to move on from Bryant at a moment’s notice.
Bryant also recognizes the gravity of his situation.
“I know this is my last chance,” Bryant told reporters Tuesday after one of Pittsburgh’s OTA sessions. “I changed my whole life around compared to how I used to be. I developed better habits, also who I hang around. I'm a family man. I just had a son, he's 7 weeks. After here, I'm going straight home to him. It's really me developing my life and getting back on track.”
Bryant’s performance against Denver, which came against a historically good defense that featured two All-Pro cornerbacks, demonstrated his capacity to play at an All-Pro level. However, nearly 18 months have passed since that game, and the fact that Bryant reportedly showed up to OTAs (trigger warning: cliche) “in the best shape of his life” will do little to shake off a year and a half of rust. And this reasoning fails to consider that Bryant was considered to be relatively raw even before his suspension.
Rust, rawness and a crazy small sample size notwithstanding, Bryant has produced over 1,300 yards and 14 touchdowns in 21 career games. The Steelers would be wise to tread lightly in appraising Bryant’s long-term prospects, but in the interim they would be crazy not to be excited about returning a 6-foot-4 speedster to an already-loaded offensive roster.
Speaking of, Pittsburgh’s offense, which has certainly been productive in Bryant’s absence, stands to benefit from his return. Ben Roethlisberger is arguably the best deep passer in the NFL, so inserting a player who averaged over 17 yards per catch into the lineup definitely plays to his strengths. Antonio Brown, who has proven to be one of the two best receivers in the NFL even without a good no. 2 receiver, puts up video game numbers when Bryant lines up on the opposite side of the field. Correlation doesn’t equals equal causation, but in 2014 and 2015, Brown averaged 132 receptions, 1,766 yards and 11 touchdowns; in 2016, he had 106 receptions for 1,284 yards. It isn’t difficult to locate the primary variable in this equation.
Yes, much like every receiver in NFL history, Brown is a better player when opposing defenses are not able to commit every resource at their disposal to stopping him. Even if Bryant is not catching 60-yard bombs, the mere threat of him catching said bombs is enough to keep defenses honest. Correspondingly, Brown catches like 19 passes. Feed the machine.
At this point in time, Bryant’s return to the Steelers is not inevitable, as he still must successfully circumvent a litany of hurdles, including multi-week drug tests and rehab. If he has truly reinvented himself, however, Pittsburgh will have made perhaps the NFL’s most significant offseason acquisition.