Where should you draft Martavis Bryant?


We’re at the point in the season where everyone is trying to find value, plan draft strategies and land on the right combination of players to win a title. As part of that off-season work, I’m continuing my series looking at some players that, if you grab at the right value, can help be the missing piece to a title.

Today I turn my focus to Martavis Bryant, one of the most exciting and polarizing players in the fantasy community. He’s exciting, of course, because of the talent and potential. He’s polarizing because it’s hard to gauge his value. In some ways, Bryant is the new Josh Gordon, an immensely talented player coming off a suspension that has people salivating.

In 14 games in 2013, Gordon caught 87 passes for 1,646 yards and nine touchdowns for the Cleveland Browns. The Cleveland Browns! But Gordon struggled with personal conduct, leading to a suspension to start 2014. When he returned, many had drafted him high hoping for a glimmer of that production from 2013 come playoff time. Gordon played five games for a team that, at the time, was enjoying a decent season. People expected big things, but Gordon wasn’t the same player and never clicked with Brian Hoyer. He finished with 24 receptions for 303 yards in five games, catching no touchdowns. And he hasn’t played a game since.

Gordon is the cautionary tale, to be sure. And Bryant isn’t without risk — both of suspension and of him not returning to the form that drew attention in 2014 and 2015. But, it’s summer, and hope springs eternal. So the question is, what’s a realistic expectation for Bryant and the Steelers?

One of the biggest criticisms of Bryant’s potential comes from the fact that we have only two partial seasons to consider. That’s true. But it’s what he looked like those two partial seasons, and what the Steelers looked like, that gets people excited.

Bryant first broke onto the scene during the 2014 season. He played in 10 games that season, starting three. He got just 48 targets, but made the most of his opportunities. Bryant caught 26 passes for 549 yards (21.1 yards per reception) and eight touchdowns. The following season, Bryant came in with plenty of hype. But the TD rate of one per every 3.25 receptions seemed impossible to repeat, and it was. That didn’t make Bryant any less of a threat. In 11 games, starting five, he caught 50 of 92 targets for 765 yards and six touchdowns. While his TD rate in 2015 dropped to one per every 8.3 receptions, he was still a force and showed flashes of why fantasy fans are excited. And that was over the course of just 11 games.

And it’s not like his quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, was lighting the world on fire that season. Over the last five seasons, Ben has posted 26, 28, 32, 21 and 29 TD passes. That total of 21 came in 2015, when Ben struggled with injuries (playing in just 12 games and throwing 16 INTs during that time frame). In 2016, Ben only played 14 games, but had a better TD-to-INT ratio of 29/13. In the 2013 and 2014 seasons, Ben played in all 16 games, and it’s undeniable that for the Steelers offense to thrive at its peak, all its stars need to be on the field.

But what is a reasonable projection?

Bryant is hardly the only Steeler weapon who’s missed time the past few seasons. Le’Veon Bell, viewed as one of the most talented running backs in the league, has played a full season just once in his four-year career. The 2015 season was derailed by an injury, but otherwise Bell has suffered the same difficulties as Bryant, seeing suspensions keep him off the field for at least a few games. But, like Bryant, what he’s done in partial seasons is incredible.

That’s why early projections have Brown, Bell and Bryant posting some gaudy numbers this season. ESPN projections offer a 125–1,418–8 line for Brown, 1,483 rush yards, 83–669 and 14 total TDs for Bell, and 70–970–8 for Bryant. Looking at those totals some has wondered if that’s sustainable for the Steelers offense. I think it is.

In 2014, Brown had 129 receptions, 1,698 yards and 13 TDs. Bell, playing 16 games for the only time in his career, rushed for 1,361 and eight TDs while catching 83 passes for 854 yards and three TDs. That was Bryant’s first season with the squad, and he posted a 26–549–8 line, but he was hardly the go-to second option. Markus Wheaton was, posting a 53–644–2 line on 86 targets. And Heath Miller, meanwhile, was the third best receiver with 66–761–3.

In 2015, Brown remained his reliable self, posting 136–1,834–10 as his line. Bell was limited to six games because of suspension and injury, but he combined with DeAngelo Williams to produce RB1 numbers. Over the course of the season they produced 1,463 rush yards and 14 TDs. They also added a combined 64 receptions for 503 yards. Bryant, in his second season, added 50–765–6 as a receiving option, while Wheaton went for 44–744–5 and Miller added 60–535–2. And remember, that was a season when Ben played in only 12 games, and posted only 21 TDs total.

In 2016, while Bryant was on a full season suspension, the Steelers showed they can still have a powerful offense. Brown again was reliable, albeit a little less than previous seasons, with a line of 106–1,284–12. Bell was limited to 12 games due to suspension, splitting time with Williams again. In his 12 games alone, Bell posted 1,268 rushing yards and seven touchdowns, plus 75 receptions for 616 yards and two more touchdowns. Combined, the two had 1,611 rushing yards and 11 TDs, plus 93 receptions for 734 yards and four TDs. And the Steelers still managed to support other pass catchers. Wheaton wasn’t a factor, but Eli Rogers and Sammie Coates got into the act. Rogers posted a 48–594–3 line mostly from the slot. Coates added 21–435–2, while Cobi Hamilton went for 17–234–2 splitting time with an oft-injured Coates. And over the middle, though Miller was retired, the duo of Jesse James and LaDarius Green combined for 57–642–4. That’s quite a bit of production.

Now consider those 2017 projections again: 125–1,418–8 for Brown, 1,483 rush yards, 83–669 and 14 total TDs for Bell, and 70–970–8 for Bryant. Doesn’t seem so crazy, right?

Especially when considering that Wheaton is in Chicago, Miller retired, Williams is unsigned and Green has been released. Sure, the Steelers have Rogers and rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster competing for reps, likely in the slot, and Coates is still on the team, as is James. But if Brown, Bell and Bryant play 16 games, they are the superior talents at each starting position. And the Steelers’ offense has shown over the last three seasons it can sustain a world class No. 1 receiver, a powerhouse back who catches a ton of balls and still have other fantasy-relevant pass catchers, even without Ben cracking the 30 TD threshold.

So, I know what you’re thinking, let’s go grab Bryant in rough four and start planning where to put our trophy. Not so fast. I believe that Bryant’s projected line of 70–970–8 is reasonable. In 11 games last time he played in 2015 he posted 50–765–6, so this is only calling for 20 more receptions, 205 more yards and two more touchdowns over a full season. And by all accounts, Bryant has shown no ill-effects of his year away. Ben recently said he looks like “a stud” during mini-camp.

But winning in Fantasy Football is all about strategy and value. I love Bryant’s potential, and I think he can be the ingredient that helps get you to a title, if you find the right value. Bryant could finish in the mid-teens in scoring. ESPN projects him at 216 PPR points for the season. In 2016, Tyreek Hill was WR18 with 217 points and Tyrell Williams was WR19 with 216.9 points. So that projection, if dead on, would make Bryant as mid-tier WR2 in value. Currently, Bryant has an ADP of 51 (fifth round in a 12-team league) and WR27. That feels like good value, but I expect his ADP to continue to rise as the hype builds for his return, even among casual players.

Personally, though I’ve said I believe in Bryant’s projection and potential, I wouldn’t feel great about relying on him as my WR2 if I want to win. I think the best value is as a WR3, offering you week-to-week WR1 potential. If you can get him in the fifth, sixth, seventh, or eighth round of drafts, you can put together a team that can win a title. If people start reaching for Bryant in the third and fourth rounds, to me that’s where the balance between potential and risk starts to shift.

In the end, Bryant will remain a polarizing player in the fantasy community this season. But if you play it smart, he just might be the missing ingredient to push you over-the-top to fantasy gold.

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