In the first four games that Pittsburgh Steelers rookie wide receiver Martavis Bryant has played in this year, he’s caught 14 passes for 310 yards and six touchdowns. If he keeps up that pace, he’ll end his rookie season with 35 catches for 775 yards and 15 touchdowns.
During his Tuesday press conference, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin was asked to talk about Bryant’s development from week to week and if his production in the first four games that he’s played in has made him wonder if he should’ve played the Clemson product early on in the season.
“He’s done some nice things,” said Tomlin of Bryant. “It doesn’t make me wonder. It’s a progress that he goes through and young guys go through to earn their snaps and we’ve watched him go through that progression. You see the result of that in stadiums, but we watched it day to day from the start of the season to now.
“He’s gotten better since he’s been playing and really I anticipated that, because there’s less unknowns for a young guy once you start getting into stadiums. You know how coverages and things unfold. I think he’s grown more from the time we put a helmet on him to now than he did from even the start of the season to when we put a helmet on him.”
Personally, I think the narrative suggesting that Bryant should’ve seen the field earlier than what he eventually did is old and tired and I’ve already addressed this before. Remember, he wasn’t practicing the first few weeks of the season because of the shoulder injury that he suffered in the preseason finale and in addition to that, he also missed two practices with an illness leading up to the Week 5 game against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Once he practiced fully two weeks in a row, he was given a helmet and put on the field.
Even though Bryant is on the field now and producing, Tomlin indicated Tuesday that they aren’t going to give him more than he can handle moving forward.
“We’re using him in package football,” said Tomlin. “We’re very cognizant of things we’re asking him to do. We’re keeping it simple so that he can play fast, so he can utilize the skills that he has. He’s a talented guy, he was a third-year junior when he came out. We’ve had quite a few of those over the years. We feel pretty comfortable about our ability to grow and develop those guys. That was Antonio Brown, who missed about nine games or so his rookie year, but was a critical part of our playoff run in his rookie season.”
Remember Brown’s rookie season? After the Week 5 bye, he didn’t dress for five straight games. Oh, the horror. Heading into Week 12 that season he had all of two catches for 27 yards and zero touchdowns.
In the game Sunday against the New York Jets, Bryant had a potential touchdown reception broken up by Jets cornerback Marcus Williams and it was ultimately intercepted after the deflection. Several readers took offense to me breaking down that play and criticizing the route Bryant ran leading up to the pass being defended, but as it turns out, my analysis was spot on.
“There was a little lack of detail in his route, but also that cornerback did a nice job of standing his ground and not fearing his height and speed,” Tomlin said Tuesday when asked about that specific play. “I don’t know that he backed up at all from the time the ball got snapped until he broke on it.”
Even quarterback Ben Roethlisberger agreed that Bryant could’ve done more on that play.
“If Martavis pushes one step deeper, the corner might not be there,” Roethlisberger said Tuesday during his weekly radio show.
I pointed out Bryant’s faults on that play and a few others this season to show that he has one hell of a ceiling that he can hit once he smoothes out some of his route running problems that have plagued him dating back to his short college career. Think about it, he might register over 30 catches for almost 800 yards in just 10 games played as a rookie. When former Steelers wide receiver Plaxico Burress was a rookie, he only caught 22 passes for 273 yards in 12 games and he was a first-round draft pick.
A lot of you seem to have forgotten that I was high on Bryant dating all the way back to my first mock draft that released right after the Senior Bowl. If you missed that, here is what I wrote:
The Steelers are likely to lose wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders in free agency and thus they could use another wide receiver to groom. Bryant made the decision to come out early and while he played second fiddle at Clemson to Sammy Watkins, his size, speed and pass catching ability can’t be ignored.
While Watkins was the king of the screen game and underneath receptions at Clemson, Bryant was used in the intermediate and deep portions of the field. In 2013, Bryant had four red zone touchdown receptions and 17 of his 42 receptions went for 20 yards or more with three of those resulting in touchdowns. Of his 10 third down receptions, nine of them resulted in either a first down or a touchdown.
Bryant will need to work on his route running at the NFL level and while he has a large catch radius, and generally catches with his hands, he has shown that he will double-catch on occasion due to lack of concentration. While he is also a willing blocker, he needs to be more aggressive at times and make sure that he finishes.
After the combine, Bryant should be considered a fourth round prospect at the worst as he has a ton of upside.
I don’t have a problem with the way that Bryant has been brought along this season and you shouldn’t either. The way he was handled initially is now paying off and his continued slow development will only make things even better for Antonio Brown and Markus Wheaton in the near future. I will, however, continue to critique his game moving forward, because that’s what I do.