Much has been made this offseason of Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Markus Wheaton and where he will fit into the offense in his third season after serving as the primary player to line up opposite Antonio Brown for the majority of the 2014 season.
Specifically, the focus has been on the necessity for him to develop his game with respect to gaining yards after the catch, as evidenced by the fact that he averaged just 2.9 yards after the catch per reception during the regular season.
Even the team’s website put the focus on this issue, highlighting head coach Mike Tomlin’s stressing the point as he hounded Wheaton to turn upfield after securing the ball during practices in OTAs.
We even provided our own coverage on the topic, with myself and Alex Kozora delving deeper into the YAC stats to see what kind of story they tell, which turned out to be a mix of issues, including the nature of many of his targets.
But Wheaton is not the only Steelers receiver that would benefit from improving his ability to extend his gains after reeling in a pass. That proclamation would seem problematic when considering the fact that Martavis Bryant averaged 7.4 yards after the catch last season on his 26 receptions during the regular season, but that number is inflated by his long targets.
The type of YAC productivity that is being referred is not, of course, taking the top off the defense and simply winning in a straight-line footrace to the end zone. The topic at hand is turning short passes into long gains, which has not been Bryant’s game, and is not something that we saw much of during his rookie season.
But he has been working on it during this offseason in his pursuit of becoming the best player he can be. He has improved his hand speed through MMA training, which will help him secure the ball quicker and thus turn his eyes upfield quicker. He has bulked up, which will help him break more tackles of a physical nature.
But most especially, he has been working to improve his footwork, which was one of his major criticisms coming out of college, having been regarded as quite a raw prospect. He has taken to a popular wide receiver tactic of practicing his routes running on the sand.
Bryant told reporters that he has been doing this extensively this offseason in order to improve his mobility, which will help him better set himself up for running after the catch. This will in turn help the Steelers expand his usage by gaining trust in his ability to break off sizable gains off short passes, such as his 21-yard touchdown in the season finale that included 23 yards after the catch.
Todd Haley’s offensive system has largely been predicated on setting up plays to pick up yardage after the catch. They got away from that a bit last season by exploiting Bryant’s verticality (21 targets of 20+ yards, 39 total beyond 10 yards), but rounding out his game should help him stay on the field more consistently.