If you have been following my writing for very long, you may likely have noticed that I don’t often like to deal with hypotheticals about the past, or if you haven’t noticed, you probably can’t recall me having done so very often. But I recently stumbled upon a hypothetical question that really struck me as interesting, and I think I know how I would answer it—and how the team would answer it as well.
The question posed: knowing what the Pittsburgh Steelers know now, would they make the same decision in drafting wide receiver Martavis Bryant in the fourth round of the 2014 NFL Draft?
Bryant, of course, is the talented young wide receiver who has battled off-field drug issues, having already served a four-game suspension to begin the 2014 season, and has now been suspended indefinitely with a possibility for reinstatement after one calendar year, which eliminates him from play for the 2016 season.
Now, if you were to tell me that the Steelers drafted Bryant in, say, the first round, or even the second round, and that he would be dealing with the same issues that he is now facing, I would absolutely say that he is not worth that investment. But that he was a mid-round pick makes taking on that baggage all the more intriguing, and I believe that I ultimately would.
I would like to hearken back to that Washington Post draft study that I have referenced a few times and point out that, over the span of the past two decades, the average draft value of a wide receiver taken in the fourth round works out to an 8.5. The NFL average value for all picks at all positions over that span is 12.7.
In 21 career regular season games, over a two-season span, Bryant has accumulated a draft value of 12 already. That is notably better than the expected yield from a wide receiver at his spot of the draft, and nearly on par with any player from any spot in the draft. In other words, he has been highly productive over a short period of time.
To put some numbers to all of this, of course, he has caught 76 passes for 1314 yards and 14 touchdowns in 21 games, adding 49 yards and a touchdown on eight rushes. He’s added another 19 receptions for 244 yards and two touchdowns—and four carries for 40 yards—in three playoff games.
Even if we assume that Bryant never plays another down in a Steelers uniform, that is a fairly substantive career for an average fourth-round draft pick, and he helped the team reach the playoffs twice, and win a playoff game. He’s actually the only Steelers wide receiver to score in the postseason since 2011.
The Steelers? Frankly I don’t think there’s any way they would draft a player, or even sign a player as an undrafted free agent, if they knew that he would be facing a season-long suspension by year three. They are among the cleanest organizations when it comes to taking players with off-field concerns, and he would probably be off their board.
I don’t know necessarily if that will be a mistake. Certainly, in a year’s time, if we learn that Bryant will never play another down for the team, it will be a lot easier to make the case that it was not. But given the average predicted value of all fourth-round picks (which was 9.6 in the study), they have already fared better than the random luck of the draw in terms of long-term on-field productivity.