When Ben Roethlisberger was healthy and Martavis Bryant returned from suspension, the Pittsburgh Steelers could have easily been said to boast the best group of wide receivers in the league—failing that, certainly one of the best. With first-team All-Pro Antonio Brown leading the way, Bryant added a dynamic element that teams had to account for that left one or the other open.
But Bryant is serving an indefinite suspension with reinstatement not an option until next year, so that necessarily brings up the question of just where the group might find itself during the 2016 season. The reality is that behind Brown, the Steelers’ group of receivers, including incoming tight end Ladarius Green, is full of a lot more potential than production.
That makes it more difficult to quantify exactly where they stand. It is one thing for a player to excel in his role, but when a domino falls and each individual is moved up a notch, it is another entirely to count upon him serving in that role at the same or a similar capacity.
We saw, for example, Markus Wheaton have his struggles in trying to replace Brown when the seventh-year veteran suffered a concussion and missed the Steelers’ playoff game in Denver. He was certainly unaccustomed to assuming the status of the team’s top receiver.
Of course, he would not be asked to do that this year with Brown on the field, but he and second-year wide receiver Sammie Coates are looking down a full season trying to serve as the second and third wide receiver options, otherwise one at least would have to be replaced by Darrius Heyward-Bey, a competent veteran whose performance would rate at about replacement level due in large part to his excellent vertical speed.
Outside of Brown, the Steelers’ best receiver right now is running back Le’Veon Bell, who is working to return from a knee injury. Wheaton might be their third-best right now. Green might be the third-best. Perhaps Coates will emerge as the third-best. Maybe one of them will fall behind Brown as the number two option.
But the very fact that there are so many variables right now attests to reality that there is relative uncertainty as to just how dynamic and lethal the Steelers’ receivers are right now, a unit that the team is depending upon to lead the charge of their championship aspirations, it should go without saying.
How big of a play is it for the Steelers to go into the season without Bryant as their second or third option? It is easy to offer optimistic speculation, pointing to Wheaton’s production after the bye week and Coates’ two catches during the Broncos game, but the bottom line is that we don’t have an answer right now.
We won’t have an answer until we get into the season and see how everything comes together. It may even take a few games, half a season, to really see what this offense looks like, what its potential is absent one of its most dynamic players.