The 2018 season is a critical one for Pittsburgh Steelers fourth-year wide receiver Martavis Bryant as he heads into the final season of his rookie contract after he tolled due to his 2016 suspension. The former fourth-round pick flashed a ton of potential during his first two seasons, but struggled to find that same sort of success early on in his return to the field in 2017 following the long absence.
He had a bumpy road on his way back, to be sure. The league did not make it easy by dragging out his reinstatement process, either, and he was required to follow through with regular appointments over the course of the season that provided an extra layer of complexity to his life.
Not that much of the complexity wasn’t self-inflicted, even with his needless skirmishes with faceless people on social media about the Steelers’ personnel. He started out his reinstatement by ‘joking’ that JuJu Smith-Schuster was Sammie Coates’ replacement, and then later during the season saying that he’s better than his rookie, 20-year-old teammate.
But from the middle of the season on, he seemed to slowly embrace his circumstances, going from requesting a trade to playing the good soldier. He went from being benched because of his social media behavior to recovering fumbles and throwing blocks down the field.
His numbers reflect an improvement as well, averaging over 60 receiving yards per game over the final three weeks—which took place mostly without Antonio Brown—before recording 78 yards on two receptions in the Steelers’ playoff loss.
You can rest assured that head coach Mike Tomlin took notice of this, and when he was asked about Bryant heading into the 2018 season during the Annual League Meeting yesterday, he described the receiver as “a guy on the rise” and somebody who can return to being a home-run threat, according to Jeremy Fowler.
It helps that his numbers improved on ‘home-run balls’ as the season progressed as well. On the season, he only caught six of 27 targets on passes thrown 20 or more yards down the field (which includes the postseason), but five of them came during his final seven games.
From Week 12 to the end of the season, Bryant caught five of 13 deep targets for 254 yards and two touchdowns, including one in the postseason. During that same span, Smith-Schuster caught only two such passes, though he was only targeted three times. Antonio Brown caught eight despite missing two and a half games.
Chances are good that Bryant is playing on another team in 2019. With Brown under contract—and Smith-Schuster as well, showing signs of a possible long-term player—he will not find the money, nor the role, that he seeks, and will have to look elsewhere.
But to really get what he’s after, he is going to have to come up big for the Steelers this year. He knows it. Tomlin knows it. The only thing to do about it is to go to work.