The Pittsburgh Steelers can be one of the best teams in the AFC with or without wide receiver Martavis Bryant, but without him, there's far more pressure on every one of the Steelers' offensive players—and far less margin for error.
Bryant's potential one-year suspension under the NFL's substance abuse policy, first reported by Dejan Kovacevic of DK Pittsburgh Sports, comes as a shock. He sat out the first four games of 2015 for the same reason, but he eventually picked up where he left off at the end of his explosive rookie year. Fifty catches, 765 yards and six touchdowns in just 11 games. And only five of those were starts? Ridiculous.
The Steelers thought he'd put his problems behind him. This past January, team president Art Rooney II said he thought the 2015 suspension served as a wake-up call for Bryant.
"Martavis is a player who has tremendous ability and potential, and we just have to continue to work with him to make sure he takes care of his business off the field and puts himself in a position to be as great a player that he can be," Rooney said, per Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "We hope the experience he had earlier this season will have an impact on him."
Even more surprisingly, Bryant's reported suspension is for the full 2016 season. Bryant will appeal, per Bouchette:
Agent tells Post-Gazette Steelers WR Martavis Bryant has appealed NFL's intention to suspend him for one year.— Ed Bouchette (@EdBouchette) March 12, 2016
In Bryant's absence, the Steelers' vaunted depth at the offensive skill positions will be tested. Any faults in the offense, typically papered over by the play of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, will be apparent.
The top priority, of course, is Big Ben himself. Roethlisberger was healthy enough to start just 11 games last year. While Landry Jones and Michael Vick went 3-2 as his backups, the difference in the offense with and without Roethlisberger in the lineup was stark.
With left tackle Kelvin Beachum an unrestricted free agent, the Steelers have to prioritize keeping Ben upright.
Next, superstar tailback Le'Veon Bell has to be available. It's not like it was his fault his MCL and PCL came undone last season, but he takes the blame for his arrest for marijuana possession and DUI last year, as reported by ESPN's Josina Anderson (via ESPN.com's Coley Harvey). The league reduced his three-game suspension to two following an appeal, but between that and the knee, Pittsburgh's first-team All-Pro running back from 2014 only played six games in 2015.
Though DeAngelo Williams acquitted himself well as Bell's backup, he isn't the same explosive threat, and he can't help offset the loss of huge plays in Bryant's absence.
Receiver Markus Wheaton, coming into his fourth season, has a huge opportunity. Not only is the 5'11", 189-pound third-round pick a great deep threat, averaging 17.0 yards per reception last year, he'll be an unrestricted free agent at this time next year. In Bryant's absence, Wheaton will be the unquestioned No. 2 and primary field-stretcher. If he can focus and produce, he'll be paid handsomely.
Darrius Heyward-Bey—late Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis' last great height-weight-speed draft reach—averaged the second-most yards per reception of his career in 2015, per Pro-Football-Reference.com. It wasn't a dominant performance, but it was enough to earn him a three-year contract extension on the eve of free agency.
Heyward-Bey's always struggled to run routes well, but the success of this Steelers offense is driven by physical mismatches, and it won't work if the No. 3 receiver can't burn nickel cornerbacks or produce on catch-and-run packages through zone coverage.
Another Steeler to watch is sophomore wideout Sammie Coates. A 2015 third-round pick, the 6'1", 212-pound Coates only caught one 11-yard pass on two targets last year, per Pro-Football-Reference.com. But he flashed in the preseason, hauling in 10 passes for a whopping 179 yards over five exhibition games, including this 54-yard bomb.
The most intriguing fit might be the newest Steeler: free-agent signee Ladarius Green. After four years of working in Antonio Gates's stifling shadow, the tight end will immediately get a chance to be a major part of the vertical offense. He'll need to consistently take advantage of balls thrown his way as a Pittsburgh Steeler.
There's no getting around it: The reported Bryant suspension is bad news for the Steelers, and Pittsburgh fans had better hope the appeals process is at least as friendly to Bryant as it was to Bell. But this is why smart teams build up depth at their strongest positions rather than try to achieve mediocrity everywhere. Losing one key player doesn't mean losing the entire team's identity.
With Antonio Brown, Bryant, Wheaton, Heyward-Bey and Coates, the Steelers had arguably the best first five wideouts in the NFL. With that lineup, the Steelers are an explosive downfield passing team with plenty of options outside, inside and out of the backfield.
But without Bryant, that depth is gone. With another injury or a slump from Wheaton or Heyward-Bey, defenses will have a much easier time of matching up against (and slowing down) the Steelers offense.
General manager Kevin Colbert and company thought they were set at receiver for the foreseeable future, but they'll now have to take another look at the crop of remaining free-agent receivers and offensive linemen and potentially reprioritize those positions in the draft. After all, Bryant can't stay in the NFL if he fails a drug test every spring.
Colbert won't find a player of Bryant's caliber in time for this fall, but he might find one who'll pick up enough of Bryant's workload to keep the Steelers rolling.