Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Martavis Bryant has been suspended for four games for violating the league's substance abuse policy.
According to sources, Bryant's ban is related to multiple failed drug tests. The 23-year-old burst onto the scene towards the end of the 2014 season - his rookie year - scoring 8 touchdowns over the final 10 games. The 6'4 Bryant will now join running back Le'Veon Bell on the sidelines to open the season; Bell will serve a two-game suspension due to a substance-abuse violation of his own. Bell's punishment was recently reduced by the league from three games to two.
Bryant displayed fascinating big-play chops last season, averaging 21.2 yards per catch and demonstrating the ability to make plays down the field in the Steelers' uptempo pass attack. He is not the target and reception monster that fellow wideout Antonio Brown is, averaging just over two-and-a-half receptions per game in his ten games last year, but Bryant's knack for making the big plays down field, which helped free Brown to do his thing underneath and kept defenses honest, will be missed through the first quarter of the 2015 season.
Bryant's suspension now opens the door for third-year wideout Markus Wheaton to step into the fray. Wheaton was not featured in our recent third-year receiver profile, but his teammate's suspension has thrust him up fantasy draft boards, if only for the start of the season. The 24-year-old instantaneously enters the WR3 discussion as he now stands to see a major uptick in work, particularly through the first four weeks of the year. Wheaton put together a modest 53/644/2 line a season ago, disappointing those who had banked on a big second season from the former Oregon State man. This season brings a new and very meaningful opportunity for Wheaton, who at present, is locked in as the team's number two wideout opposite Brown.
Wheaton had some of his better games last season through the first six weeks while Bryant, ironically, was out injured. This included a 6 catch, 97 yard performance against the Browns in week 1. Pittsburgh, especially without Bell in their backfield early on, figures to continue to air it out with Ben Roethlisberger looking sharp through the team's first two preseason games.
Wheaton will not only need to fill in for Bryant outside, but must perform at a high-enough level to keep defenses from smothering Brown and keying on Heath Miller over the middle. Wheaton, as mentioned, only scored twice last year, and does not possess quite the same level of game-breaking skill, nor the prototypical physical makeup of Bryant, but he has the tools to succeed in one of the league's most pass-friendly schemes under offensive coordinator Todd Haley and Roethlisberger.
As for Bryant, he is still worth a late-round stash-and-grab pick in standard formats. His big-play ability can not be denied, and he figures to slide back into his role as the team's number two receiver upon his return. Wheaton will look to hold things down in the meantime, with rookie Sammie Coates also now in the discussion for a bigger role than initially expected, at least while Bryant is sidelined. Veteran Darrius Heyward-Bey, who stood out for the team on special teams last season, may also see additional work in the offense. (See also: 2015 wide receiver rankings)
The Steelers will look to cope through the first four games of the 2015 season without the services of Martavis Bryant, but they can feel comfortable and confident knowing they have an adequate replacement in Markus Wheaton, whom they can plug-and-play right into the offense. Wheaton has earned the confidence and trust of his teammates, coaching staff, and the local media. Now, Pittsburgh's 2013 third-round receiver has a chance to make good on the potential that Steelers' fans and fantasy football bargain hunters have been waiting to see.