Markus Wheaton vs. Martavis Bryant: Navigating Known Unknowns

by Russell Clay ·

This offseason, fantasy news has been inundated with Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver updates. Until this week, all of the buzz has pertained to the impending breakout of Martavis Bryant. Bryant’s average draft position has steadily risen throughout the offseason, ultimately reaching the fourth round of dynasty startups. Rightfully, there was a lot of hype surrounding Bryant’s uber efficient rookie season: In 2014, Bryant caught eight touchdowns and averaged 21.1 yards-per-reception on 26 receptions.

In a recent interview on Sirius XM Radio, Ben Roethlisberger threw a bucket of cold water on Bryant’s hype-wildfire, suggesting that Markus Wheaton (not Bryant) was the player he considered Pittsburgh’s true breakout WR. Analysts have exhausted themselves trying to understand Roethisberger’s motives behind his comments. By focusing on the QB’s remarks, it is possible that analysts are missing out on the bigger picture :  Bryant was probably never in line for the featured role his ADP seemed to suggest.  Taking a step back, it is clear that Bryant, Wheaton, and Antonio Brown compliment each other.

Complimentary Assets

Wheaton profiles as a shifty and elusive slot receiver who would be best suited playing within the first ten yards of the line of scrimmage:

[markus-wheaton] WR Pittsburgh Steelers

Markus Wheaton Advanced Metrics Profile

Bryant profiles as a large, powerful, vertical threat with a fantastic combination of size and speed.

[martavis-bryant] WR Pittsburgh Steelers

Martavis Bryant Advanced Metrics Profile

Of course, the fantasy community at large is already well-acquainted with Antonio Brown, who could reasonably see over 160 targets in 2015.  Last season, the remaining WR targets were split between Wheaton and Bryant, and this will likely be an effective distribution for the Steelers in 2015. Unfortunately for fantasy owners, this could be a great cause for frustration, especially for owners who’ve invested fourth-round startup capital.

College Domination Matters

Bryant’s cumulative college production largely mirrored his rookie season in the NFL. In his three-year career at Clemson, Bryant was remarkably efficient, averaging 22.2 YPR while scoring 13 touchdowns on 61 career receptions. The logical question becomes, “Why did he only have 61 career receptions?” Initially, a Bryant proponent might argue that he had no opportunity to become a target-hog because his teammates included future first round picks DeAndre Hopkins and Sammy Watkins.  However, in both of his first two years, he was eighth on the team in receptions. EIGHTH! Even during the season in which he had the second-most receptions, he failed to reach 900 yards on a team that threw for the eighth-most passing yards(4330) in the nation.

Martavis Bryant was a highlight catch waiting to happen, but he was never consistently dominant. This contributed to his fall to the fourth round of the NFL draft despite his excellent combine. Amazing college production isn’t a requirement to be a good NFL player though the best-of-the-best receivers strongly tend to have been dominant before entering the NFL. A receiver who could not dominate the field in college is much less likely to dominate at the next level. Moreover, startlingly few receivers ascend to fantasy WR1-2 status after failing to dominate by any measure, even at a relatively old age, at the college level. Bryant’s anemic 18.5-percent College Dominator Rating and nonexistent Breakout Age on are stains on his profile that will take years of NFL productivity to wash away.

Martavis Bryant began erasing his lackluster college resume last season by posting 13.0 fantasy points per game on an outstanding 11.4 yards per target. No player was the recipient of more downfield shot plays against overmatched and otherwise out of position cornerbacks on a per target basis than Bryant. However, his 2014 output was not necessarily efficient by every measure. Bryant’s per-target production was offset by a 54.2-percent catch rate and 33.3-percent contested catch conversion rate, which ranked close to league bottom last season. Martavis Bryant is an enigmatic, volatile playmaker but still far from a rising star.

Wheaton Don’t Cost Nothin’

If we ignore ADP, the choice between Markus Wheaton and Martavis Bryant is a no-brainer. However, when we consider ADP, Wheaton’s 15th-round draft position suddenly seems like a strong value by comparison. This is a nearly-free price for a WR who recently received a vote of confidence from a fantasy-friendly quarterback.

It’s important to look at the history of slot receivers when evaluating Wheaton’s career up to this point. Generally, slot receivers take longer to develop into a fantasy-relevant role. Golden Tate, Emmanuel Sanders, Wes Welker, Percy Harvin and Randall Cobb all had similar statistical profiles to Wheaton while in college. None of these players eclipsed 1,000 receiving yards in their first three seasons in the NFL, and only Cobb ever reached that mark while playing for the team that drafted him. Thus, despite his seemingly-dissapointing career so far, Wheaton’s pace is similar to successful slot receivers that preceded him.

Forever In Antonio Brown’s Shadow

I am still lower than consensus regarding the Pittsburgh receivers not named “Antonio Brown.” I can imagine that Wheaton will be targeted 100-110 times but will still be less productive than Bryant, who may see as few as 70 targets. Neither receiver can be relied upon for stable weekly fantasy points.  Betting on either WR is a risky proposition, but swinging and missing on Wheaton will not cost you much in 2015.