When the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Auburn wide receiver Sammie Coates in the third round of the 2015 NFL Draft, there was more confusion than excitement among members of the fantasy football community. Having just drafted Martavis Bryant in the fourth round a year earlier, we all wondered why the Steelers would burn a pick on a redundant player with similar build and raw athleticism. Particularly after Bryant led NFL wide receivers with a +49.2 Production Premium in a truncated 2014 rookie season, selecting Coates before the 2015 season felt like a luxury pick. Six failed drug tests and a year-long suspension later, we can deduce that the Steelers actually did know what they were doing and were simply covering their bases in the event of a worst-case scenario.
Martavis Bryant’s ADP in early MFL 10 leagues had him being selected in the early portion of Round 3. It’s safe to say that the wide receivers who stand to benefit most from Bryant’s suspension (Markus Wheaton, Darrius Heyward-Bey, and Sammie Coates), will see their ADPs rise between now and the summer when redraft league season begins. The Pittsburgh passing game will continue to run through Antonio Brown for as long as he’s healthy. Bryant had already established himself as a more-than-capable stretch-X receiver in the Steelers offense, and his production will need to be adequately replaced for the offense to continue to thrive.
Though we will have to wait until the NFL preseason for a more concrete idea of how Bryant’s production void will be filled, it’s March, and I’m here to speculate. I believe that the uber-athletic Sammie Coates is the leading candidate to replace Bryant in the Pittsburgh stretch-X role this season. With a quarterback like Ben Roethlisberger at the controls of the passing attack, that would make him a steal in fantasy drafts if he continues to be overlooked.
Sammie Coates vs. Markus Wheaton
It’s being speculated that Markus Wheaton is Pittsburgh’s “clear-cut No.2 receiver” in the wake of Martavis Bryant’s suspension. While that may or may not change as the offseason progresses, any comparisons between Wheaton and Bryant (or even Ladarius Green for that matter) would be apples-to-oranges. Even with Bryant’s suspension, there’s a high probability that the 5-11, 189-pound Wheaton won’t be asked to play a different role in the Steelers offense than the one he’s played for the last three years. And although Wheaton did play well down the stretch last season with both Bryant and Antonio Brown active, the role of a stretch-X receiver is better suited for players who look like Bryant and Coates.
Sammie Coates vs. Darrius Heyward-Bey
Whether or not Sammie Coates will have achieve fantasy football relevance in 2016 will depend on if he can beat out Darrius Heyward-Bey for playing time. Much to the surprise of fantasy owners everywhere, DHB was the receiver who was called upon to fill Martavis Bryant’s role in the Steelers offense while a suspension sidelined him for the 2015 season’s first five games. Though Coates was the shiny new third-round toy, playing the veteran who had already been with the team for a year made sense at the beginning of the season. I don’t buy any argument that suggests DHB, 84th-ranked Target Premium in 2015, is the better player simply because a 22-year old rookie Coates couldn’t beat out the veteran for playing time.Though Darrius Heyward-Bey has long been a fantasy football punchline, it’s worth noting that the Steelers re-signed him to a three-year, $3.8 million contract. Which suggests that the battle to fill Martavis Bryant’s stretch-X role won’t be a foregone conclusion. Even with 2015 being the year of the old man resurgence in fantasy football, DHB wasn’t among the players who benefitted from this trend as he was rightfully phased out of the offense upon Bryant’s return from suspension. Granted he did fare pretty well for himself during the season’s first five weeks but he was also a starting wide receiver seeing heavy volume for a Pittsburgh Steelers team with Ben Roethlisberger at QB, an enviable situation for any player to be placed in.
Pro Football Focus has speculated that the Steelers re-signing of Darrius Heyward-Bey is a testament to his special-teams contributions. It’s also suggested that this signing could be an indictment as to where the Steelers feel Sammie Coates’ game is at this point in his young career. The reality is that DHB ranked outside the Top 40 in every efficiency metric except Production Premium (where he ranked at exactly #40) in 2015. His workout metrics look like that of a player who could effectively fill Pittsburgh’s stretch-X role but they were recorded in 2009 and wouldn’t look nearly as impressive if he was re-tested today. Heyward-Bey’s most positive contributions in 2016 are likely to come via his special-teams play.
The Torrey Smith Archetype
Sammie Coates falls into an interesting wide receiver archetype. One that you probably wouldn’t expect. When aggregating physical attributes, college production and workout metrics, Player Profiler spits out Torrey Smith as Coates’ best comparable player. Despite the widespread criticism, Smith finished 2015 in the Top-10 of Player Profiler’s Production Premium, Target Premium, and yards per target efficiency metrics. The Torrey Smith archetype is an inconsistent deep threat capable of big plays and WR1 boom weeks as the secondary option but whose efficiency wanes significantly when granted high volume. Working the deep quadrants of the field opposite Antonio Brown, Coates and his 99th-percentile athleticism are uniquely qualified to replace Bryant with occasional multi-touchdown games in 2016.
Fortunately, those who take a chance on Sammie Coates as a late round flier don’t need him to be a fantasy WR1. But they do need him to be able to effectively replace Martavis Bryant as the team’s stretch-X receiver if called upon. Coates’ 21.8 (98th-percentile) college yards per reception actually exceeded Bryant’s 19.7 (93rd-percentile) college YPR. Bryant was been able to translate this ability to the NFL level with yards per reception totals of 21.1 on 26 catches (2014) and 15.3 on 50 catches (2015). This shouldn’t come as a huge surprise when you consider he was Ben Roethlisberger‘s primary deep threat the past two seasons.
Whomever opens the 2016 season as the stretch-X receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers will be a player that fantasy owners are going to want to target, provided their ADP doesn’t spike to the third round like Martavis Bryant’s did before he was suspended. Sammie Coates was a polarizing prospect coming out of Auburn in 2015. Given the fact that he only saw two targets in his rookie season, he’ll continue to be a polarizing prospect for the 2016 fantasy football offseason. The biggest check mark in his favor is that he’s so intrinsically similar to Bryant, who wasn’t even productive enough in college to have a Breakout Age on Player Profiler. Furthermore, the fact that the team used higher draft capital on Coates (Round 3) than Bryant (Round 4) speaks to how the team feels about Coates and his potential.
The offense of the 2015 Green Bay Packers likely would’ve been a lot more productive had the team played Jeff Janis in the Jordy Nelson role following Nelson’s ACL tear. For the sake of fantasy football owners everywhere, let’s hope the 2016 Pittsburgh Steelers don’t make the same mistake when it comes to Sammie Coates filling the Martavis Bryant role.