Now that we know Martavis Bryant is suspended for the entire 2016 season, the Steelers will have to find a way to replace the wide receiver's production on the field.
That should be easier than what most people may realize.
I will preface this article by saying, yes, Martavis Bryant is a special player with unique skills. He's a big body, fast, and has the ability to get open. Those are rough intangibles for other players to match, and a reason Bryant became a starter.
Much of that can be attributed to several constants: a good front office, great coaching and a future Hall of Fame quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger.
That's why I feel the Steelers will weather the storm in Bryant's absence. Here are 3 players who could, theoretically, fill the hole left by Martavis.
I lumped both of these players together because there will be more statistical analysis following.
Each, Heyward-Bey and Coates, are current players on the Steelers roster, who are capable of stepping into the outside WR role Bryant played. Heyward-Bey already filled in for Bryant's 4 game suspension in 2015 and played well during his injury absences as well.
Many will be quick to point out that DHB only had 21 catches for 314 yards and 2 touchdowns last season. Sammie Coates, who rode the bench for almost all of 2015, only had 3 catches (2 in the postseason.) DHB appeared in all 16 games, but mostly as a special teamer, starting only 4 games at WR. Coates, was limited to dressing for only 7 games.
It produces an argument where neither player could be a contributor, yet, this was true of the former Steeler receivers mentioned above, as they were worked into the system.
Emmanuel Sanders had seasons with 28, 22, and 44 catches before blossoming to a 67/740/6 stat line in his final year in Pittsburgh.
Similarly, many were worried about Jerricho Cotchery's departure, when he caught 10 touchdowns in his final season as a Steeler. Cotchery had 46 receptions for 602 yards that year, which were preceded by 2 seasons with 33 total catches (16 in one season, 17 in the other.)
Cotchery's production, since leaving for Carolina, has failed to match his magical year in Pittsburgh. In 34 total games over a 2 year span with the Panthers, he has only amassed 4 touchdowns, despite being part of one of the NFL's highest scoring offenses. (The Panthers lead the NFL in scoring in 2015.)
This speak volumes to the Steelers ability to "plug and play" various players. If the constant is Big Ben, there's no reason to think Heyward-Bey and Coates couldn't have similar leaps in production in 2016. Heyward-Bey showed several flashes throughout the season, and Coates' limited participation gave us a welcome surprise in the playoffs, considering the rookie was prepared despite little action beforehand.
The future is bright for both players.
Ah, yes. The hypothetical replacement for Bryant.
I love Hines Ward. His statement about being serious about a possible NFL return worked up all of the butterflies in Steeler Nation. Without a doubt, he was one of the greats.
This is not a knock on Hines Ward, but rather a dose of reality. Many players in the NFL do not excel in their late 30's and wide receivers are even more prone to decline at a younger age, giving way in their early 30's to faster, stronger, and cheaper athletes coming right out of college.
Hines Ward just turned 40.
He last played in the NFL in 2011.
The last time he had 1000 yards was in 2009. The following 2 seasons produced 59 and 46 receptions, as he was phased out in favor of Wallace, Sanders and Brown.
To think Hines could step into a game, 5 years after his last, is a facetious concept at best.
That's not to say he hasn't stayed in great shape, or couldn't offer veteran leadership. I'm sure Ward would be a great fit as a mentor in the locker room.
However, his role would more than likely be best suited as a coach giving advice, rather than an older player taking up a spot that could be utilized to find the next breakout star.