When the Pittsburgh Steelers selected wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster with their second-round draft pick last April, fellow Steelers receiver Martavis Bryant took to social media and got on the defensive. In a tweet, since deleted, he declared Smith-Schuster the replacement for not him but another Pittsburgh wideout, Sammie Coates, saying "I am back."
Bryant had just been conditionally reinstated by the NFL days after repeated violations of the league's substance abuse policy. But he didn't view the Smith-Schuster signing as an indication that he'd have a diminished role on the Steelers' offense despite the year off -- especially not when his last time on the field, in 2015, yielded 765 yards and six scores on 50 receptions in only 11 regular-season games played.
And Bryant wasn't entirely wrong; Smith-Schuster's presence doubtlessly played a role in the Steelers trading Coates to the Cleveland Browns in early September. Meanwhile, Bryant remained on the roster with the expectations that he'd be a source of big plays and numerous touchdowns.
However, Bryant and Smith-Schuster's careers seem to be linked, particularly when their past six months in Pittsburgh are compared. And while Smith-Schuster's impressive rookie performance isn't the only reason why Bryant will sit out Sunday night's game against the Detroit Lions, it certainly made head coach Mike Tomlin's decision to make Bryant inactive much easier.
Bryant's return to the Steelers hasn't been a quiet one. Beyond the tweet targeted at Coates in April, there was some degree of a falling out with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Big Ben said to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Ron Cook that, "[Bryant] has to win back everybody's trust. I would hope he comes up to me and we go somewhere to talk in private. After that, he has to show with his work ethic and by staying clean that he cares-really cares-about us. If he does that, it'll be huge."
Bryant responded by saying to ESPN that, "We should have a man-to-man. Because some of the things he put out there about me, I kind of didn't agree with how he did it. So I want to sit down and hear his own opinion, man-to-man, about why he did that." The two did have a talk in early August, and though Roethlisberger provided little details, he called the conversation, "good." It seemed as though Bryant's grievances had been aired and that he, and the Steelers, could move forward.
All seemed relatively fine to start the season. Though Antonio Brown was again the main focus of the Steelers' passing offense, Bryant was on the field for over 80 percent of the team's snaps in Week 1 and saw six targets, though they only resulted in two catches for 14 yards. A week later, Bryant hauled in three of four passes thrown his way, for 91 yards and a score. But his production continued to drop, while Smith-Schuster's star began to rise. Juju went from playing 42 percent of the Steelers' snaps in Week 1 to eventually seeing a season-high of 82.5 percent in Week 5. And Bryant's squeaky wheel again began demanding grease.
Bryant, who caught one three-yard pass in Week 7's win over the Cincinnati Bengals, has only chosen to double down on his disappointment and public complaints.
#Steelers WR Martavis Bryant to me: "If they don't try to include me more and continue to do the same thing, then I want out period." [Cont]- Josina Anderson (@JosinaAnderson) October 24, 2017
#Steelers WR Martavis Bryant to me: "I just want to be happy..I would like for it to be here, but if not then oh well. Just got to move on."- Josina Anderson (@JosinaAnderson) October 24, 2017
In an Instagram post, Bryant said, "Juju is no where near better than me fool all they need to do is give me what I want and y'all can have juju and who ever else." The next day, he opted to skip team meetings, apparently "calling in sick," according to teammates. His complaints and actions, though, have had the opposite effect on the Steelers; Bryant will not play on Sunday against the Lions as a punishment, and he will also not be traded before the Oct. 31 deadline.
Bryant and Smith-Schuster rank second and third, respectively, in Steelers' receiving yards behind Brown, but not much is separating them. Bryant has caught 18 passes on 36 targets for 234 yards and one score, while Smith-Schuster has 17 receptions on 27 targets for 231 yards and three scores. Bryant has four receptions of 20 or more yards, compared to three for Smith-Schuster. Bryant's per-game average is at 33.4 yards; Smith-Schuster's is at 33 yards. Bryant is not wrong-Smith-Schuster's playing time has increased at the expense of Bryant's snaps. However, the Steelers are not wrong to have made such a move, with Smith-Schuster more reliably catching the passes that go his way and his contributions making a larger overall impact on the Steelers offense this season.
But there is no way to alter the optics of the situation. Bryant has done little more than complain since being reinstated earlier in the year, while Smith-Schuster, a cheerful 20-year old who recently documented the loss and eventual recovery of his beloved bike and who orchestrated a hide-and-seek touchdown celebration, has already become a favorite of Steelers fans.
Bryant's April prediction was right: Smith-Schuster's presence has already forced Coates off of the roster. But it may result in the same fate for Bryant. The question is whether Bryant will learn anything from his benching. He was a willing scout-teamer for this week's practices and vowed to stay off social media, even assisting Smith-Schuster with practicing celebratory ball-spins, all of which are positive developments.
But with the coaches clearly tiring of Bryant's affinity for going public -- and going low when he does so -- it's not going to help him get back into the team's good graces. And Smith-Schuster's ascension only makes things more difficult for the veteran, even without Bryant needing to say a word.