Equity Score Deep Dive: Markus Wheaton
June 27, 2016 | C.D. Carter
The thought is logical enough: Martavis Bryant, who I (mostly) jokingly call the Steelers’ best receiver, is done for the year because the NFL hates the devil weed, meaning whichever Pittsburgh pass catcher slides into that role can and will be a major fantasy football asset.
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And who among us doesn’t want pieces of the potentially explosive Pittsburgh passing attack, should the giant marshmallow we call Ben Roethlisberger not roll around in anguish every fifth snap this season? I’m not discounting Wheaton, whose median equity score puts him at WR 32, as a guy who could prove a draft day value in 2016 re-draft leagues.
It’s Wheaton’s limited range of outcomes — realistic ones, anyway — that make me bearish on the fourth-year receiver with 103 career receptions and six career scores.
Let’s dispatch with two pro-Wheaton arguments — one of which might be a towering straw man that I created in an attempt to play a Very Serious Football Analyst. The thought that Wheaton has — and will — thrive with Bryant gone from the Steelers’ starting lineup is debunked with a glance at Wheaton’s splits with and without the freakish wideout catching passes for the black and gold. Roethlisberger didn’t play in all of these games, but I believe the point stands.
Wheaton was a better fantasy producer when Bryant was in the lineup, running circles around teams’ No. 2 cornerbacks. There was no meaningful uptick in Wheaton’s opportunity, most importantly, when Pittsburgh was without Bryant.
The aforementioned straw man argument is that Bryant and Wheaton could hardly be more different as football producers. One guy has notched 10.8 adjusted yards per attempt with Roethlisberger under center. The other has averaged a 7 AYA with Roethlisberger. One receiver has posted an 18.5 percent touchdown rate, while the other scores on 6 percent of his receptions. “I knew Martavis Bryant. Martavis Bryant was a friend of mine. Senator Wheaton, you are no Martavis Bryant.”
But let’s not laugh at a bad political joke and wash our hands of Markus Wheaton. Let’s take a look at what could happen if his peripheral numbers improve and his opportunity does in fact spike with Bryant’s absence.
I used the Rotoviz Projection Machine to explore the (likely) limits of Wheaton’s fantasy production. I started by awarding Wheaton all 21 percent of the targets that Bryant saw last season. Probably this represents a vast overstatement of Wheaton’s opportunity. With his career catch rate, yards per catch, and touchdown rate, Wheaton came out of this scenario with 116.7 targets, 67.7 receptions, 891.4 yards, and 5.25 touchdowns. That comes out to 187.6 fantasy points, which would have made Wheaton WR30 in 2015.
For the next scenario, I tweaked Wheaton’s touchdown rate and catch rate — increasing it by 3 percent and 5 percent, respectively — and once again gave him that monstrous 21 percent target share. Wheaton, in this case, nabbed 72.4 receptions, gained 933 yards, and scored 5.84 touchdowns. That would be a cool 200.7 fantasy points, or equivalent to 2015’s WR26.
Remember: the above scenarios hinge on Wheaton getting the full Martavis Bryant target share in 2016. That is a huge assumption — one on which we should not bet. This would mark a nearly 8 percent jump in target share for Wheaton. In fact, assuming Wheaton’s 2015 target share, the receiver would likely not finish inside the top-40 wideouts.
Neither rose-colored scenario is hateful when we consider that Wheaton is the 43rd receiver off the draft board, per Fantasy Football Calculator. Even the WR30 numbers would be a not-hateful draft day value for those investing in Wheaton this season. But beware an ADP rise should summertime hype push Wheaton into the first 30-35 receivers drafted.
Such limited upside, while several wideouts going just before and after Wheaton have much better high-end prospects, make the Pittsburgh receiver something less than a must-have target in re-draft leagues. I’d rather take my shot with Sammie Coates, who is going four rounds after Wheaton and sported a 15.9 percent touchdown rate in three seasons at Auburn. It’s worth noting that Coates has reportedly corrected the bad conditioning that held him back from playing time in 2015.