*Around The NFL crew will document the players we believe will be "Making the Leap" in 2015. This could be a player emerging from no-name status to a quality starter. Or it could mean an excellent player jumping to superstar status. *
Why Bryant is on the list
After sitting out the first six games of the 2014 season, the 6-foot-4 wideout made up for lost time scoring six touchdowns in his first four games. He splashed onto the scene when his first NFL reception went for a score on MNF. The beautiful toe-tapper for a touchdown can be seen to the right. Bryant was off to the races from that moment on.
A rare player that boasts size and 4.42 forty-speed, it was clear from that first game in Week 7 Bryant would be a deep threat Ben Roethlisberger trusted. Four of Bryant's first five NFL targets were more than 20 yards down field and he averaged 2.3 deep shots per game. Bryant finished with 26 receptions for 549 yards and eight touchdowns in just 306 regular season snaps. He also led the NFL with a 21.1-yards-per-catch average.
Bryant's ability to burn corners completely opened up the Steelers' offense, giving Roethlisberger a nightmare matchup to exploit when teams rolled coverage at Antonio Brown and stacked boxes against Le'Veon Bell. Let's just watch this 94-yard touchdown below and marvel at the speed and fluidity.
The 23-year-old displays the speed and subtlety of motion to flip a corner's hips and beat him deep, but he was no one-trick pony.
After watching all 61 of Bryant's targets last season on NFL Game Rewind (including plays nullified by penalty and a whopping 10 postseason targets), his improvement with playing time was evident and sometimes downright impressive.
In the play to the right, Bryant takes off from the slot, knocks the lunging defender away and uses his speed to get to the sideline for a big catch and run. While primarily utilized as a deep and red zone target, Bryant displayed improvement in his route tree -- especially the slant -- as the season faded into winter. He also showed improved patience in the screen-game over the course of the season.
Where Bryant needs work
It was unquestionable after watching his film that Bryant improved his route running and technique last season. There are still steps to be taken, however. Too often he was inconsistent and would sometimes round off a route, giving a defender a free lane to the football.
Bryant added 10-pounds of muscle this season, which should help earn more clean releases if teams try to take advantage of his thin frame and bump him at the line of scrimmage. Adding the strength should allow him to become an even bigger presence in the red zone -- where he saw 13 total targets last year. The strength should also help in run blocking, which he wasn't asked to do much of last year.
My biggest surprise while watching Bryant's film came with a notable lack of high-point catches. Given his size and leaping ability, I expected more. Even in the red zone when he boxed shorter corners out, he often let the ball come to him, allowing defenders to make a play. For a guy with his size and athletic ability I expected more go-up-and-get-it, 'my ball, my game, my score' statement moments.
Considering Markus Wheaton ran 283 more routes than Bryant last year, we expect the second year player to see a huge increase in opportunities as he takes clear control of the No. 2 role. Bell's three game suspension -- if upheld -- will also play a part in Bryant's production, as the Steelers went pass-heavy without their No. 1 running back last year.
Brown will get an overwhelming chunk of the targets and Big Ben will spread the ball to his tight end and running backs. Still, Bryant already has a rapport on the long ball with Roethlisberger and a full year learning the offense. On a deep, talented offensive team, a 69-catch, 1,108-yard season with 12 touchdowns would be a big step for a former fourth-round deep threat with red zone skills.
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