Last week, Pittsburgh inked Ladarius Green to a 4-year deal. Following 4 years in Antonio Gates’ shadow, the super-hyped 25-year-old finally gets a chance to start.
This signing looked like a complimentary one at first glance. But with Martavis Bryant banned for 1 year, the former Charger should see a larger role.
Just how high can his fantasy upside climb? Let’s take a look.
Path to Pittsburgh
Green was always considered a project coming out of Louisiana-Lafayette. But his stock shot up following the 2012 Combine. Check out these highlights:
Arm Length: 34 1/2"
Hand Size: 10 1/8"
40 time: 4.53
Broad Jump: 10'4
Yep … he’s a freak athlete.
San Diego took the small school project in Round 4. As expected, Green didn’t factor into the offense as a rookie. Over the next 3 years, though, he’d show big-play chops.
From 2013-2015, Green averaged 14.1 yards per catch and scored 7 times. His average length of touchdown? A whopping 27.7 yards.
With the 35-year-old Gates still playing well last year -- after a 4-game drug suspension to open the season -- Green saw just 56.7% of the snaps. When the future Hall of Famer missed time, however, Green showed he could handle a full load.
Green appeared in 4 of Gates’ 5 missed games, notching 18 grabs for 219 yards and 3 scores. That’s a tidy 16-game pace of 72-876-12.
Now, Green does come with 1 clear red flag: injury concerns. What’s not so clear is the severity of his injuries.
From the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: "Green had ankle surgery following theseason, but he expects to be ready for training camp in August. He also said reports of concussions keeping him out games last season was misleading. His issues were later diagnosed as sinus problems."
Green’s ankle issue is straightforward. But his comments regarding 2 reported concussions add some confusion to this situation. If true -- and we’ll choose to believe Green -- they take some risk away from his 2016 outlook. However, he did suffer 1 confirmed concussion in 2014.
We must take these risk factors seriously when projecting Green’s 2016 numbers.
A crowded offense? Not anymore
If the Steelers carried over their entire 2015 offense, we’d have concerns about Green’s volume.
But when Heath Miller retired, he took 81 targets (15 games) with him. Bryant’s suspension removes a guy who averaged about 8.4 targets over his 11 outings last season -- a 16-game pace of 134.
Beyond that, Bryant’s absence robs this offense of a scoring weapon. He averaged 1.2 red zone targets per game last year. And per ESPN’s Mike Clay, Bryant's 29 end zone targets are fourth most league-wide since his debut in Week 7 of 2014. (Bryant owns 15 TDs in 21 career games.)
Green -- standing 6’6 with the arm span of an O-lineman -- looks like a top candidate to help fill that void.
Of course, he won’t morph into Ben Roethlisberger’s go-to option. Antonio Brown leads all WRs with 180 targets per season since 2013.
Le'Veon Bell is similarly elite among his RB counterparts. He’s not a lock to suit up for Week 1, though, after tearing knee ligaments in November. Our projections will have Bell shy of his career-high 105 targets from 2014. He averaged 5 targets in his 5 full games last year, 3 of which came with Bryant out.
Markus Wheaton has generally disappointed through his first 3 seasons. Sure, he emerged down the stretch last year, posting 35 grabs, 529 yards and 4 scores over the final 8 games (postseason included). Yet he managed only 16 catches over the first 10 weeks of the season. Wheaton averaged just 46 yards per outing over the 5 weeks that Bryant missed. This isn’t a guy who’ll automatically slot ahead of Green in the target hierarchy.
Even at 34, Ben Roethlisberger looks like he’s trending upward. He just set a career-best completion rate of 68.0% and posted his highest yards per attempt since 2009. More good news for Green:
Roethlisberger’s attempts per game have increased in each of the last 5 years.
No surprise, then, that Pittsburgh passed the ball on 60.33% of their plays in 2015. That ranked 12th highest league-wide, and it marked only a slight dip from the Steelers’ 2014 figure of 59.13%. So don’t worry about a healthy Le’Veon Bell moving the needle here. OC Todd Haley has proven that he wants to emphasize the pass.
Green’s 2016 outlook
Green should safely surpass Heath Miller’s 535 yards and 2 scores from 2015. His 60 catches are well within reach, too.
But it’s worth pointing out what made Miller so successful: heady play and a strong rapport with Ben Roethlisberger. Over the last 5 seasons, Miller compiled a sparking catch rate of 73%. Green’s career rate stands at 63.1%.
So his ability to absorb a new playbook and jell with Big Ben will be key. They’re simply components of his game that we won’t have insight on until the summer. Really, though, there’s little else to suggest that Green isn’t ready to thrive as a starter.
His athletic profile is nearly flawless. He’s posted encouraging numbers as a part-timer. And his supporting cast is elite, while his competition for targets weakened following Bryant’s suspension.
While Green won’t come cheap in 2016 drafts, he does boast immense upside – especially in the TD department. Expect him to land among the top-10 of our TE rankings.