Dez Bryant Can Return to Being a Fantasy Football Stud in 2017

After two straight disappointing seasons, Dez Bryant is poised to return to the upper echelon of fantasy football's wide receivers.

One of my favorite television shows of all time is Arrested Development. First airing in 2003, the critically-acclaimed show centering around the dysfunctional Bluth family suffered from low ratings and was cancelled abruptly by Fox in 2006 after three seasons.

But Arrested Development's stretch run from 2003-06 was the pinnacle of comedy gold. However, after Netflix picked up the show for a fourth season in 2013 after a seven-year hiatus, it was evident that Arrested Development wasn't what it once was.

Dez Bryant's last five seasons have seemed to follow a similar trajectory. He was an unstoppable force for the Dallas Cowboys from 2012-14, but his performances in 2015 and 2016 were much different. They resembled an extended version of Arrested Development's fourth season as he dealt with injuries while dealing with multiple quarterbacks tossing him the ball.

Fantasy football drafters aren't fleeing him en masse, but things aren't the same -- his 2.08 average draft position (ADP) in standard 12-team leagues per Fantasy Football Calculator is the lowest it's been since entering 2012. Even though his ADP has dropped significantly, the spot he's currently occupying is one where drafters want more certainty out of their selection.

There's no denying it -- Bryant has been a fantasy football disappointment for the last two seasons. However, is there reason to think he may have a career revival in 2017 and be worth his current cost? To get to that answer, it's important to look first at why things went south.

The Struggle

To begin his two-year disappointment tour, Bryant suffered a Jones fracture in Week 1 of the 2015 season. Initially expected to miss 10-12 weeks, he rushed to return from the injury by Week 9, leading to another foot surgery after the season concluded. So, he clearly wasn't at full health at any point in 2015.

Additionally, Bryant was without the services of Tony Romo tossing him the rock upon his return. Romo's stand-ins helped lead the Cowboys to the fourth-least efficient passing offense in the league, per numberFire’s signature on-field performance metric, Net Expected Points (NEP).

The Cowboys' ragtag quarterback combination's -0.02 Passing NEP per drop back effectively meant they were losing points every time they dropped back to pass. That's, ummm, certainly not helpful for a star receiver's fantasy production, whether he's healthy or not.

With the full offseason ahead, the band was back together headed into the 2016 season. And of course, Bryant's stock was seemingly back on the rise -- until Week 3 of the preseason.

That's when Romo went down with a back injury, leading to rookie Dak Prescott sniping his job for good. With little time to develop chemistry, Prescott and Bryant didn't start off simpatico. Moreover, the pass-catcher suffered a hairline fracture in his knee in Week 3, leading him to miss the next three games. As such, it looked like he was headed for another wasted season.

Reason for Hope

When Bryant returned to the field in Week 7, he rewarded his faithful owners handsomely by accumulating an average of 8.0 targets, 71.8 yards, and 0.78 touchdowns per game from Weeks 7 to 15. That stat line extrapolated to a full 16-game season would produce a monster 128-target, 1,148-yard, 12-touchdown campaign.

Naysayers might mention that a 128-target season would have placed Dez as only the 19th-most targeted receiver in the league last season. He has never relied on volume for fantasy production, though -- he finished in the top-10 in targets among wide receivers only once in his career (2013). Rather, he has largely produced fantasy goodness through incredible efficiency.

The numbers from his 2016 season suggest there's reason to believe in a Dez Bryant Renaissance this year.

Season Targets Receptions Reception NEP Reception NEP per Target Catch Rate Reception Success Rate
2010 72 45 52.56 0.73 62.5% 77.8%
2011 104 64 92.39 0.89 61.5% 90.6%
2012 138 92 110.60 0.80 66.7% 88.0%
2013 159 93 107.91 0.68 58.5% 90.3%
2014 136 88 127.79 0.94 64.7% 84.1%
2015 72 31 33.87 0.47 43.1% 80.6%
2016 96 50 78.68 0.82 52.1% 96.0%

Bryant's 0.82 Reception NEP per Target ranked ninth among receivers with at least 90 targets, which was the third time he's finished in the top-10 per that metric. Also, his 96.0% Reception Success Rate -- which is the percentage of his receptions which positively contributed to NEP -- set a new career high, ranking third in the NFL among that same cohort of players.

So, when Bryant was getting the ball in his hands, he was making a rather consistent impact.

The most worrisome metric in the chart above is his 52.1% catch rater. However, it's also probably the easiest to fix since he'll end up having a full offseason to develop chemistry with his signal-caller. Per Sporting Charts, Bryant was only credited with one drop in 2016, so he was as sure handed as ever. Rather, his poor catch rate was more likely a function of him and Prescott being slightly off with one another with regard to timing.

If Bryant can perform at his pre-2015 career catch rate average of 62.73%, a 128-target season would net him 80 catches. That's right where numberFire's algorithm projects him for this season, which is a healthy 75-catch, 1,219-yard, and 9-touchdown performance, placing him eighth among our wide receiver fantasy projections.

The Banana Stand

Dez Bryant fantasy drafters always knew there was money in the banana stand -- really, go watch Arrested Development -- until a slew of injuries and quarterback changes stalled his stay at the wide receiver mountaintop. But once we look deeper into last season's numbers with a new quarterback tossing him the ball, things are looking brighter for Bryant headed into the new season.

With a slightly improved catch rate and a full offseason to gel with Prescott, there's little reason to suspect the pass-catcher can't return to form. And at his current ADP, while not a scorching value, it wouldn't be shocking to see Bryant deliver a return to dominance that at least matches the coast of drafting him late in the second round.