Dez Bryant Can Still Be a Productive NFL Receiver
A three-time Pro Bowler and one-time All-Pro, Bryant has had his ups and downs, but he's often been mentioned as one of the better receivers of the last decade. With three 1,200-plus yard, 12-plus touchdown campaigns over his first five seasons, the Oklahoma State product quickly established himself as one of the most exciting players in the game.
Of course, Bryant ultimately parlayed that run of success into a lucrative five-year, $70 million contract extension in July of 2015 and appeared ready to continue his run of dominance for seasons to come.
Unfortunately, that plan never came to fruition.
So, What Happened?
After signing that huge deal, Bryant's career began something of a downturn. In 2015, foot and ankle injuries limited him to nine contests, and the veteran sputtered to only 31 catches, 401 yards, and 3 touchdowns. The fact that starting quarterback Tony Romo was sidelined for all but four games certainly didn't help him, either.
In 2016, things were a little better, but Bryant still missed three starts with a knee fracture and struggled to establish chemistry with rookie starter Dak Prescott. However, with 50 catches, 796 yards, and 8 touchdowns in an abbreviated campaign, there was still cause for optimism about an eventual bounce-back.
Them 2017 happened. Bryant had an entire offseason to work with Prescott and didn't miss a single contest, but still struggled to a 69-catch, 838-yard, 6-touchdown finish. Bryant's catch rate remained extremely low (52.3%) and his efficiency metrics were equally poor.
If you're a regular reader, you know about numberFire's in-house Net Expected Points (NEP) metric. NEP employs historical down-and-distance data to determine what is expected of a player on a per-play basis. Positive NEP is earned when a player increases his team's expected points for the drive, and negative NEP is indicative of sub-standard performance.
Bryant only accumulated 0.55 NEP per target, which was tied for 62nd among all receivers who saw 50 or more looks in 2017. That's not particularly impressive, and it's especially disappointing for a player under such a substantial contract. After such a frustrating season, there was a great deal of speculation about his future with the team, and now those questions have finally been answered.
Plenty of Gas in the Tank
Don't get me wrong -- I understand the business optics of the Cowboys' decision. Admittedly, it would have been unwise for the team to proceed forward with Bryant's $16.5 million cap hit on the books for the next two seasons. It seems perplexing that a pay cut wasn't offered to a player who has been such an integral part of the team's success for so many years, but Bryant made it clear that he wasn't interested in such a proposition a long time ago.
The Cowboys did what they felt they had to, and I'm not criticizing them for it. Still, just because this was the right move for this particular franchise doesn't mean that Bryant can't be highly valuable to another organization.
Does anyone really think that a player capable of this is at the end of the line?
Dez Bryant's sixth TD of the season. pic.twitter.com/C6DhDX22pH
— Marcus Mosher (@Marcus_Mosher) December 11, 2017
Yes, Bryant appears a half-step slower than he used to be, but we're talking about a 29-year-old receiver. This is a position of above-average longevity and some of the game's best hover around this age. Antonio Brown and A.J. Green are both four months older than Bryant, while Julio Jones is three months younger. Bryant's physical style of play has led to less tread on his tires, but he's still reasonably young.
While he's not going to beat anyone with deep speed any time soon, the whole "Dez Bryant can't separate" narrative has become overplayed. Bryant came into the league as a 4.57 guy and has never been a burner. Frankly, his downfield prowess has had very little to do with deep speed, but rather his ability to go up over defenders while dominating at the catch point.
Put simply, Bryant's precipitous statistical decline isn't exclusively attributable to diminishing athletic ability. Ultimately, the Cowboys offense shifted focus to a ground-based attack and Bryant and Prescott never really clicked. In truth, their skill sets just don't mesh that well. Prescott shines as an intermediate passer, where Bryant has often made his money with big plays.
In fact, during their two years as teammates, they've connected for 20-plus yards on only 18 passes. By contrast, the last time Romo and Bryant shared the field for a healthy season (2014), they accomplished this feat on 22 occasions. Per Player Profiler, Prescott attempted 47 deep balls in 2017, which ranked a mere 25th in the NFL. The site also credits the team with the third-fewest pass plays in 2017 and the very fewest pass plays in 2016. Aggression is just not part of the Cowboys' current gameplan.
Bryant would be better served in a high-volume passing game, but he also needs to make some changes to his own style of play. As receivers start to slow down a bit, they have to face facts and adapt. In the next phase of his career, Bryant has the opportunity to become a much more complete player. To his credit, it seems like he is well aware of this.
This offseason, he's enlisted the help of David Robinson, a respected route-running coach who has high hopes for the former All-Pro. Interestingly enough, Robinson suggested that it would be wise to move Bryant around the formation more than in years past, including into the slot. Bryant has spent very little time there, but it would be smart to get him some reps inside as he gets older.
Bryant's competitive fire and love for football are well-documented and his physical prowess is the stuff of legend. At this stage of his career, he doesn't always have to make the highlight reel grabs down the sideline.Top cornerbacks seldom travel into the slot, and Bryant can make opposing defenses pay for it.
The dust is still settling on the release, so it's hard to project where Bryant will land. On paper, there are plenty of receiver-needy teams and franchises loaded with cap space that might jump at the chance to add a player of his caliber. A potential union with Jimmy Garoppolo, Kyle Shanahan, and the San Francisco 49ers certainty sounds appealing, but there's word going around that Bryant informed Cowboys brass he'd be seeing them "twice next year" on the way out the door. Indeed, signing with a divisional rival seems like a possibility, although that's far from a certainty.
The next chapter of Dez Bryant's NFL story will be very interesting. For the first time in his career, he is hitting the open market and has control over his own situation. If he chooses his next destination wisely, he will have an opportunity to revitalize his career. There will be no shortage of suitors lining up for a chance to acquire a player under 30 with such an extensive resume.
Bryant has a lot of football ahead of him and now finds himself with something to prove. It would be unfair to expect production on par with his scintillating 2012-2014 performance, but another 1,000-yard season isn't out of the question for the former Pro Bowler.