Why Dez Bryant Will Be Fantasy Football's Top Receiver in 2015

With DeMarco Murray gone, Bryant could be the best fantasy receiver in 2015.

The Dallas Cowboys' eccentric wide receiver Dez Bryant is a polarizing player off the field but a stud on it.

For fantasy football purposes, Dez is, no doubt, elite.

The fantasy community is planting their flags on which of the elite wide receivers will finish first in 2015. Today, I will make the case for the Cowboys' dynamic receiving threat.

Bryant's Ascension

Since being drafted by Dallas in 2010, Bryant has made steady increases in production, highlighted by his career high and league leading 16 touchdowns in 2014. 

Looking at Bryant's first five years in the NFL according to our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, we can gauge just how productive he’s been throughout his career.

As a reminder, NEP serves to quantify a player’s performance above expectation by factoring in down-and-distance data, among other football variables, to determine the number of expected points he has added to his team’s total score. Check out our glossary to learn more about NEP.

Season Reception NEP Rank among WR's
2010 52.56 49
2011 86.87 18
2012 110.60 10
2013 107.91 14
2014 127.79 5

Bryant clearly has been a top-20 talent for the past four seasons and had his best year to date in 2014. Going beyond the numbers in the chart above, I believe that the dip in NEP in 2013 came as a result of the inefficient targets that Bryant received, as shown by his career low 58.5% catch rate that season.  

Another supporting statistic shows that, in 2012 and 2014, Bryant averaged 15.0 yards per catch on an average of 137 targets, while in 2013 his yards per catch dropped to 13.3.

Further supporting that notion is his Reception NEP per target scores. In 2013, he posted a career-worst 0.68. In 2012, it was 0.80, and in 2014, his 0.94 ranked tops among 40 receivers who saw at least 100 targets.

With  DeMarco Murray's incredible rushing performance last season, Bryant actually saw his targets decrease to 136, down from 159 in 2013, but both his efficiency and prolificness improved from a production standpoint.

His catch rate also jumped from 58.5% in 2013 to 64.7% last year.

With Murray now in Philadelphia, will Bryant still be able to maintain last year's level of efficiency with a fairly certain increase in targets back into the 150-160 range? 

If he is able to stay close, I believe Bryant will finish as fantasy's top receiver. 

Fantasy Outlook

The Cowboys running game has obviously taken a huge hit, losing the 2014 NFL rushing champion. On top of that, neither Darren McFadden or Joseph Randle have truly taken the reigns at any point this offseason, though Randle is expected to be the team's starter.

If no back on the roster can fill in for Murray, Dallas could turn back to a pass heavy attack with Bill Callahan now in Washington D.C. 

The evidence under head coach Jason Garrett supports as much. In 2012, Tony Romo attempted 684 drop backs and in 2013, 570. Last season's 465 drop backs was a complete outlier in Romo's recent career. 

With increased passing volume, Bryant will gain more value in PPR leagues. 

He is a near lock to break his career high reception mark of 93. Our projections here at numberFire peg Dez for 94.14 receptions in 2015, but I would not be shocked at all to see him crack 100 receptions for the first time in his career. 

Another factor that will contribute to Dez being the top fantasy receiver this season is his competition for targets. 

I am not suggesting that  Jason Witten will be irrelevant this season, as he did finish fourth among tight ends last season in Reception NEP (73.78). But the 33 year old is the clear second option in the Dallas passing game, and evidence supports his drop off in production. Witten's 64 receptions in 2014 were by far his lowest since 2006. 

Second wide receiver Terrance Williams has been a very efficient target in the past but not one who has seen significant volume. 

He finished 46th in Reception NEP (61.45) among wide receivers last season, and had fewer receptions in 2014 (37) while starting 16 games than he did in 2013 (44) while only starting 8 games. However, among 87 receivers who saw at least 50 targets last year (Williams saw 65), his Reception NEP per target of 0.95 ranked second only to Kenny Stills (1.05), who has led the league for two straight seasons.

Dez Bryant finished fourth in the all important team target share (29.42%) in 2014 and should increase that number this season with DeMarco Murray's 64 targets gone from the offense. 

Our projections at numberFire give Bryant the second-highest touchdown total (11.3) behind Demaryius Thomas (12.5).

Because of an expected uptick in passing attempts in the Dallas offense and his elite efficiency and volume numbers, Dez will finish the 2015 season with the most fantasy points at wide receiver. 

With a current ADP of 1.08, draft Dez with confidence at the back end of the first round or as a value in the early second.