Dez Bryant Will Be a Fantasy Football League Winner in 2016

Bryant's 2015 was abysmal for many reasons, but he will shine again this year despite a run-heavy offense.

In football and in life, recency bias can cloud our judgment. The human mind has an innate ability to cling to negative memories more intently than it does to positive ones.

Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant was universally considered one of the premier receivers in the NFL prior to the 2015 season and was rewarded as such with a five-year, $70 million deal. Despite that fact, our most recent memory of Bryant on the football field was that of a hobbling, ineffective receiver catching passes from quarterbacks who don’t belong in the National Football League.

This is one of the primary reasons why Bryant is being somewhat dismissed in early fantasy drafts after an injury-plagued season on a poor Cowboys team.

Part of the reason why his cost is depressed this season is because of the aforementioned foot injuries. Now, it’s important to note that this “depressed” cost still has him going in the back end of the first round in both standard and PPR formats, according to FantasyPros. But for some reason, people are dismissing his upside as a touchdown scorer, and that's a mistake.

Bryant’s Lost 2015

Bryant played in nine games last season, producing 401 yards on 31 catches (12.9 yards per reception) and scoring just 3 touchdowns. It was easily his worst statistical output since entering the league, though his poor performance can be partially attributed to injury.

He broke his foot in Week 1 and attempted to return quickly, ultimately cutting his season short as the Cowboys faded far from contention. Throughout all of this, he caught passes from ineffective quarterbacks Matt Cassel and Kellen Moore after Tony Romo broke his collarbone.

Bryant’s 2015 season was a disaster. However, there are plenty of positive signs moving forward. Let’s dive into what our signature metric, Net Expected Points (NEP), says about him.

If you’re not familiar with NEP, it essentially measures the expected point value an NFL team has for the drive based on yard line, down, and distance on every play using historical data. You can read more about NEP in our glossary.

From 2012 to 2014, when Bryant was being utilized as a primary option in the passing game, his numbers stack up to his competition.

This year, the top five receivers in PPR ADP (per FantasyPros) are Antonio Brown, Odell Beckham, Julio Jones, DeAndre Hopkins, and A.J. Green (Bryant is sixth).

The average 2015 Reception NEP per target for these top five receivers was .805. If you look at standard-scoring ADP, where Bryant is ahead of Green, the average Reception NEP per target for the first four receivers is .792.

Overall, Bryant -- again, from 2012 through 2014 -- was certainly on par with his ADP peers. Here are their 2015 results compared to the average marks of Bryant from those three seasons.

Full Name Rec Rec NEP Tar Tar NEP Rec NEP/T WR Avg Catch% Success%
Antonio Brown 136 147.21 193 76.65 0.76 0.67 70.47% 80.15%
Odell Beckham 96 151.54 158 91.32 0.96 0.67 60.76% 90.63%
Julio Jones 136 148.18 203 93.82 0.73 0.67 67.00% 84.56%
DeAndre Hopkins 111 143.89 192 71.55 0.75 0.67 57.81% 95.50%
A.J. Green 86 116.21 132 78.85 0.88 0.67 65.15% 91.86%
Dez Bryant (avg) 91 115.43 144 63.51 0.80 0.66 63.29% 87.48%

Excluding last season, Bryant's career Reception NEP per target is .807. Talent-wise, he’s just as good as the players getting drafted near him.

Now, the reason I’m excluding 2015 is because he was terrible. As alluded to above, though, this wasn’t his fault.

Dez BryantRecRec NEPTarTar NEPRec NEP/TWR AvgCatch%Success%

Last season, his Reception NEP per target was below league average, but this was due to a variety of factors. Primarily, his quarterback play was atrocious -- his catch rate was 43% -- far below his career rate of 63%, so it’s understandable that this number was much lower than usual.

In order to get an idea of Bryant’s fantasy ceiling and floor, we’ll examine his historical output.

Bryant as an Elite Touchdown Scorer

Last year, Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan stated that he didn’t care about maintaining a balanced offense. Rather, he cared about getting his best player (Julio Jones) the football.

Many teams have embraced the philosophy of getting their best players the ball at all costs. The Cowboys are not one of them.

In the past, the Cowboys have curiously refused to feed their alpha target relentlessly, instead opting to target complementary players such as Terrance Williams a frustrating amount.

This would seemingly place a cap on his upside in PPR formats, but offensive coordinator Scott Linehan historically loves to pepper his top receiver with targets. Look at the following chart, from RotoViz, which features the top receiving option in Linehan's offenses since 2002.

Linehan WR1

Linehan’s top wide receiver has been a generational-type talent more often than it hasn’t, but Bryant is also elite in his own right.

In his only full season under Linehan (2014), Bryant had a target total on the low end of the spectrum in the table above (the Cowboys ran only one more pass play than run play all season), but Bryant still finished as the WR4 in PPR, a result fueled by his league-leading 16 touchdowns.

Reliance on touchdowns isn’t a sustainable path to fantasy relevance, but Bryant has managed to do it year in and year out by dominating in the red zone (stats via ProFootballReference).

Dez Bryant RZ Splits Tgt Rec TD TD% %Team Tgt
2015 13 4 3 75.00% 18.10%
2014 14 8 8 100.00% 25.00%
2013 20 13 10 76.90% 29.90%
2012 14 9 4 44.40% 18.20%
2011 13 6 4 66.70% 17.60%
2010 8 7 5 71.40% 10.70%

Not only is Bryant efficient in the red zone, but he’s also heavily utilized and relied upon. He’s converted over 72 percent of his receptions into touchdowns inside the 20.

Additionally, excluding his ineffective 2015 season, Dez has converted 23 of his 25 career targets inside the 10-yard line into touchdowns. That’s an absurd 92% rate. He’s simply too physical and dominant at the catch point to be successfully defended in close quarters.

Offensive Philosophy in Dallas

Dallas is renowned for their elite offensive line and reliance on a steady running game. In fact, one of the primary motivations for selecting running back Ezekiel Elliott instead of Jalen Ramsey in the 2016 NFL Draft was because of Jason Garrett’s belief that an elite running back takes pressure off his own team's defense by lengthening their time of possession. Joe Redemann examined this theory shortly after the draft and debunked that myth.

Regardless, pairing Zeke with an elite offensive line has many believing that Dallas will be a run-heavy team again in 2016. While that may be true (and Elliott currently has a first-round ADP, according to FantasyPros), Bryant has produced elite fantasy finishes on run-first teams in the past. In fact, the aforementioned WR4 PPR finish in 2014 coincided with DeMarco Murray's RB1 season on a total of 400-plus touches.

If the Cowboys give Elliott closer to 280 or 300 carries as they’re claiming, that still doesn't necessarily indicate that Bryant's volume will drop or that he can't return an elite fantasy season.

Oh, and Romo’s healthy now.

Bryant has always performed much more favorably with Romo at quarterback than anyone else. While these splits weren’t pronounced in 2015 due to a small sample size, you can look at his career splits below, per RotoViz:

Dez with Romo

Despite being targeted a similar amount with or without Romo under center, Bryant averages more targets, receptions, yards, and touchdowns with his starting quarterback.

This isn’t surprising -- Romo is the starter because he’s more talented than his backups are -- but it is important because Romo is back under center for the 2016 season.

Clear Path to Opportunity

While various teams spent the offseason trying to revamp their receiving cores through free agency and the NFL Draft, the Cowboys stood pat and did not add a wide receiver to the roster.

They expect Bryant to return to prominence, and so should you.

Bryant is younger than Antonio Brown and A.J. Green are and is still an elite receiver in the prime of his career. You should treat him as such in your upcoming fantasy football draft. He has all the upside he had from a year ago when he was being drafted earlier than he is now.

Ride his returning relevance to fantasy glory.