Over the last two seasons, there have been many people in the media (and many fans as well) declaring that Dez Bryant is no longer an elite NFL wide receiver. On the surface, it seems like an easy argument to make. During the 2015 and 2016 campaigns, Bryant had season averages of just 40 receptions, 598 receiving yards and 6 touchdowns.
Those are hardly numbers a viable starting wide receiver would put up, and not even close to anything elite. So, is it that simple? Is Dez Bryant really not among the NFL’s elite at his position anymore? Let’s take a deeper look at the numbers and situations to find out for sure.
Before we get started, let’s take a look back at the three seasons that put Dez Bryant into the elite picture to begin with. From 2012 to 2014, with a relatively healthy Tony Romo under center, Bryant averaged 144 targets, 91 receptions, 1,312 receiving yards, 14.4 yards per reception and 14 touchdowns each season.
Regardless of the era you are playing in, those are truly elite numbers for a NFL wide receiver. Some people have argued that Dez was never truly elite. Those stats should put that argument to bed pretty quickly. Let’s move forward…
BEHIND THE FALLING NUMBERS
In 2015, not only did Dez Bryant struggle, but the Cowboys struggled as a team going 4-12. Obviously, a lot of this was tied to Tony Romo missing almost the entire season and ceding the quarterback reigns to subpar quarterbacks Matt Cassel and Kellen Moore.
Lost in the midst of that is the fact that Dez Bryant was also injured for the entire season, except he played injured for nine games. Combining the horrendous quarterback play with an injury that required surgery, Dez only had 31 receptions for 401 yards and 3 touchdowns. Averaging the fewest yards per reception since his rookie year at 12.9.
Fast forward to last season and many were wondering how Dez would bounce back from such a bad injury and poor season. If you just look at the raw numbers he posted last season, as many detractors have, it appears as though Dez failed that test. He only played in 13 games and had 50 receptions on 96 targets for 796 receiving yards and 8 touchdowns. However, there are a few things to consider before jumping to that conclusion.
First, despite the fact that Dak Prescott struggled to throw an accurate deep ball on a consistent basis (see Bryant’s overall catch rate of only 52.1%), Dez still posted a career high in yards per reception at 15.9. That was good enough to tie him for 9th overall in the NFL.
Second, and probably the most evident, is that Bryant still had 8 touchdown receptions, which also had him tied for the 9th most in the league. This shouldn’t be dismissed without acknowledging the impact it has on the Cowboys offense. When Dallas gets close to the end zone, the opposing defense absolutely has to double-team him.
If they don’t, he is still arguably the best in the league at coming down with a jump ball. He and Tony Romo had that play (the back shoulder fade) down perfectly during the 2012-2014 seasons to the point where it almost felt automatic.
A ROOKIE QUARTERBACK
However, the back shoulder fade is not the easiest ball for a quarterback to throw. Being a rookie, Dak Prescott struggled trying to make this pass for the majority of the season. At times, it even looked downright ugly. So, while Dallas still checked to it at times, as the season went on they started to go away from it more than in years past. Because Dak Prescott is magical and excelled in finding many other ways to score, Dallas didn’t feel compelled to force the issue. This inevitably hurt Dez’s overall touchdown numbers.
It is completely reasonable to assume that he could have had two-to-five more touchdowns if he had a quarterback who was experienced in throwing that back shoulder fade in the end zone from the start of the season. If that happens, his eight touchdowns potentially jump into the 10-13 range. For reference, the leader in the NFL last season was Jordy Nelson who had 14 receiving touchdowns.
The good news for Dez is that Dak started to show improvement in his ability to throw that type of pass by the end of the season. If that can again become a weapon for Dallas, Bryant should see his touchdown numbers rise in 2017.
While we are on the topic of touchdowns and quarterback play, it is important to note that Dak Prescott (even though he had a brilliant rookie season) only had 23 touchdown passes. That isn’t a poor number at all, but it was only good enough to tie him with Blake Bortles for 15th in the NFL. Dez Bryant caught eight of those touchdowns, which is 34.78% of the total receiving touchdowns on the team.
Compare that to Jordy Nelson, who led the league in receiving touchdowns, and Nelson caught 14 of Aaron Rodgers’ 40 touchdown passes to equal 35% of the total receiving touchdowns the Packers scored last season. For what it's worth, Dez caught basically the exact same percentage of his team’s receiving touchdowns as the NFL leader did.
One thing that most veteran quarterbacks learn in the NFL is the ability to trust certain wide receivers. Dez Bryant doesn’t have the most blinding speed in the league, but he never has. He is the type of receiver that is sometimes still “open” even if he technically doesn’t look that way, especially in single coverage.
There were many times during the season that because Dez appeared to be covered by his man, Dak chose to look elsewhere or throw the ball away, instead of throwing the ball in Bryant’s direction and giving him a chance to position his body to come down with it (like a veteran quarterback who had a year or two of chemistry built up with their receiver might have done).
Not in coincidentally, part of what Dak Prescott did so beautifully last season was protect the football. As a rookie quarterback, not taking big chances is completely reasonable. Dak thrives at taking advantage of what the opposing defenses give him. With opposing defenses focusing on Dez, Witten and Ezekiel Elliot, this allowed Cole Beasley to eat up defenses in the slot. He usually ran shorter and quicker routes, which perfectly fed into the approach Dak was taking as a rookie.
The easiest and safest throw is the shortest one to the guy who is open. There is no faulting Dak in targeting Cole Beasley a team high 98 times, however it is partially a reason for the drop in total targets and yardage (from 136 to 96) Bryant had from his last season with Tony Romo versus 2016 with Dak Prescott.
THE COWBOYS OFFENSE
Dak Prescott was not the only reason that Dez Bryant saw his numbers drop, the Cowboys offense as a whole is simply not geared towards a heavy passing game anymore. Let’s take a look at the six wide receivers who most would consider in the elite category, and see how many passing attempts their respective offenses had:
Jordy Nelson – 610
Odell Beckham Jr. – 598
Antonio Brown – 595
Mike Evans – 567
TY Hilton – 545
Julio Jones – 534
The Dallas Cowboys only had 459 pass attempts last season. Which was 75 fewer than the lowest on the above list (Julio Jones and the Atlanta Falcons) who threw the ball 534 times.
Now, let’s see how many receiving targets (passes thrown their way) those same six receivers had last season:
Jordy Nelson – 152
Odell Beckham Jr. – 169
Antonio Brown – 154
Mike Evans – 173
TY Hilton – 155
Julio Jones – 129
Dez Bryant only had 96 total receiving targets last season. Just for fun, let’s calculate out what Bryant’s numbers would have looked like if he received the same amount of targets as the lowest in that group, Julio Jones, did with 129.
Using his catch rate of 52.1%, his average yards per receptions of 15.9, and his touchdown rate of a touchdown for every 6.25 receptions, his end of season numbers suddenly go from:
50 receptions, 796 receiving yards and 8 touchdowns
67 receptions, 1,065.3 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns
Suddenly, his numbers don’t look so bad anymore. If we up his targets to the 150 mark, which is just below what three of those elite receivers had, his numbers bump up to:
78 receptions, 1,243 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns.
This shows that if given around the same amount of opportunities as the other receivers who are currently considered “elite” in the NFL, Dez would have finished 2nd in receiving touchdowns and 7th in total receiving yards.
Dez Bryant is still very much an elite NFL wide receiver. If he and his quarterback can stay relatively healthy, and Dak Prescott can continue to evolve as a passer, Bryant should put up solid numbers. Due to the fact the Cowboys simply don’t throw the ball as much, they probably won’t be quite as prolific as a few of the other elite receivers in the league, or as they were between 2012-2014. Nonetheless, his touchdown numbers and total impact on the field will continue to put him in elite territory.
Is Dez still one of the best? Share your take with Blake on Twitter @blakegibbs.