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Is Cowboys’ Dez Bryant still an elite wide receiver?

To answer the question, let’s paint by numbers

In a cellphone carrier commercial that debuted last week, Dallas Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant responded to longtime rival Josh Norman, who, in an earlier commercial for the same company, called Bryant’s hands sticks of butter and implied that the eighth-year player was washed up. For his rebuttal, Bryant drew a photo of Norman over what appeared to be South Park character Towelie, insinuating that the Pro Bowl defensive back couldn’t hold him. In the two commercials, both players said they were better than the other, with Norman adding that Bryant is “choking” on his dust.

All fun and games, sure — but as they say, art imitates life.

In the two All-Pros’ past two meetings, both during the 2016 season, Norman held his nemesis to zero receptions in limited duty in one game and three receptions for 32 yards in the encore. Bryant, Professor X himself, has in fact looked human versus the Washington Redskins cornerback dating back to the 2015 season.

Two weeks ago, Fox Sports host Shannon Sharpe said Bryant, once considered in the company of Calvin Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald, is no longer in the top tier of NFL pass catchers, now occupied by Antonio Brown, Julio Jones, A.J. Green and the light-footed Odell Beckham Jr. He was rated as one of the worst starting receivers in the league, according to advanced stats Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement (DYAR) and Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA), and to further drive this point home, Bryant came in at No. 11 among receivers in ESPN Fantasy’s average draft position rankings.

After the Cowboys’ 42-17 beatdown at the hands of the Denver Broncos on Sept. 17, in which Bryant was limited to 59 yards on seven catches, Twitter was abuzz about the “eliteness” of the three-time Pro Bowler, with one boorish user telling Bryant he’s “just Jason Avant now. Put your helmet back on, champ. You got your 60 yds. That’s a good day for you now.”

For years, Bryant’s been known for his poor mechanics, rounding off routes rather than sharply cutting like Brown, Beckham or Amari Cooper. What he’s depended on most of his career, even dating to his time at Oklahoma State, has been his size (6-foot-2, 220 pounds), moderate speed (4.52 40-yard dash) and ability to body and/or jump over everyone else. But in recent seasons, he’s battled significant lower-body injuries — small bone fracture in his foot (2015), hairline fracture in his knee (2016) — that have limited him to just 24 of Dallas’ past 34 regular-season games. He hasn’t played a full 16-game schedule since inking a five-year, $70 million deal before the start of the 2015 season.

He’s still a big-play threat, evidenced by his 132-yard, two-touchdown outing versus the Green Bay Packers in the divisional round of the playoffs last season. But is he still the same man who owned the receiver ranks from 2012-14, when he hauled in 41 touchdowns (first in the league during that span) for 3,935 yards (fifth)?

To find out, we looked at three key aspects of Bryant’s success: his ability to generate big plays, scoring, and the presence of a specific quarterback. After analyzing each component, The Undefeated writer and former six-year NFL cornerback Domonique Foxworth explains what has changed for the Cowboys over the past two seasons that has affected Bryant’s play.

DEEP THREAT

During that three-season stretch from 2012-14, Bryant caught 273 passes, good for sixth in the league. He was never really a DeSean Jackson-type deep threat, with a career average of 14.3 yards per reception and a respectable 20 receptions of 40 or more yards the first five seasons of his career, which began in 2010. But most of his damage comes once he’s secured a pass, with 30 to 40 percent of his receiving yards coming after the catch. In 2015, he was limited to just nine games after breaking his foot and played with quarterback Tony Romo (more on him below) for just three games, which explains his drop in yards per catch (12.9) and one 100-yard game that season. Last season, despite missing three games and appearing briefly in Week 17, he was still second on the team in targets, but he had a few one-catch duds against the Browns and Giants.

The assumption is that second-year starter Dak Prescott isn’t allowed to air it out like Romo used to, but last season 58 percent of Prescott’s passing yards were “air yards,” the distance a pass travels, which was ninth among quarterbacks with at least 2,900 yards, according to SportingCharts. And it isn’t as if Bryant isn’t getting his normal touches, as he’s currently second in the league in targets this season (25) as of this writing, trailing only DeAndre Hopkins (29), who is the only real receiving option in Houston. It appears his “big play” ability, evidenced by the drop in 40-plus-yard receptions, has taken a hit from two major lower-body injuries and catching passes from the likes of Kellen Moore, Matt Cassel and a rookie the past two years. That is, of course, comparing five seasons with a little over two, but he averaged 0.27 of those long plays per game from 2010-14, compared with 0.21 per game since 2015.

Foxworth on the focus of the Cowboys offense: “The offense was more balanced in the past, and that’s not just to say the playcalling necessarily, but … how they expected to win was not ‘run the ball and then do play-action,’ which is what it is now. In the past with Romo they expected to win on the arm of Romo, and that gave Dez more opportunities. I think now the offense is very clearly about running the ball and what they can do off of the runs.”

Metric 2010–14 (Rank) 2015–17 (Rank)
Yards/game 72.32 (12th) 54.13 (51st)
100-plus-yard games 14 (T-18th) 4 (T-30th)
40-plus-yard receptions 20 (T-6th) 5 (T-32nd)

Source: ESPN Stats & Information, Football Outsiders, Pro Football Reference

TOUCHDOWN MACHINE

Bryant was a near certainty to score every game at the beginning of the decade, his partnership with Romo more automatic than the Jimmy Graham-Drew Brees connection in New Orleans. But as the Cowboys’ passing attack has cratered over the years, so too has Bryant’s ability to score touchdowns, especially in the red zone. In 2013, he led the league in receptions (11) and touchdowns (nine) from inside the 10-yard line; last season, he had just two of each. Ironically, Bryant’s production dropped off after the most high-profile “catch” of his career: his overturned reception against the Packers in the 2014 divisional playoffs. Since then, he has only two games during the regular season with more than one touchdown and just 12 total touchdowns, which sits him behind the likes of six tight ends and the sure-handed Ted Ginn over the past three seasons. Again, taking into account the 10 regular-season games Bryant missed during that time period, his per-game touchdown average dropped from fifth in the league all the way to 17th between the two time periods. You can chalk most of that up to the quarterback carousel in Dallas since the 2014 season. Brandon Weeden even started a game.

Foxworth on why Bryant can’t get open as much: “The focus on the running game changes the defenses that they face. Last week [against the Denver Broncos], they faced a lot of man-to-man … and I am not sure Dez Bryant, and those kind of bigger receivers, are the best man beaters. I prefer a short, quick, shifty guy to beat open a man coverage. Dez is not elite at either quickness or straight-ahead speed, he’s more physical, and that’s a little easier to cover in man-to-man.”

Metric 2010–14 (Rank) 2015–17 (Rank)
TD/game 0.75 (5th) 0.5 (T-17th)
Multi-TD games 13 (T-2nd) 2 (T-17th)

Source: ESPN Stats & Information, Football Outsiders, Pro Football Reference

NO MORE ROMO

As alluded to earlier, what most explains Bryant’s drop-off more than anything, excluding his own health, appears to be the injuries to and retirement of Romo. While Bryant is still seeing the ball come his way — more so from Prescott than Romo, per the percentage of times he’s been targeted on routes run — the ball just isn’t making it into his hands. His catch rate, a percentage of passes completed in relation to targets, has dropped from almost two-thirds to under 50 percent, even though his drop rate is actually down from his first five seasons in the league (3.6 percent vs. 3.9). Romo, who had some of his best seasons during Bryant’s prime, was a known risk taker who wasn’t afraid to make the passes that other quarterbacks wouldn’t, evidenced by 117 career interceptions in the 10 seasons he played more than one game. Most of Bryant’s amazing touchdown grabs over the years were from Romo putting the ball in a place only he could get it. For Prescott, even after being let off the “conservative” leash during the second half of last season, he attempted only 35 passes of 20 or more yards, according to Bleacher Report’s Doug Farrar. Bryant, who owes a lot of his success to playing with a future Hall of Famer in Romo, hasn’t caught a pass from the quarterback since Nov. 27, 2015.

Foxworth on why receiver Cole Beasley and tight end Jason Witten are better options than Bryant: “[Prescott] is a much more risk-averse player than Tony Romo, and I think that those are less risky passes because they’re closer in and they’re also the better passes if you run the hell out of the ball and people are like, ‘All right, we’ve got to go to man coverage.”

Metric 2010–14 2015–17
QBR to Dez 89 56.4
Catch rate 62.6% 46.4%
Percentage of targets on routes run 23.7% 24.4%
Games with 1 or no receptions 6 5

Source: ESPN Stats & Information, Football Outsiders, Pro Football Reference

VERDICT

As ESPN’s Todd Archer pointed out in August, had Bryant’s production from the final nine games of the 2016 regular season and postseason (43 catches, 646 yards and 8 touchdowns) been spread out to a 16-game schedule, he would have been on pace for over 1,100 yards and 14 touchdowns, almost similar to his production from 2012-14. Prescott targeting Bryant on almost 30 percent of his passes through the first two games is a good sign. And while Bryant has just 102 yards in those games, he’s faced two of the best defensive backfields in the league (Giants, Broncos) and still managed to haul in a highlight-worthy touchdown grab in front of Denver All-Pro cornerback Aqib Talib. His opposition gets easier in the coming weeks (Cardinals, Rams, Packers), so it’s yet to be known how “washed up” Bryant truly is.

But what we do know is that he has missed chunks of games to injury the past two seasons and went from Romo to a bunch of career backups and Prescott since 2015. At the same time, when he’s been on the field, he’s been a shell of his former self at times, especially against exceptional defenders like Norman. He rarely throws up the “X” nowadays, and the 70-plus-yard scores from the past have been few and far between recently. But he is far from Jason Avant.

Liner Notes

Statistics are through Week 2 of the NFL season.

Martenzie is a senior researcher for The Undefeated. His favorite cinematic moment is when Django said "Y'all want to see somethin?"