Is Dez Bryant Still Elite?

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It was just a few years ago NFL fans were debating if Dez Bryant is the best wide receiver in the NFL. At the time, Dez was being compared to Calvin Johnson Jr., one of the greatest WRs in NFL history.

And now, in 2018, Dez Bryant is left without a team to play for. Oh, how times have changed. From one of the most dominant receivers in the league, to now the unemployment line, Dez’s story baffles many.

The only thing that anyone can say with any certainty is that Dez’s career went off a cliff very quickly. But the question remains, is there any way to recover?

 

The Come Up of Mr. X

Dez Bryant was the 24th overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft. Despite being considered the top wide receiver prospect that year, Bryant was drafted behind another elite wide receiver prospect in Demaryius Thomas who was taken 22nd overall by the Denver Broncos.

Bryant’s elite combination of size and speed “wowed” scouts. The biggest issue with Bryant was his lack of maturity and questions about his effort. In spite of the few red flags, the Cowboys still decided to spend their first-round pick on the Oklahoma State product.

Dez Bryant got his career started with a solid and promising rookie season. Bryant started the year a bit slow, but as the year went on Bryant started to take a bigger role over starting WR Roy Williams. Despite being the 3rd WR on the depth chart for the majority of the season and missing 4 games, Bryant earned himself a spot on the NFL All-Rookie Team.

The Cowboys saw enough in Bryant to release starting WR Roy Williams. His sophomore year, Dez got the starting gig opposite of no. 1 WR Miles Austin. Austin had a rough season, missing 6 games and being limited in many others. This allowed Dez to take on a much bigger role as he ended just short of a 1000 yard season with 928 yards along with his 9 TDs.

It was 2012 where the real breakout occurred. Dez leaped Miles Austin as the alpha WR. Bryant showed immense chemistry with QB Tony Romo. Dez dropped career highs across the board with 92 receptions, 1382 yards, 12 TDs.

The next 3 years were the most productive of Dez Bryant’s career. He established himself as one of the most dominant receivers in the NFL. Fans legitimately questioned if Dez was the best WR in the NFL.

Dez’s production was no fluke, he was legitimately talented. The Romo-Bryant connection was one of the best in the league, up there with Stafford-Johnson and Brady-Gronkowski. Let’s take a look at what really made Bryant the dominant figure he was during those years.

When you think of Dez Bryant the first thing you think of is his pristine ability to catch contested balls. Make no mistake, this is very much his strength. In this play, Romo sees Dez one on one and simply throws the fade to Dez without even thinking twice.

The Detroit Lions CB is in fantastic position defend Bryant, but Dez is too good. Dez displays his elite leaping ability by jumping right over the defender and snatching the ball right over him.

Bryant shows off his strength and elite ability to catch 50-50 balls. Despite the Lions defender being all over, Bryant grabs the ball with one hand and holds onto it for a TD. How many players do you know can grab the ball like that and keep possession with such ease?

This is a picture-perfect play. Romo once again sees Dez one on one, this time with an Eagles CB on Dez. The Eagles defender takes the inside leverage, he plans to use the sideline as a 2nd defender. Big mistake.

Both Romo and Bryant recognize this. Romo launches a perfectly placed fade toward the outside boundary. Bryant uses his large body to essentially box out the Eagles defender and once again uses his elite jumping ability to snatch the ball from the air and come down with it. You can see the swag from Bryant as he comes down with the ball and holds it with one hand because he just knows, he’s just that good.

Dez terrorized teams with his ability to catch 50-50 balls for years. He and Romo perfected their chemistry on fades, back shoulders, etc. If you look up highlights of Dez you’ll find mountains him catching those aforementioned 50-50 balls, but there’s more to his game than just that.

Romo gets in trouble and has to scramble out of the pocket. Dez is running a subsequent crossing pattern. Romo hits Dez in a tight window and Bryant catches the ball in stride and heads upfield.

You can see Dez’s elite speed, acceleration, and explosiveness on this play. After Dez catches the ball he bursts up the field and runs up the sideline untouched, leaving everyone in the dust. Bryant gets the easy TD using nothing but athleticism.

Dez is more than just a deep threat, however. On this play, he catches a shallow cross and uses his elite YAC ability to get all the way to the end zone. Once again note Bryant’s speed and agility that he uses to outmaneuver the Jaguars’ defense.

Romo knew how and when to get Dez the ball. Here the Redskins make the mistake of playing 8 yards off of Dez. Romo throws the screen pass to Dez who catches the ball and makes his move.

Dez takes one step one way then jukes the Redskins CB. Bryant gets past the CB with ease and shows off his incredible burst blazing down the sideline. Bryant shows off his strength with the tough stiff arm on the Redskins’ safety before getting into the end zone for the TD.

I am not going to lie to you, Dez was not the best route runner. He is a very solid route runner in his own right, but he made his money on contested catches and his YAC ability. Romo knew how and when to hit his no. 1 WR, unfortunately not every QB does.

 

The Downfall

After 3 marvelous seasons where Dez piled up ridiculous totals including 41 TDs, the Cowboys rewarded Dez. Bryant received a 5 year $70 million contract from the Cowboys. After Dez put up a season with a league-leading (and career high) 16 TDs, expectations were at an all-time high for 2016.

It’s safe to say, the season was a bust. Injuries to Bryant limited him to only 9 games, his career low. Romo was also hit with the injury bug, limiting him to 4 games, his career low as well.

The end result? Dez missed those 9 games and was limited in many others while catching passes from “QBs” Brandon Weeden and Matt Cassel. Bryant put up career lows across the board with 31 receptions, 401 yards, and 3 TDs.

The season was chalked up to a fluke down year for Bryant. In 2017 the bar was set quite high once again. The Cowboys spent their no. 4 overall pick on stud running back Ezekiel Elliott from Ohio State. Although Tony Romo once again suffered an injury in the preseason, rookie QB Dak Prescott shined in preseason and was heralded as the future for the Cowboys.

A retooled Cowboys team was ready for the upcoming season. With a healthy Dez, a shiny new RB and QB, the Cowboys were ready to hold down the fort until Romo came back.

The Cowboys did a little more than that. Prescott and Elliot had fantastic rookie seasons leading the Cowboys to an NFC best 13-3 record. Dak was playing so well that when Romo came back in week 11, Dak retained the starting job.

It wasn’t all good for the Cowboys, however. Dez Bryant suffered an injury which forced him to miss 3 games. Oft-injured that season, Bryant was simply never on the same page as Prescott. Bryant had an underwhelming season with 50 receptions, 796 yards, and 8 TDs. A far cry from his usual elite marks.

Despite the subpar regular season, Bryant went off in a divisional round loss against the Packers. Dez recorded 9 receptions, 132 yards, and 2 TDs that game. This sparked hope that Dak and Dez could get back on the same page and dominate the way Romo and Bryant did.

Long story short, it didn’t happen. Bryant had a disappointing 2017. He and Dak could never seem to get on the same page. People questioned if Dez already peaked and if his career was on the decline. Dez ended with 69 receptions, 838 yards, and 6 TDs despite being fully healthy the whole season.

On April 13th, 2018 the Cowboys made the (somewhat) stunning decision to release their star wide receiver. The production Bryant gave the last few years versus the price tag was simply not worth it for the Cowboys.

 

One Last Shot At Redemption

Fans and analysts have already determined that Dez is not the no. 1 dominant receiver he once was. The questions keep arising if Bryant can perform at the same level he once did. Let’s take a look into that, shall we?

This video does a perfect job of illustrating Dez Bryant’s season. It shows every incompletion from his 2017 season and even adds in moments when Dak and Dez were working in perfect conjunction.

After watching the video you see the reality of the situation. Dez Bryant is not at fault. Despite what everyone thinks, Dez Bryant did not lose a step. In the video, there’s a ridiculous amount of pass attempts by Dak that are simply uncatchable for Dez.

When Dez is open, Dak overthrows him, underthrows him, seems to throw the ball everywhere besides to Dez. I’m not going to lie to you, Dez is far from an elite route runner, but the reality is, that was never his strength.

Dez has always been a solid route runner, he can do enough to get open. But whatever he lacked as a route runner he always made up with his speed, strength, and ability to catch contested balls.

Dez can run enough of a route to get open, and when he does Dak was off with his passes time and time again. Bryant is a deep threat if there ever was one, but even when Dez got down the field, Dak failed to hit Bryant time and time again.

The bigger issue was with the contested catches. From 2013-2016 Romo and Bryant were in perfect sync. They were like a perfect script, throw and catch, big play or touch down. It was a treat to watch their perfect chemistry work, and a terror for defenses.

Dak and Dez have never been able to get that chemistry down. As you saw in that video, there were tons of misplaced and poorly thrown balls that Dez never had a chance to catch. Bryant makes a living off of contested catches, and Dak simply failed to deliver the ball properly.

Dak Prescott is a very solid QB. He is fantastic at making guys like Cole Beasley and Brice Butler look like stars. Dak is very strong at hitting great route runners or speed burners who beat their defenders by a large gap. Dak finds the open man and hits him, but that is all. He is quite conservative, to be honest. He’s still a very solid QB, he just never developed that chemistry with Dez Bryant.

In the same video, you saw what happens when Dak hits Dez properly. When the two are in sync, Bryant shows off his elite athleticism and masterful jump ball ability coming down with tough, contested catches.

It is clear to me, Dez Bryant is still elite. He needs a QB that understands where the ball needs to be placed so that he can make a play on the 50-50 balls. Dez will thrive with a QB that understands what to do.

 

The Comeback

It has been almost 4 months since Bryant’s release from the Cowboys and he surprisingly can’t seem to find a home. While there has been no shortage of interest for Bryant, he is simply waiting for the right fit.

Dez has stated he wants to play for a winner, on a one year prove it type deal. Bryant believes he can rehab his value then sign a long-term deal in 2019. And I love the idea.

Alshon Jeffery did the same thing in 2017. After having a few amazing years in Chicago, Alshon faltered his last two years in Chicago. Due to bad QB play and injury luck, Jeffery struggled from 2015-2016 before signing a one year $9.5 million contract with the Eagles. After a wonderful year, the Eagles resigned him to a 4 year $52 million.

I believe Dez will be able to achieve the same result. He is a far superior of a talent who has been held down by a bad situation.

The Ravens, Browns, Steelers, 49ers, Packers, Saints, anyone could sign the 29-year-old star receiver. I believe Dez would be best served by signing a team where he will be the no. 1 WR, because despite what anyone thinks, Dez will most definitely be a dominant WR1.

Everyone who has hated on Dez has only measured his productivity. There’s a reason for the decline, however. A wide receiver can only be as good as the guy who’s throwing him the ball. Just ask Demaryius Thomas. Wherever Dez Bryant signs, he will still be elite. Don’t believe me? Just look at the game tape.

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