We're not supposed to overreact to what we see in preseason games, especially early on and with minuscule sample sizes. But it's difficult to watch Tony Romo work with Dez Bryant and not think about the possibilities.
Saturday night against the Oakland Raiders, Romo hooked up with Bryant three times in the first quarter before the two spent the rest of the game on the sideline. On all three completions, it felt as though Romo and Bryant were in a world of their own. The Oakland defense stood little chance, and it almost seemed as though the other 20 players on the field didn't matter at all.
It's a sign that the two could indeed continue to perform in the same groove they worked their way into midway through the 2012 campaign. With legal troubles finally in his past, a more mature Bryant stopped making silly mistakes and seemed to be buying in completely for the first time in his career.
The result? Bryant led the NFL with 10 touchdowns during the final eight games of the year. In fact, the Oklahoma State product became only the 14th player in NFL history to record a double-digit touchdown total during the second half of a season.
Bryant also had 879 yards during that stretch, which trailed only freak-of-nature superstars Calvin and Andre Johnson.
Still three months from his 25th birthday, the 2010 No. 24 overall pick has become an elite receiver. But is he ready to become the best wideout in the NFL?
Of course, Calvin Johnson probably deserves that crown right now. The 27-year-old Detroit Lion set a new single-season record with 1,964 receiving yards in 2012. He also had 122 catches, which was the fourth-highest total in league history, but he scored only five times.
Even during Bryant's red-hot second half, Johnson and Johnson were probably a bit better. Calvin had 24 more catches and 318 more yards than Dez during those final eight games, while Andre beat him by 20 receptions and 157 yards. But Bryant had more touchdowns during that span (10) than Calvin and Andre combined (six).
Calvin averaged 16 yards per catch, Bryant averaged 15, and Andre averaged 14.
Andre Johnson just turned 32, though, and he has missed time in two of the last three seasons. Calvin is still in his prime but will turn 28 before Bryant celebrates his 25th birthday. Those guys may have peaked, but year-by-year improvement combined with age seems to indicate Bryant will only keep getting better.
His reception totals have gone from 45 to 63 to 92; his yardage totals have gone from 561 to 928 to 1,382; and his touchdown totals have increased from six to nine to 12. The result? Clear trajectories that could lead to an absolutely ridiculous 2013 campaign.
Bryant is "on pace" to catch 128 passes...
We could go a little more micro and double Bryant's stats from the second half of last season. In that case, he'd be on a much more torrid pace in terms of touchdowns and would project to break the single-season record with the first 2,000-yard season in NFL history (though he'd be on pace for fewer than 120 catches).
Of course, we can't keep simply assuming his numbers will continue to rise at the same rate each year. Eventually, things begin to smooth out.
Let's look at when that happened for the Johnsons when they were at the same stage of their respective careers...
But the key here is that Bryant is ahead of where both of those players were at the very same point. At the same stage, Calvin's top season was 78 catches, 1,331 yards and 12 touchdowns, while Andre's best year featured 79 catches, 1,142 yards and six scores. Those guys didn't really start dominating until they were 26 or 27.
Who will be the best receiver in the NFL in 2013?
So it could take another year before Bryant becomes a completely dominant force on the same plane as Johnson and Johnson. Or it might happen immediately. Or it might never happen. Maybe he's already peaked. He has the physical attributes and the offensive support to keep rising, but there are still concerns regarding his character. And in the luck department, injuries can change everything.
But there isn't a receiver who has a better chance at dethroning one or both Johnsons than Bryant. Larry Fitzgerald is already a stud, but he might not be in the right spot. A.J. Green and Julio Jones have more work to do.
But Bryant wasn't out of his mind when he suggested to ESPNDallas.com in March that a 2,000-yard, 20-touchdown season was a possibility. We don't have a grip on this guy's ceiling yet, so anything is possible.