Top-level wide receivers are supposed to be supremely confident. It just seems as though it's usually in their blood, which is why it wasn't strange to hear sensational Dallas Cowboys wideout Dez Bryant suggest this week that he's just as good as Calvin Johnson of the Detroit Lions.
Here's an excerpt of what he told 103.3 FM ESPN in Dallas on Monday, via ESPN.com's Tim MacMahon:
I believe I can do whatever he can do. I think it's just a pride thing. When it comes to football, just being on the field, it's a mindset and having a mentality. I honestly believe when I'm there, I'll be feeling like there's nothing I can't do. Whatever the coaches ask me to do, I'm going to do it.
I always feel like there's more. I think that's just a mindset you're supposed to have.
Now, Bryant wasn't being disrespectful. In fact, he even declared that, "I think Calvin's the best at what he [does]," while adding that, "I think I'm the best at what I do." I could swear they pretty much do the same thing, so I'm not sure what that means, but it does indicate he wasn't trying to hate on the dude who broke the NFL's all-time single-season receiving-yardage record in 2012. He even tweeted the following the next day:
I see I have to be extra careful about what I say— Dez Bryant (@DezBryant) October 22, 2013
Still, those words have added an extra layer to an already-enticing Week 8 matchup between Bryant's Cowboys and Johnson's Lions. Let's capitalize on that with an in-depth comparison of two of the game's most gifted offensive weapons.
On paper, it's become a legitimate comparison of late.
Since the start of 2012, Johnson has a league-high 2,456 receiving yards, which is an 11 percent advantage over the next-best receiver in that category. But during the same span, Bryant has a league-high 18 touchdowns, which is also an 11 percent advantage over the next-best receiver in that category. Here's a breakdown of the key numbers from that time period:
Pro Football Reference/Focus
Bryant's numbers are right there, but he isn't being targeted close to as often.
Narrowing the scope a bit, since Week 10 of last season, Bryant has a ridiculous 16 touchdowns in only 15 games. If you remove the first half of the 2012 campaign, the gap is narrowed further:
Pro Football Reference/Focus
Johnson has a huge yardage edge still, but he was targeted like crazy. Bryant had more yards and catches on a per-target basis.
And if we only look at this season, the gap is gone. Bryant has simply been better than Johnson:
Pro Football Reference/Focus
It's a small sample size, but those numbers indicate Bryant has continually been more consistent than Johnson with the ball in the air.
Some additional situational stats, via ESPN Stats & Information, bolster the idea that Bryant has been right there with Johnson this season:
|3rd down rec/target||Red zone rec/target||Drop rate*|
ESPN/Pro Football Focus (drop rate is since start of 2012)
So the numbers are probably in Bryant's favor, especially when you take into account the fact that Johnson is probably in his prime, while Bryant should be expected to get better.
It's important to keep in mind that Bryant is three years younger than Johnson. Since both entered the league as 22-year-old first-round picks, we can gain some more perspective by comparing where Bryant is right now with where Johnson was at the same stage.
Pro Football Reference/Focus
So while the bulk stats will always favor Johnson due to the fact that he's three years older and has been targeted much more often, the rate-based stats indicate Bryant is the more productive receiver. And that's before even considering the fact that Johnson is supposed to be much further along.
It's impossible to get a read on where things might go next for either player, but Bryant has three years on Johnson and his trajectory is very positive. Can he remain ahead of Johnson's path?
Johnson is coming off his best season, but he does find himself getting nicked up a lot. Will he keep getting better at the age of 28, or will we begin to see signs of wear and tear? He was forced to miss a game earlier this year due to a knee injury, and he sat out three games combined in 2009 and 2010. Various injuries have forced him to miss several practices throughout his career.
Bryant has also been banged up, and he missed the last four weeks of his rookie season due to a broken fibula. So I don't think you can give either guy an edge in the durability department. Both are actually quite tough, as evidenced by the fact they were arguably the two best receivers in the league during the second half of the 2012 season despite playing with broken fingers.
All that matters right now is that it was Johnson who easily broke Jerry Rice's single-season receiving-yards record with 1,964 yards last year. Bryant, on the other hand, has talked about being capable of a 2,000-yard season but has never even hit the 1,400-yard mark. Regardless of the trajectory he's on and the similar traits he possesses, he still has to keep growing to become the force Johnson already is.
Additionally, it wouldn't be fair to compare the two without going beyond the numbers. A few extra factors to consider.
1. Johnson shouldn't be penalized for being targeted more. He's not quite as productive as Bryant on a per-target basis, but that might be because he's targeted so damn often. During those first three seasons, he was thrown to 66 more times than Bryant. That's an extra target-and-a-half per game. And since the start of 2012, it's been the same deal.
2. The fact that Johnson's been targeted more might also be an indication that he's better at getting open. He's bigger and faster than Bryant, but he might not be quite as sure-handed. The numbers indicate that's precisely the case. Since Bryant came into the league, he's dropped 19 passes. During that same span, the veteran Johnson has dropped 30.
3. Johnson also shouldn't be penalized for playing on a worse team. Matthew Stafford and Tony Romo might be in a similar range, but Johnson had to deal with Stafford at the beginning of the quarterback's career, which is much tougher. And it's not as though he's had the support of guys like Miles Austin and Jason Witten. I do believe that the above rate-based numbers would lean more toward Johnson if their situations were reversed.
Does Bryant generally possess similar tools? Of course he does. But let's not pretend the two are physically one and the same. Officially, Johnson is three inches taller and 14 pounds heavier. I'm guessing the latter difference fluctuates, but there's little doubt that Johnson has a physical edge.
Now, Bryant is quite strong, and at 6'2" and 222 pounds, he's still one of the most physically gifted players in professional sports. But Johnson is on a separate level. In fact, although he's not the same player he used to be, I'd still argue that 32-year-old Texans receiver Andre Johnson compares better physically to Calvin Johnson.
Calvin Johnson ran a 4.35 40-yard dash in another player's shoes at the 2007 NFL scouting combine. Despite being shorter and weighing less, Bryant's top 40 speed in the lead-up to the 2010 draft was 4.52.
Bryant's route running has also been criticized, as he's been known to make some boneheaded errors in that department. Meanwhile, it didn't take long for Johnson to establish himself as one of the best route-runners in the league.
ESPN's Sports Science has featured both players. In their segment on Johnson, they concluded that "Megatron" has a maximum reach of 12'5", which is the highest they've measured among football players, and his range was the largest ever analyzed.
We know Bryant's wingspan is also large, but he simply lacks the measurements to stack up to Johnson in that respect. Instead, Sports Science focused on his unbelievably quick hands.
That's not quite as exciting, but it might be what Bryant was getting at when he stated that both he and Johnson were the best at what they did.
When you're taking everything into account, though, and when you're setting aside future forecasts, I still think Johnson is in a league of his own. Johnson's teammate, Nate Burleson, probably hit the nail on the head in these comments made on the team's official website (transcription courtesy of Jon Machota of The Dallas Morning News):
Listen, I like Dez. I think he’s one of the best receivers in the game right now. Very talented. Fast, big, strong. He possesses all the tools to possibly be as good as Calvin. But he’s not Calvin Johnson. No way, no how. Sorry, Dez. Keep it real.
One day, maybe even one day really soon, Bryant might steal Johnson's crown as the league's most-feared receiving threat. That day hasn't yet arrived, but Bryant is absolutely right to believe that he can do everything Johnson can do.
Very few receivers can say that without crossing their fingers.