For the Dallas Cowboys, Dez Bryant has been as dynamic a receiver as there is in the league. On the field, he’s an explosive talent who can dominate games with his rare combination of size, speed and strength.
As Bryant enters a contract year it’s time to ask, has he finally reached elite status?
It’s an important question as the team tries to quantify his worth in a long-term contract.
It’s one thing to be a good starter in this league, and there certainly isn’t any shame to it. However, Bryant wants to be the best, and to do that he’ll have to separate himself from all the other receivers trying to achieve the same thing.
Besides Bryant, when you think about the best up-and-coming receivers in the league there are two names that stand above the rest: Demaryius Thomas and A.J. Green.
Let's see how they compare.
Inside the Numbers
In comparing the three players, a simple look at their basic stat lines would indicate that Dez Bryant is the most productive receiver among the three.
|Basic Statistical Comparison of Young Wide Receivers|
|Stats Courtesy Pro Football Focus|
But lets look deeper.
An in-depth statistical analysis concludes that measuring receivers by traditional stats doesn’t always completely justify a receiver’s production. In fact, Bryant, Green and Thomas may be closer statistically than you might think.
|Comparison of Wide Receiver Production Rates|
|Player||Catch Rate||Average YPC||Drop Rate||Point Contribution|
|Bo Martin - Base Stats via Pro Football Focus|
The above table measures specific production rates: catch rate (receptions made divided by times targeted), average yards per catch, drop rate (dropped passes versus catchable passes) and point contribution (percentage of receiving touchdowns player is responsible for).
What you’ll see is that Bryant leads these three receivers in both catch rate (61.94) and drop rate (8.43) but is last in average yards per catch (14.01) and second in point contribution (32.26).
What’s important about these more specific, in-depth stats is that they better represent a players’ overall production, as opposed to just looking at receptions, yards and touchdowns—it accounts for a player’s team value and production per snap or reception.
While Bryant seems to be the winner here in overall career production, one stat does raise concerns.
If you look at the graph below you’ll see the yearly breakdown of all three receivers in terms of yards per target. There are few reasons I put a lot of stock in this stat—it represents a player’s risk-reward potential (a quarterback knows if he targets this guy, it’s bound to pay off), it displays a player's value to his team’s game plan and it shows a player's consistency.
What you see is that Bryant saw a sharp decline in 2013 after a strong increase between 2011 and 2012. By comparison, Thomas has seen an increase every year and Green has seen a decrease ever year.
This particular stat raises concerns because in 2013 Bryant was the focal point of the offense and lacked a consistent weapon along side of him with Miles Austin often sidelined by injury. Therefore, Bryant was seeing increased attention from defenses, and he saw a sharp decline in production because of it. If it continues to decline, people may start to wonder whether Bryant is truly capable of being a superstar-caliber receiver.
As we continue to investigate the three receivers to determine just how good they are, it’s important to understand the variables that impact their stats that the other receivers don’t have.
Lets take a look at each player’s “X-factor”.
The one benefit that Thomas has over the other receivers is that he has a legend as a quarterback and has had an all-star cast around him. Thomas has Manning navigating the offense and gets pressure taken off of him with Wes Welker in the slot and had Eric Decker (before his move to New York) on the other side.
Green probably has the weakest quarterback of the group but has benefited from being the only legitimate weapon at receiver for the team. Additionally, Green has played one fewer season than both Thomas and Bryant yet is out-pacing them both.
The Cowboys find themselves in a lot of shootouts and because of that Bryant gets a lot of opportunities. Tony Romo is a gunslinger, and Bryant is physical enough to abuse smaller defensive backs. The combination of the two is lethal.
When you’re trying to define an elite player, look no further than Dez Bryant.
Bryant has come out on top in almost every statistical category measured. Pound for pound, snap for snap, Bryant is tops among this group of young receivers and therefore has to be considered elite. Even more impressive is that he does is under the immense amount of pressure that accompanies playing in Dallas.
While Thomas has been surrounded with weapons in a pass-first offense, Bryant has had to overcome an inconsistent offense and quarterback.
What you really love about Bryant is his drive. He wants to be great and his emotions and style of play mirror that. If Bryant can continue to work hard, improve his off-the-field reputation and take advantage of opportunities, he will be the face of this franchise for years to come and possibly one of the best to ever play the game.
To me, Bryant wins the comparison with Green a close second. What do you think #CowboysNation?
*All stats based upon Pro Football Focus—Premium Stats, subscription required.