Can Dez Bryant Still Be a Top-Level Receiver?

Doug Farrar@@BR_DougFarrar NFL Lead ScoutApril 17, 2018

Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant (88) catches a pass against Oakland Raiders cornerback Sean Smith (21) during the second half of an NFL football game in Oakland, Calif., Sunday, Dec. 17, 2017. The Cowboys won 20-17. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
Eric Risberg/Associated Press

The Dallas Cowboys' decision to release receiver Dez Bryant last Friday ended what had been a productive tenure for the Oklahoma State alum at one point in his career, but the story had seemed to produce diminishing returns for both sides over the last few seasons. 

Why the Cowboys waited this long to release Bryant is a mystery, but it's clear from Bryant's interview with Jane Slater of NFL Network soon after the cut was announced that there aren't a lot of good feelings from the player's side. Bryant alluded to the notion that there was a cabal of "Garrett Guys" (implying players close to head coach Jason Garrett) who wanted him out of the building.

"I won't put no names out, but they know, and I want them to know I know. I'll shoot them a text message and let them know. Little do they know is, you know, they can wear that 'C' all they want to, but in that locker room ... they know who they communicate with. Everybody knows where the real love is at. I'm not throwing anybody under the bus, but that's the difference between me and them."

Team owner Jerry Jones' statement about the release seemed to confirm that there were a lot of people hashing this one out.

"As an organization we hold Dez Bryant in the highest regard, and we are grateful for his passion, spirit and contributions to this team for the past eight years," Jones stated. "He will always be a valued member of our family. ... We arrived at this crossroad collectively with input from several voices within the organization. Ultimately we determined it was time to go in a new direction."

This all makes for fascinating drama, but even if it's true to any degree, Bryant's release was probably triggered as much or more by two factors—his salary situation, and his inability to adjust to a skill set that isn't what it used to be. Bryant had a $16.5 million cap hit for the 2018 season that included $12.5 million in base salary, and per Over The Cap, the team saved $8.5 million in salary cap with the release.

OAKLAND, CA - DECEMBER 17: Dez Bryant #88 of the Dallas Cowboys leaves the field after a win against the Oakland Raiders at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum on December 17, 2017 in Oakland, California. (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)
Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

In addition, several members of the Cowboys' coaching staff have told Albert Breer of The MMQB that Bryant hasn't done enough to adjust his game to his declining athletic skills—most notably, his lack of breakaway and separation speed, and the fact that his ability to jump above defensive backs to make contested catches isn't as consistent as it should be at this point.

"Based on last year," one Dallas staff member told Breer of Bryant, "he does very few things really well." 

As they say, the tape doesn't lie, and if there were voices in Jones' ear, you can be pretty sure they came from upstairs.

Bryant hasn't enjoyed a 1,000-yard season since 2014, when he caught 88 passes on 136 targets for 1,320 yards and a league-high 16 touchdowns. In the last three seasons, his catch rate has plummeted—from 64.7 percent in 2014 to 43.1 in 2015, 52.1 in 2016 and 52.3 in 2017. Last season, he ranked 72nd among all qualifying receivers in Football Outsiders' per-snap and cumulative performance metrics—a season in which he earned $13 million in base salary.

Bryant didn't have a 100-yard game in 2017—the closest he came was his five-catch, 98-yard game against the Los Angeles Rams in Week 4. And it took 13 targets for Bryant to get those five receptions. If the Cowboys felt that it was time to cut bait, you can hardly blame them.

So now, the question becomes, how does Dez Bryant resuscitate his career, and what kind of receiver can he be?

When watching Bryant's 2017 tape, one thing is abundantly clear—he no longer possesses the straight-line speed to get past cornerbacks when they're trailing him to the boundary on deep sideline routes or moving with him up the seam to the middle. Bryant used to have some quickness out of the gate, and while he's never been a receiver with an amazing extra gear, he was able to use that quickness and smoothness in and out of his breaks to get open with relative ease.

That part of his game is pretty much gone, and he's going to have to get open in other ways.

This slot catch against Trumaine Johnson the Week 4 game against the Rams is indicative of what Bryant can still accomplish on a regular basis.

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Though he was the outside receiver to the right side after receiver Terrance Williams went in motion, Bryant was playing from a slot position and did a great job bodying Johnson out of the route and using his physicality to make the tough catch.

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This, he can still do as long as he's the one out in front of the coverage and timing his jumps well.

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However, this incompletion two plays later shows how things can now get complicated for Bryant if he tries to beat a really good cornerback down the field.

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Here, Johnson is playing bail coverage (turning and running with the receiver while keeping his eyes on the backfield), and it's no trouble to take Bryant all the way down the field; Bryant's quickness here is not a factor Johnson needs to consider.

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Bryant tries to time his leap, but there's no way he's going to beat Johnson after the cornerback has boxed him in.

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Bryant might have been better served trying to establish inside position, and avoiding Johnson's strategy to take any angle away from him—but here, he's sunk.

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Bryant's lack of production is especially frustrating because he's often single-covered—it's clear that opposing defenses don't view him as enough of a threat to bracket him with a cornerback and a safety. For the most part, cornerbacks find him pretty easy to deal with, especially if they're playing with great technique. Bryant has never been the most exact route-runner, which adds to his transitional issues.

Another serious concern is Bryant's frequent focus drops. There are times over the last two seasons when quarterback Dak Prescott has inaccurately targeted Bryant but just as often has put the ball where any above-average receiver could be expected to make a play, and Bryant is maddeningly inconsistent making even simple catches at times.

This Prescott interception by Seattle Seahawks linebacker K.J. Wright in Week 16 was all on Bryant.

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Pre-snap, Bryant is the inside slot receiver to the right, and he's going to get a gimme of a route opening against Seattle's zone coverage.

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Bryant runs a quick crossing route and has the easiest underneath catch he's ever going to see, but...

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...he simply lets the ball run through his hands, and Wright (No. 50) is able to pick the ball off. Bryant's tape shows far too many of these plays, in which he should be able to make the catch, and his focus strays from the assignment.

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This touchdown against the San Francisco 49ers in Week 7 is a nice preview of the kind of receiver Bryant can be when his physical strength, short-area quickness and concentration all line up.

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Pre-snap, Bryant has cornerback Rashard Robinson (No. 33) lined up in coverage, ready to funnel Bryant to safety Adrian Colbert (No. 38).

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Bryant runs a nifty inside move to get past Robinson and then accelerates past Colbert, who has his eyes on the backfield.

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Bryant does a great job taking advantage of the coverage breakdown, using his jumping ability and power to make the catch at the back of the end zone.

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What's happening to Bryant at this point in his career isn't unusual, of course—it happens all the time to athletes in any sport who find themselves stuck between declining physical skills and the need to accelerate their adaptability and mental processing abilities to compensate and stay relevant.

If Bryant wants to stay relevant, he would do well to mirror two receivers who were Arizona Cardinals teammates from 2004 to 2009. Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald once were two of the more dominant outside receivers in the game, and both brilliantly adapted their abilities when they lost a step later in their careers.

Boldin became a highly productive possession receiver—perhaps the best contested-catch receiver in the league for a time—because he used his strength and technical awareness. He won a Super Bowl with the Baltimore Ravens in 2012 at age 32 and followed that with 1,000-yard seasons with the San Francisco 49ers in 2013 and 2014.

Fitzgerald could outrun most defensive backs at his peak, and he's always been an outstanding route-runner, but it's the way he's adapted to the slot in the last half-decade that will put him over the top when his Hall of Fame candidacy is discussed. Fitzgerald didn't take moving to the slot for the majority of his snaps as something to bridle against—instead, he embraced the different skill sets great slot receivers require. Fitzgerald has made the Pro Bowl in each of the last three seasons, led the league with 107 catches in 2016 at age 32, and caught 109 passes for 1,156 yards and six touchdowns in 2017.

Bryant has the physical tools to become a later-years Boldin/Fitzgerald hybrid if he works on his route reliability, cuts out the focus drops and aligns his physical strength to technical understanding. If he doesn't, he'll be one more athlete who flamed out when he was unable to adjust to the vagaries of time. Getting released by his only NFL team to date should be a galvanic wake-up call for Bryant, and we'll see if that's how it plays out.

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