Dez Bryant: Great Expectations or Irrational Exuberance?

On the night the Dallas Cowboys chose Dez Bryant as their number one pick this year, BTB's own Rafael Vela wrote a prescient story (Dallas Cowboys Draft 2010: And Now A Caveat) about managing our expectations for Dez Bryant in 2010.

I understand Dallas Cowboys fans' exuberance over Dez Bryant's selection in the NFL Draft's first round.  I feel it myself.  Now, let's all take a breath and prevent it from crossing the line into irrational exuberance.

Raf pointed out that breakout rookie seasons don't come along that often, and that a 35-45 catch, 600 to 700 yards performance by Dez Bryant should be considered outstanding.

It initially appeared that the Cowboys were toeing Raf's line, I for one didn't hear a lot of hype out of Valley Ranch. But then something happened: Rookie Mini Camp.

After the break we look at what some of the Cowboys coaches had to say about Dez Bryant, what he had to say himself and how rookie wide receivers fit into the greater statistical scheme of things.

Coach Wade Phillips, not known to engage in verbal exuberance of any kind, appears to have been smitten:

Dez Bryant is an absolute talent, you don't see that many come in and look that good that early. In 33 years (of coaching) there's not very many that I can say look that talented at their position for a three-day period.

Coach Ray Sherman, who has coached receivers such as Jerry Rice, Randy Moss and T.O, was equally impressed:

He's in a class of his own. He's different than any guy I've ever had and I think that he's going to be a special player. Because he has the want-to, he has the ability and he wants to be good. [...] He's a guy that's going to be able to make the big play because he can utilize his body, sort of like Michael Irvin or Chris Carter.

And it would seem that Dez himself has already defined some goals for himself. Jean-Jacques Taylor recently ran this little nugget of information regarding Dez Bryants's targets for 2010:

Bryant wants to be the NFL's Rookie of the Year. He wants to score at least 10 touchdowns. He wants bragging rights concerning a couple of friendly wagers he has made with close friends regarding his performance for the Cowboys this season.

I don't know whether that's a direct quote from Dez Bryant or whether JJT inferred it from what Dez said. Regardless, expectations for No. 88 are high in Cowboys Nation.

Great expectations or irrational exuberance?

To know if and when great expectations cross the line into irrational exuberance, it's important to understand the historic statistical precedent. For the purposes of this post, the historical precedent are the WR draft classes of the last ten years (2000-2009).

I've broken the draft classes down by WRs picked in the first round, the top five WRs picked overall and the top 3 most successful rookie WRs by receiving yards. In each of these cases I looked at the production in the respective rookie seasons only. For the first two groups I ran further breakdowns to see whether rookies that joined non-losing teams or playoff-bound teams were more successful or not in their first NFL seasons. Here are the results:

Top 5 WRs draft picks, '00-09, rookie season
First round WR, '00-09, rookie season
Split Avg. Rec Avg. Yds Avg. TDs Split Avg. Rec Avg. Yds Avg. TDs
Total (50)
36 480 2.9 Total (43)
36 514 3.1
8+ Wins Teams (27)
34 464 2.9 8+ Wins Teams (24)
34 493 3.1
Playoff Teams (12)
26 324 2.5 Playoff Teams (11)
29 382 2.5

The average for all first-round receivers of the last 10 years as well as the top five receivers chosen per year is 36 catches for about 500 yards and 3 touchdowns. Remarkably, the more successful the team they join, the lower the average production of the rookie WR. This might be a result of the better teams often drafting later, better teams having perhaps less need at these positions in the first place, or better teams taking more time to develop their talent.

Another way to look at statistical precedent, particularly given the statements above, is to look at the top 3 WRs per draft class by receiving yards in their rookie season, irrespective of where and by whom they were drafted.

Top 3 WR per draft class by receiving yards in rookie season
Split Avg. Rec Avg. Yds Avg. TDs
Total (30)
56 784 4.6
Best rookie WR (10)
69 943 5.8
2nd rookie WR (10)
49 777 4.3
3rd rookie WR (10)
50 632 3.6

The best rookie WRs in each of the last 10 years averaged close to one thousand yards in their rookie season, but only three actually surpassed the 1,000 yard mark in the last decade: Anquan Boldin (1,377 yards, '03), Michael Clayton (1,193 yards, '04) and Marques Colston (1,038 yards, '06).

Since the move to a 16 game regular season in 1978, each decade has seen three WR rookies top the 1,000 yard mark (90's: Randy Moss, Terry Glenn, Joey Galloway; 80's: Ernest Givins, Bill Brooks, Cris Collinsworth). A new decade has begun this year, and statistically speaking, three more slots for a 1,000+ yard rookie WR have opened up. Make of this what you will.

As you fine-tune your expectations for Dez Bryant, consider also that the Cowboys had two 1,000+ yard receivers in Miles Austin and Jason Witten last season. This was only the fourth time in franchise history that this has happened (07: Owens & Witten, 06: Owens & Glenn, 79: Hill & Pearson).

What are the chances of having three 1,000+ yard receivers? Well, it has happened 5 times before in the NFL ('80 Chargers, '89 Redskins, '95 Falcons, '04 Colts and '08 Cardinals), but I wouldn't even bet a lukewarm beer on that happening.

And what about Dez's own target of double digit touchdowns? The first and so far last Cowboys rookie to achieve 10 receiving TDs in his rookie season was Bob Hayes in 1965. Only four other rookies in the whole NFL have managed 10 or more TD receptions in their rookie seasons since then: Sammy White (12 TD, MIN, 1976), John Jefferson (13 TD, SD, 1978), Daryl Turner (10 TD, SEA, 1984) and 'the one that got away from Jerry', Randy Moss (17 TD, MIN, 1998).

BTB blogger dunkman reported that Jason Garrett was interviewed on Sirius the other day and said essentially that Dez is a phenom, but it’s rare for a rookie to be an impact player until year two or three. Garret went on to add that he did expect immediate contributions in the return game. For now, Garrett remains one of the few voices of reason among all the excitement.

What type of numbers do you see Dez Bryant putting up in 2010, and how would this impact the other receivers and the running game?

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