#88 has a special meaning for the Dallas Cowboys. There have been a two all-time greats who wore #88 as a wide receiver for the Cowboys, and another potential great is wearing it now. Drew Pearson and Michael Irvin created the mystique with #88 in Dallas and Dez Bryant is trying to carry on the tradition. On the field, Bryant's stats match up nicely with those other two.
To compare, through the first 59 games of Pearson's career, he caught 199 passes for 3,269 yards and 18 touchdowns. In that same amount of time, Irvin recorded 223 receptions for 4,025 yards and 25 touchdowns.
In Bryant's 59 games, he has 293 catches for 4,104 yards and 40 touchdowns.
As a leader, it's hard to compare to Michael Irvin. He meant everything to the 90s Cowboys especially at practices where he was the hardest-working Cowboy, and during games where he patrolled the sideline making sure his teammates were ready. Apparently, Dez is starting to exhibit some of those same qualities. Here's Jason Garrett at a recent press conference.
Dez impresses me in different ways, of course he's talented, he's an RKG, loves to play football. We had a cut-up of him in film in a team meeting, a meeting where we talked about getting the ball, securing the ball, etc. [The film cut-up] was at practice in a special teams period. Some vets are with their coaches that aren't participating, #88 walks over to the Juggs machine and is catching balls during that period. I told the film guys to film it. Dez arguably has the best hands ever, a natural catcher. But it makes the point he's not a natural, he just catches more balls than everybody else. He's worn all our arms out in practice. He's not worried about a contract, he's demonstrated leadership. I played with Michael Irvin, he set the pace, the tempo at practices. Dez is like Irivn, he wants to play at high level.
Here's the other #88, Drew Pearson, on Dez:
"I think he's on his way," Pearson said recently on the NFL Network. "He's really improved the last two years, his numbers have improved, and just his overall game, his overall leadership responsibility with the football team.
"He is the most influential player on that team right now. He's kind of like Michael Irvin was to the team in the 90s. Dez can be that type of leader on the field and off the field for the Cowboys."
As Nick Cage would say via Andy Samberg - That's high praise.
Now comes that hard part, but really the easy part. Bryant is a free agent after this year. And in a free-agent class full of talented wide receivers, Bryant tops the list.
Bryant lined up on the perimeter for 89.1 percent of his routes last season, the highest percentage for any player on this [free-agent] list. Versatility is great and teams certainly feature players from the slot, but being labeled as a "slot guy" isn't the best thing for a player's value in evaluators' eyes. "It's such a difference when you have outside guys that can stretch the field," a veteran assistant coach said.
Bryant, who turns 26 in November, accounted for 29.2 percent of the Cowboys' receiving yards last season. That was the highest percentage for any player on the list. He also accounted for 39.4 percent of his team's receiving touchdowns, by far the highest for any player on this list and the third highest for any wide receiver, behind Fitzgerald (41.4 percent) and Megatron (39.4).
"You'd better pay Dez Bryant," one of the GMs said. "Jerry Jones had better pay him. The antics you see, that is raw emotion, his competitive flair coming out."
Another GM expressed some concern about paying Bryant top dollar based on Bryant's overall makeup, but both GMs ranked Bryant first on their list, as did the defensive coordinator. "Teams will bid on Bryant," a third GM said, "but not all the teams will be in on that, because of his personality."
The Cowboys are going to pay him, they are already negotiating a contract extension and there is no way the Cowboys allow Dez Bryant to get away in 2015. They could even franchise him if they needed to, but it's a guarantee he will be wearing the star for years to come.
So as good as Dez is, why did Pro Football Focus leave him of their Top 100 players. Well, the first reason is because they have collectively lost their minds. But in their defense, they did offer this defense of their decision.
Had the Top 101 been voted on for the first half of the season, Bryant would have been a lock after he graded at +12.0 overall in his first eight games. He picked up eight of his 13 touchdowns while dropping only three passes and notching three games with at least 100 receiving yards. He graded "in the green" in five of his eight games, including four impressive performances with at least a +2.0 grade or better.
Whether outjumping cornerback Brandon Flowers to pick up a 53-yard catch-and-run against the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 2 or outrunning and weaving through the Denver Broncos' defense on his way to a 79-yard gain in Week 5, Bryant's big play ability was on display throughout the first half. He was the Cowboys' go-to receiver and he produced like one.
While Dez didn't grade in the red once in the first half, he kicked off the second half with a disastrous performance in Week 9 that saw him drop two passes and commit two penalties. The drops became the norm for the rest of the season as eight of his 11 came in the second half. He also picked up two of his three fumbles. It was mostly a four-game stretch that saw him grade at -6.2 between Weeks 9 and 13 that did him in.
Despite bouncing back with a dominant +3.9 outing in Week 15 against the Green Bay Packers, it marked the only game in the green for Bryant in the entire second half, a drop-off that was too much to overcome. He still made his fair share of plays, but the drops and fumbles littered his play and he was a non-factor in multiple games.
Bryant did slow down a tad toward the end of the year. He needs to lead this team all the way through week 16 with consistent performances. It's not like he was bad, but he was a little less than he was earlier in the year. One area that Bryant needs to improve on? Ball security. Bryant has fumbled 13 times in four years. By comparison, Calvin Johnson (13 fumbles in 7 years), Larry Fitzgerald (6 fumbles 10 years), and Andre Johnson (7 fumbles in 11 years).
If the Cowboys are going to be special, then Dez needs to lead the way.