Recently, Overthecap.com did a fairly extensive study on WR performance and when to expect a drop off. They concluded that most elite WRs (defined as a WR who obtains 1,000 yds in one of their first four seasons) drop off heavily about their seventh season. Specifically, with regard to the Cowboys' franchise player, Dez Bryant, their assessment was that he has plateaued and will descend in the next two to three years:
A player like a Dez Bryant has most likely seen his peak performance. There is little doubt he will sustain it this year, but he'll do so playing on a one year franchise tag. His value will drop after that at which point he will need to convince a team that he should earn his top value and can be a guy that doesn't have a steady decline.
Now, their study is solid work and the natural conclusion might be that Dallas needs to tag Dez, perhaps twice, and then let him go to the highest bidder for a nice juicy compensatory pick. The first issue with that line of thinking is that it ignores the considerable emotional impact Dez has on this team. His passion ignites the team every bit as much as his performance and his message consistently reinforces and resonates with Garrett's philosophy. But before conceding that Dez will begin taking steps back in the coming years, I'd like to suggest some reasons why he might not.
The first reason to believe Dez might buck the trend is that he already has. Over the Cap's research suggests that there would be a steady decline in receptions and yards starting in year four, an overall decline in TDs starting in year three, and significant drops (4.3% and 6.8% respectively) in yardage and TD from year four to year five. It's hard to appreciate these last numbers as they are averaged over 56 guys (according to pro-football-reference) but a 6.8% reduction in TDs in one year over a statistically significant group of people is a pretty massive drop-off.
Yet, Dez had a 7% increase in yardage and a 23%(!) increase in TDs from year four to year five. That's very hard against the grain of the trends. The most obvious reason for receivers to drop off after an early big year is that other teams begin to recognize them as a threat and plan for them. Some players never overcome that and have their career year early, then disappear never to be heard from again. Mike Furrey, Braylon Edwards, Lee Evans, and Javon Walker are all receivers who meet Over the Cap's criteria, but also fit this profile. Dallas fans should be familiar with the careers of Miles Austin and Roy Williams as well. Dez is clearly not going to be one of those guys.
So, what kind of guy is Dez Bryant? It seems clear that Over the Cap's definition of "elite" is pretty broad. Of the 56 guys who had a 1,000.yard season in their first four, more than half (34) only had one such season, though some of these, like Reggie Wayne, turned out to be okay after all. Dez is in that smaller group of 22 who had multiple 1,000-yard seasons in their first four years. Another way Dez raises the bar over these other receivers is that he hit 1,200 yards, only 34 of the 56 hit that mark. But limiting it even further, Dez hit 1,200 yards in multiple seasons during his first four years. That puts him in a group of seven along with Anquan Boldin, Larry Fitzgerald, A. J. Green, Brandon Marshall, Demaryius Thomas, and Roddy White. This is an admittedly small sample size, but that's the entire point. Receivers like Dez Bryant are rare. Two of the other six (Thomas and Green) are, like Dez, too new to observe their late years, but we can observe the remaining four per game, as Over the Cap did:
- Roddy White averaged 6.4 recs, 84 yds, 0.5 TD per game in seasons 6-8 before a steep drop.
- Anquan Boldin averaged 5.5 recs, 46 yds, and 0.5 TD per game in seasons 6-8, which was actually a drop off from prior, but he had a resurgence in the last two years after moving to the 49ers.
- Larry Fitzgerald averaged 5.6 recs, 76 yds, and 0.56 TD per game in seasons 6-8 and then declined.
- Brandon Marshall averaged 6.2 recs, 85 yds, and 0.6 TD per game in seasons 6-8 with a sharp drop in his 9th year, last year
Has Dez already peaked? Probably not. Judging by the other receivers who did what he did, he probably has three strong years left in him. Looking at years 6-8 of the four players above yields 12 seasons. Of those 12, 11 were over 1,000 yards and seven over 1,200. Also, 11 of those seasons were over 80 receptions and six of them were over 90.
But even with these ultra-elite receivers, there appears to be a sharp drop off in their ninth season. Anquan Boldin is the only one of them who recorded a 1,000-yard season later than year nine, though Roddy White and Larry Fitzgerald did manage to break 900 yards. So it does appear to be worth a little caution, when constructing Dez's contract, to allow for a decline 3-4 years down the road. On the other hand, this is also more incentive for Dez to get what he can right here, right now.
Some of you may be wondering why I didn't bring up TDs for those 12 seasons I looked up. Five of those seasons, less than half, had more than 10 TDs. That doesn't sound especially promising.
But it's more about how remarkable Dez's three consecutive seasons of 12 or more TDs are than any reflection on age. Larry Fitzgerald and Brandon Marshall combined have three seasons of twelve or more TDs, total. Yes, that means Dez has more TD in the last three years (41) than Brandon Marshall and Larry Fitgerald's three best TD seasons combined (37). Neither Anquan Boldin nor Roddy White have ever caught 12 TDs in one season and between the two of them only have three seasons of 10 or more TDs. All three of Dez Bryant's last three seasons are in the top 100 all-time in receiving TDs. If Dez gets 12 TDs again this year he will be the first player in NFL history to get 12 receiving TDs four seasons in a row. Others in the three-season-in-a-row club are Jerry Rice (2x), Marvin Harrison (2x), Terrell Owens, Chris Carter, and Lance Alworth. On the other hand, Randy Moss, Larry Fitzgerald, and Calvin Johnson never had more than two consecutive 12-TD seasons. Or, put another way, only 6 players in NFL history have more 12-TD seasons than Dez, so he's bound to buck the numbers there, regardless.