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Is Dez Bryant underappreciated?

A similar player with a similar contract is embraced by his teams’ fans. Why not Dez?

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Dallas Cowboys Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

You don’t have to look far to find Cowboys fans who want to say goodbye to Cowboys’ wide receiver Dez Bryant. Many on Twitter simply want to move on from the team’s all-time leader in touchdown receptions:

Much of the consternation regarding Bryant is the fact he’s being paid like an All-Pro while performing like a decent #2 receiver. Cowboys beat guys like Todd Archer write that recent history shows the Cowboys front office might also be looking at a future without Dez:

Just when you think the Cowboys need to have Bryant’s replacement on hand if they choose to part ways, remember the DeMarcus Ware question.

Ware had six sacks in 2013 and missed the first three games of his career that season. At age 31 and having moved to a 4-3 scheme, the Cowboys coaches believed Ware was a descending player. His salary-cap figure had bloated because of a number of restructures over the years.

The Cowboys chose to cut Ware even though they had nobody ready to be a No. 1 pass rusher.

The lack of love for Dez and his contract is interesting to compare to another unnamed NFL player. The following shows the 2017 seasons for both players, and the numbers are pretty similar:

About the only thing different between these two wide receivers in 2017 was the touchdown numbers. The unnamed player found the end-zone 9 times (7.5% of targets) versus 6 times for Dez (4.5% of targets). Otherwise, in terms of targets, catches, yards and yards per target the two had very similar numbers.

Further, both players are due significant moneys in the future. If either player were to be cut the team making that cut would have to accept a significant dead money hit to their salary cap. The difference is the Dez contract has only two years remaining, while the unnamed player has four years remaining:

So, relatively similar players in terms of production and both players have big contracts with significant cap hits were the player to be released. Yet, the unnamed player’s team considers his contract to be a “bargain” and there’s zero discussion of potentially releasing him.

Some of you may have guessed by now the unnamed player noted above is Alshon Jeffrey of the Philadelphia Eagles. Both the team’s front office and the team’s fans seem giddy to have Jeffrey on the team at a cost of $50M for the next four years.

Now, admittedly, there are differences between the two. The most significant ones are age and average annual salaries:

  • Dez Bryant is two years older than Jeffrey (29 versus 27)
  • Bryant’s contract will cost the Cowboys an average of $16.5M over the next two years, while Jeffrey’s will cost the Eagles only $9.4.

However, the Jeffrey contract is somewhat similar to Dez in terms of how easy it will be for the Eagles to walk away from it. The benefit of the Cowboys walking away from Dez now would be the $8.5M in cap savings they would enjoy this year. However, it would also open up a hole in the Cowboys roster. Will $8.5M net you a free agent wide-out who will do better than Dez would in 2018? Probably not, so it’s likely the Cowboys hold onto Dez for at least one year.

The Eagles will likely be facing the exact same situation in 2020 with Jeffrey.

He’ll be 29 then, his cap hit will be $16M, he’ll represent $6M in dead money if cut but would yield $10M in cap savings. If the Eagles walk away, will they find another receiver as good as Jeffrey for $10M?

Summarizing:

  • Similar production in 2017
  • Big-money contracts that make walking away from either player difficult until the final year of their contracts

So, why is one team so down on Dez and the other so enthusiastic about Alshon? The difference in perception is even more bewildering when you look at each player’s career production. In many ways the two have been similar; but there are a couple differences:

In terms of targets and catches, the two have been almost identical since 2013. Both had great years in ‘13 and ‘14 (no less than 85 catches) but have declined since (no more than 70 catches).

We see similar results in terms of gross yardage and efficiency (yards per catch); after elite years in ‘12, ‘13 and ‘14 (Dez) and ‘13 and ‘14 (Alshon) both have seen declines. Alshon has been more consistent in terms of yards per target, but the two have identical results the last two years and over their course of their careers.

However, we see vastly different results in touchdown production. Dez has grossly outperformed Alshon in touchdowns through most of his career. 2017 was the first year Alshon had more touchdown catches. Over their careers, Dez averages more than 50% more touchdowns (9.1 per season versus 5.8) with similar results in terms of touchdown percentage (8.0% versus 5.4%).

From a career perspective, the two players are fairly similar except:

  • Dez is two years older.
  • Dez enjoyed a longer “peak” (3 years versus 2 years).
  • Dez has grossly outperformed Alshon in terms of touchdowns.

The negative-Dez/positive-Alshon perceptions are more difficult to understand when you consider each player’s history with their teams. Dez has been a career-long Cowboy. He’s given fans 8 year’s of memories with some of the greatest catches in team history. That’s the kind of player fans normally embrace and love. Alshon Jeffrey, meanwhile, has been with the Eagles for only a year and put up the exact kind of season that Cowboys fans are distraught over.

So what gives? Why the disparity? I have a couple thoughts. First, recency bias is strong. The Cowboys are coming off a disappointing season, fans are unhappy and it’s natural to be down on everyone. The general consensus of fans and media members regarding everyone from Jerry and Stephen Jones to Jason Garrett to Dak Prescott to Sean Lee to Tyron Smith to Dan Bailey now is much more negative than a year ago, following a 13-3 season.

The Eagles, meanwhile, are still alive with post-season aspirations and enjoyed their most successful season since 2013. Their fans are high on hope and thus they’re seeing things (like Alshon Jeffrey’s production and contract) through green-tinted glasses. Reverse the team situations and I imagine the perceptions of Bryant and Jeffrey would be significantly different for each fan base.

However, I also think there’s something else. There’s always been a negative perception about Dez among some media and some fans:

  • He’s selfish
  • He’s lazy
  • He’s too emotional

I think all three of those accusations are ridiculous. His eight-year body of work and the testimony of coaches and teammates support none of those accusations.

I understand those who think Bryant isn’t worth the contract. Any reasonable GM would take a good look at it and soberly consider all options. It’s just interesting to me how wide the gulf in perception is between Bryant and another player of similar production with a (relatively) similar contract.