Once upon a time Dez Bryant was an elite receiver in the NFL. By the time the 2014 season completed, he was regarded as one of the most exciting pass catchers in the league as he was coming off a year where he hauled in 88 catches for 1,320 yards and 16 touchdowns. It was his third-straight season where he finished with over 1,200+ yards and 12+ TD catches. But after the last three years where he hasn’t been able to reach 70 catches, 900 yards, or double-digit touchdowns, the marvel that once was Dez Bryant is fading. The Cowboys offense struggled immensely last season and he certainly didn’t help the situation by uncharacteristically dropping a lot of passes.
Not only has Dez fallen from the top-tier receiver group, many fans are questioning whether it’s time to replace him. Several names of potential first-round candidates are surfacing in draft talks. A young, star receiver like Calvin Ridley to replace the 29-year old veteran Bryant would tickle people’s fancy as fans look to go with a full-out youth movement to configure the new set of triplets.
Not only is his performance an issue, but his financial burden to the team is an issue as well. Bryant has two years left on his contract, which will include a $16.5 million cap hit for the Cowboys in each of those seasons. With this type of cost, his performance is going to be scrutinized.
While Bryant’s numbers have dropped, it might be a little presumptuous to write this guy off just yet. One thing he still does extremely well is come down with contested passes when his defender is draped all over him. And thanks to Next Gen Stats from NFL.com, the evidence supports that. They recently put together a Top-10 list for the best receivers at catching passes in tight windows where they ranked the 49 receivers who were targeted at least 17 times on tight window passes (receiver has less than a yard of separation from the his defender).
The overall ranking was established by identifying how the 49 receivers in that pool ranked in the following three categories:
Catch rate on tight-window targets.
Their quarterback’s passer rating when they were targeted in tight windows.
Yards per catch on tight-window receptions.
The rankings were added together to create the composite score -- for example, a player who ranked first in catch rate, second in passer rating and third in yards per catch would have a composite score of 6 -- with a lower score indicating better performance. This was done in an attempt to keep the list from skewing positively or negatively toward receivers used in only the short area of the field or those who benefited from superior quarterback play. It’s impossible to completely negate the influence of usage and quarterbacks to measure pure ability, but this method helped alleviate those issues to a manageable degree.
Based on this ranking system, Bryant finished as the number three receiver, behind Minnesota’s Stefon Diggs and Detroit’s Marvin Jones Jr..
Bryant will be looking to bounce back after an off year, but there are good reasons to be optimistic. The rapport between Bryant and Dak Prescott can be improved as they work on timing and develop better chemistry with each other. While a lot of those things are mental, it’s good to know that Bryant still has the physical gifts to go up and get the ball.