In fact, it was one of the best catches we’ve seen in recent playoff history—an unbelievable display of athleticism capable by only a handful of players. You can pick apart the rules all you want but the rules, as they stand, misrepresent the facts and that is truly one of the saddest parts about modern football.
It was the last target Dez Bryant saw in the 2014 season and the last time we saw him on the field. And he did what he does better than 99 percent of his piers: he tracked down a tough pass and converted it into a monster gain over the head of the defense.
We’ve come to expect these kinds of things from him. Since his rookie season he has finished no worse than WR20 (PPR scoring), including WR4, WR7 and WR4 over the last three years. During that same stretch he is first in touchdowns with 41 (the next closest is Demaryius Thomas with 35), second in fantasy points, fifth in yards and sixth in receptions.
Having played out his rookie contract and knighted with a franchise tag, Bryant has emerged as the best wide receiver in the NFL—an honor previously monopolized by Calvin Johnson. Johnson will still be labeled as the best in certain circles. He’s earned his stay in the conversation, to be sure, but Bryant is in his prime and coming off of a career season.
Our consensus ADP shows him as WR3—eighth overall—behind PPR monster Antonio Brown, and offensive rookie of the year Odell Beckham Jr. This is the perfect spot to select Bryant. If you should find yourself drafting in the late 1st round chances are the top running backs are going to be gone, so locking up a WR1 is the right play
But what if Brown or OBJ slide to you? If you’re comfortable with just falling in line and letting the rankings draft for you, be my guest. But if you’re into high ceilings and winning championships then you already know Bryant deserves WR1 draft considerations, regardless of your draft position.
The Case for Bryant as the No. 1 Receiver
It’s natural to be attracted to the safety net associated with Brown and his consumption of targets. Over the last two years he has secured 239 receptions (1st) for 3,197 yards (1st) and 21 touchdowns (3rd). Talk about comfort food.
But all good things must come to an end, or in our case, all good stats must regress to the mean. Brown will no doubt see high volume as the top option for Ben Roethlisberger, especially with fantasy’s No. 1 running back from 2014 serving a three-week suspension. It’s not totally unfathomable that Brown chips in a third consecutive season with 100 plus receptions. But doing so would put him in historic company.
Using the player streak finder at ProFootballReference.com, we learn that only five receivers in NFL history have recorded three straight seasons with at least 100 receptions. Notice the names that decorate this list:
|Player||Team||Stats in Consecutive 100 Catch Seasons||Span||Total|
He’s already in rare company, especially when you consider the quarterbacks associated with those at the top. In any case, Brown will flirt with moving up a tier in the history books but we expect the Steelers to round out their offense and get a little more out of the likes of the other Bryant. Once Le’Veon Bell is back in the fold, we’ll see a lot more balance and I’m happy to bet large sums of cash they won’t field fantasy’s No. 1 running back and No. 1 receiver two years in a row.
Back to Bryant. Let’s assume he also regresses to the mean. Through 16 weeks he led the NFL in receiving touchdowns with 14 and added two more in Week 17. Expecting a return on touchdowns is risky business. Thankfully, Bryant is one of the best in the business. Though he saw only 15 targets in the red zone, he converted eight of them into scores. That also means he managed eight touchdowns outside of the arbitrary red zone, which lends even more regression into how we project his 2015 season.
But let’s consider how much he did with how little he was provided. He starred on a team that was third in rushing attempts and second-to-last in passing attempts (the Steelers ranked sixth in passing attempts). Their offense was so efficient it’s impressive they were able to field fantasy’s No. 2 running back and No. 4 wide receiver. Despite the Cowboys dominance as a run-first club, Bryant cashed his 136 targets into 88 receptions (go figure), 1,320 yards and the aforementioned league-leading 16 touchdowns.
Which leads us to the bad news: season long stats are nice and give us that warm and fuzzy feeling we need to justify our draft picks, but fantasy is a weekly game. Bryant’s weekly performances should actually steer his draft stock closer to the second round:
|WK||OPP||TARG||REC||YD||TD||FPs||PPR FPs||PPR WR Rk|
The final column represents his final rank for that particular week. On average he finished as WR21—basically a fringe WR2. He managed only six top-12 performances and slipped into benchable territory four times in 2014. This, my friends, is the result of a Jason Garrett/Scott Linehan offense gone right (the one that actually wins football games).
The silver lining shows up in the six games where he finished as a WR7 or better, including four top-five performances. Talk about reaching for the ceiling.
There is a high likelihood that 2015 will feature more of a classic Garrett offense—one that slowly shies away from running the football. Since he took over as head coach the Cowboys, up until last year, have averaged 366 rush attempts per season. The league average in 2014 was 428 attempts. The Cowboys ran it 508 times, third most. We’ll welcome regression here, especially with the exit of DeMarco Murray.
The exit of Murray also frees up 64 targets, none of which are promised to their stable of washed up or otherwise unproven running backs. We all, of course, expect them to have an offensive line that even the worst of plodders could find traction behind. More importantly, Tony Romo will have time to build a house in the pocket with the protection he’ll enjoy. According to Pro Football Focus Romo had 2.84 seconds in the pocket last year (subscription required), seventh most. Even when Bryant sees double coverage, of which he will a lot, his quarterback will have time to find him.
The Cowboys offense, and by extension Bryant, comes down to a few simple things. The first of which centers around a backfield that looks untrustworthy at best. We’re all but guaranteed this team is going to rely on the arm of Romo more than the legs of whichever back earns the start.
Second: Las Vegas currently favors the over of 9.5 wins. We know those wins aren’t going to come via a shutdown defense followed by clock control game scripts. The Cowboys defense overachieved last year and still finished as a mediocre group where points allowed and yards allowed are concerned. Little has been done since the conclusion of the 2014 season that suggests they’ll be much better in 2015. That tells us to expect higher scoring games, which in turns means more passing, which in turn means more Bryant.
So what happens when you combine a top-of-the-line offensive line, one of the best quarterbacks in the league, a shabby defense in a competitive conference with the best wide receiver in the league? Fantasy championships. Bryant has a higher ceiling than any receiver on the board even if his touchdowns regress to low double digits (for the record, the average number of touchdowns for top-12 receivers over the last 10 years is 9.4). If I’m gambling on a receiver in the first round, I’m gambling on Bryant.
- End zone hog: Bryant is an absolute force in short yardage situations, especially in the end zone. When they’re close, and they will be often, Bryant benefits.
- Volume: Bryant was 11th in targets last year with 136 which is double that of the next closest Cowboys receiver. It was also 23 fewer than what he saw in 2013 yet he had 87 more yards and three more touchdowns, which means his production doesn’t rely as much on volume unlike certain other receivers also going in the first round.
- Offense: The Cowboys were a top five scoring offense for a second straight year while averaging 3.4 touchdowns per game (tied for third most with Philadelphia and Green Bay). Bryant accounted for 30% of those touchdowns.
- Defensive Focal Point: With Murray now out of the picture there aren’t many weapons the Cowboys can threaten with offensively outside of Bryant. This surely means double coverage more often than not, though that’s never stopped him before.
- Contract Situation: It has been well documented that Bryant isn’t happy with his franchise tag and has threatened to sit out all of camp and maybe even a game. We know this isn’t a reality but it’s worth monitoring, as he isn’t the type of player that deals well with distractions.
- Weekly Consistency: When you draft a receiver in the first couple of rounds it’s easy to be disappointed given the ups and downs of a fantasy season. But Bryant’s weekly consistency last year is worrisome despite where he finished in the rankings.
Dez Bryant is the best wide receiver in the NFL. His combination of speed, size and strength separate him from the pack. His mere presence on the football field has an immediate effect on both the offense and defense. Calvin Johnson has that same effect, even more so when he was in his prime, but the fact is Bryant is entering what should be a career season—resulting in setting the new standard not just for wide receivers but also how wide receivers will get paid.
He knows this. The Cowboys know this. We know this. Expecting anything less than top five numbers is an exercise in witlessness. And besides, with ceilings like these, who needs floors? No catch; Bryant should be the first wide receiver off of the board in every draft.
OTHER VIEW POINTS
Raymond Summerlin broke down the regression of touchdowns for receivers and notes that it’s plausible Bryant has similar numbers as 2014.
Nate Hamilton offered a quick thought about the effect Bryant’s holdout could have on his and Romo’s fantasy prospects.