Without the help of a flux capacitor or Dr. Emmett Brown, this series will attempt to take a look back in time to help us predict the future dynasty results of some of our current fantasy stars. One of the most well-known anecdotes in fantasy football is that of the breakout third-year receiver, and no one fit that example better in 2012 than Dez Bryant. After an up-and-down start to his career, Bryant finally put together 16 games of elite play in his 3rd season and finished as the #3 wide receiver in fantasy football.
If the breakout third-year is the positive spin on Bryant, then questionable behavior/maturity would be the negative stereotype. Bryant has certainly battled his demons and it just so happens that his three best career-arc comps did as well. Through three years of his career, the three most comparable receivers are Chad Johnson, Terrell Owens, and Braylon Edwards.
The first thing I noticed in this graph was not the 4th year decline from all three comps, but the choppiness of their arcs as a whole. Johnson had a relatively steady five year peak, and Owens was reliable for three, but the theme of the arcs is very hit-and-miss. To figure out why, let's dig into the comps.
It's seems almost unbelievable to think that Chad Johnson was the most reliable of any group of people, but from season 3-7 of his career, he was a remarkably consistent fantasy option. Johnson finished all five of those seasons as a top ten wide receiver, starting the run with John Kitna as his quarterback before teaming up with Carson Palmer. Johnson's streak came to an end when both he and Palmer battled injuries in 2008. Like Palmer, the star receiver was never really same player. He did bounce back to post one season of solid WR2 numbers before an embarrassing ending in New England and Miami.
If Johnson was the most reliable, Terrell Owens was probably the most hard to predict. Owens was more similar to Bryant in size and style, and his career was all over the place. After his third year breakout, Owens played 16 games just once over the next seven seasons. Of course, that fourth season also started a relationship that would define Owens' career. It was the season that Jeff Garcia took over for Steve Young. Owen would have a five year love-hate relationship with Garcia before moving on to an equally volatile partnership with Donovan McNabb. It only took two years (and another 11 missed games) before Owens wore out his welcome and moved on to Dallas and Tony Romo. It's easy to blame Owens for being volatile (and he was) but he wasn't exactly paired with stabilizing forces at quarterback. Despite that volatility, Owens was a very successful receiver for a very long time and topped his third season production four times in his career.
So far we've covered Chad Johnson (reliable) and Terrell Owens (spectacular and unpredictable) but now it's time for Braylon Edwards (disaster). It's hard to believe that Edwards was ever on the same path as Bryant, Johnson and Owens and it's clear now that his third year breakout was just an anomaly. But shouldn't we have known that then? For starters the Browns won the AFC North, if that isn't an anomaly I don't know what is. You also had Derek Anderson throwing for 3700 yards and 29 touchdowns. Anderson would never be close to that productive again, and neither would any other quarterback Edwards would play with. If Johnson and Owens show that diva receivers can still be stars, Edwards is proof that off-field troubles and terrible quarterback play can ruin even the brightest of futures.
While we know that all three of these receivers have a similar arc to Bryant's in terms of fantasy points, let's take a look at some other numbers to see who Bryant was most like.
Through three seasons, Bryant leads the group in receptions, touchdowns, and fantasy points per game (FPG). There's also a very good case to be made that he's already showing a level of maturity that his comps failed to show throughout the entirety of their career. Does this mean Bryant could be even better than Owens?
OBSERVATIONS AND PROJECTIONS
With Tony Romo entrenched at quarterback for the Cowboys, Bryant's future value looks to be based on his health and his maturity. While Bryant's past and his comps serve as a cautionary tale, he seems to have turned over a new leaf and has reportedly had an incredible offseason. Considering he's missed one game in the past two seasons, we have no real reason to suspect injury will derail his career. When you look that the issues that plagued the receivers above it's very easy to believe that Bryant will beat all of them.
Regression is a very real thing and so I wouldn't expect Bryant's meteoric rise to continue into year four. In fact, a small dip in production is probably more likely. Still, he's a very solid WR1 in 2013, and far into the future. I wouldn't buy Bryant at the price of his 2012 production, but anything less is good value. Over the next five seasons you should expect solid WR1 production with the possibility of a peak season where he's the best receiver in fantasy football.
Follow Heath Cummings on Twitter @heathcummingssr