2015 was not kind to the Dallas Cowboys. First they lost their all-star receiver to a broken foot after just one game. Three weeks later they lost their all-star quarterback to a broken collarbone. With their offense on injured reserve, America's Team turned a four-win season into a top position in the 2016 draft.
From a fantasy football perspective, it was a death knell for those of us that spent a first rounder on Dez Bryant. Missing time due to injury is one thing: playing as poorly as he did when he was active is another. The question is, will he rebound this season and reclaim his spot as one of the league’s greatest?
Of Historical Greatness and Future Dominance
For the foreseeable future, any conversation regarding who the best wide receiver in the NFL is has to include Bryant. Few will argue against that. When healthy, Bryant is one of the most dynamic and dominant players in the game at any position, and likely on his way to Canton when it’s all said and done.
His career arc is that of hall of famers. With 59 receiving touchdowns on his resume, despite a lost 2015 season, Bryant ranks 83rd all time and 14th among active players. This is a man that is built for the red zone. Standing 6’2” and weighing 220 pounds, he’s not only a giant among cornerbacks, he also features an elite combination of play-making abilities and workout metrics. And it shows up in the box score.
Since joining the league in 2010, only one wide receiver has scored more touchdowns than Bryant: Calvin Johnson. Johnson—often considered this generation’s greatest—is now retired, which means Bryant will be the new leader in this category should 2016 fall closer to his career trend than 2015 did. Either way, there’s one crown Bryant wears that makes the case for him as the best in the league. No wide receiver in the last six years has cashed in more of their red zone targets for touchdowns (minimum 40 targets).
|10||Odell Beckham Jr||2014--2015||45||30||235||14||31.1|
Bryant is a beast inside the 20s. His 40.7 percent touchdown rate is a full 4.5 percentage points better than second placed Eric Decker. It helps to have 86 targets in the red zone, 13th most since 2010, but we certainly can’t hold that against him.
As mentioned, this man is built to score touchdowns. So it stands to reason that the Cowboys would use him as such. They will eventually need to develop a replacement plan for their quarterback, but Bryant is only 27 years old (he turns 28 in November). If anything, his best years might still be ahead of him, which includes 2016.
In Sickness and In Health
It’s unfortunate that we need to apply the cliché “when healthy” qualifier to Bryant. He’s a physical player that will sacrifice everything to win. Those sacrifices, of course, lead to missed time.
Aside from multiple “questionable” designations throughout his career due to hamstrings and groins and the like, Bryant underwent surgery for the second time in six months on his right foot. That would mark the third time in his professional career he’s had surgery on said foot (after a promising start to his rookie season, he fractured his ankle and landed on IR). Cleary, it’s an issue worth concern.
As for how this reflects on the upcoming season, it might explain why he’s not in the conversation with Antonio Brown, Odell Beckham Jr., and Julio Jones, who are the consensus top three draft picks. Bryant is typically falling to the end of the first, though his stock will probably rise if reports out of training camp are positive.
The question is whether we can trust him to make good on his ADP. Two foot surgeries in a short period of time is alarming. But it’s not just Bryant’s health at stake, it’s also Tony Romo’s.
We saw what happened last year. In the six games sans Romo, Bryant set career lows in targets, receptions, yards and touchdowns. The fact that he was pestered with injuries all season can explain most of that, but the Cowboys lack of depth at the quarterback position does little to quell our concerns.
You can make that case for any wide receiver. It’s just that there’s a history with Romo and Bryant and the injured reserve list. If the pair can stay healthy for the majority of the season, it’s reasonable to expect a return to former greatness.
From 2012-2014, Bryant hauled in 273 receptions for 3,951 yards and 41 touchdowns—ranking second in total fantasy points of all wide receivers during that three-year stretch in both PPR and standard scoring.
His 41 total touchdowns ranked first with the next closest being Demaryius Thomas’s 35. Bryant finished as WR4, WR7, and WR4 in PPR scoring during that three-year stretch. Without question, the marriage between him and Romo is a great one. We just need them to stay healthy through December.
Of Triplets and Super Bowl Contenders
If we remove health concerns from the equation and look at the big picture, there is a lot of hype for this edition of the Dallas Cowboys. Most of it centers around the return of their healthy stars, and the addition of Ezekiel Elliott.
The Cowboys drafted Elliott fourth overall in the 2016 draft, which is the highest they’ve selected a running back since Tony Dorsett in 1977. Elliott’s addition already has folks talking “Triplets”.
In case you don’t remember or didn’t know, the Dallas Cowboys’ Triplets were once considered the greatest trio of offensive stars in the league. Quarterback Troy Aikman, running back Emmitt Smith, and wide receiver Michael Irvin were an absolute force together. They won three Super Bowls in four years, including back-to-back championships in 1992 and 1993. All three have been inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Romo, Bryant, and now Elliott are the modern day Triplets, but they have a long road to matching the ‘90s’ version. In any case, the Cowboys are in the Super Bowl conversation despite being a mess on defense. Their ability to move the ball and score points is why their season over/under win total currently sits at 9.5. It also helps that the Cowboys have the third easiest strength of schedule when you consider their opponent’s win/loss from 2015.
But we’re less concerned with Cowboys’ Championships and more concerned with Fantasy Football Championships. Elliott’s presence and the Cowboys’ investment in him might mean more running and less throwing—a trend that we’ve seen develop with this team over the last few years.
After ranking third in passing attempts in 2012, the Cowboys ranked 14th in 2013, 31st in 2014, and 23rd last year. Meanwhile, they’ve shown more commitment to the run than at any other time with Jason Garrett as head coach. And why wouldn’t they want to run? Their offensive line is universally considered to be the best in the league. Football Outsiders ranked them as the sixth best run-blocking unit last season. We currently have them ranked first overall.
It’s possible, likely even, that the Cowboys will choose to hide their aging quarterback and do their best to keep him healthy by running the ball. Drafting Elliott supports that theory. As does their roster of backs. The Cowboys managed to rank ninth in total rushing yards last year and paved the way for a 1,000-yard season for Darren McFadden. They’ve now added Alfred Morris to the mix and should get specialist Lance Dunbar back healthy before Week 1. McFadden is recovering from a broken elbow, but it’s safe to say this is one of the best running back groups in the league.
What this means for Bryant is potentially fewer targets and, by extension, fewer receptions and fewer yards. So even if the Cowboys have one of the NFL’s best triplets, that may not translate to a big season for Bryant.
But what it doesn’t mean is fewer touchdowns. Efficiency is greater than volume when it comes to quarterbacks. A strong rushing attack helps that efficiency. It’s amazing what happens when your quarterback isn’t asked to throw it 500 times a game. Romo was fantastic in 2014, setting career highs in both quarterback rating and passer rating, leading the league in both categories. Furthermore, that season proved what this offense is capable of. They support fantasy football’s 12th highest scoring quarterback, second highest scoring running back, and the fourth highest scoring wide receiver.
If anything, 2016’s Triplets are better than 2014’s. And even if our average projection for Romo is 3,782 yards and 26.5 touchdowns, Bryant will still be the top target. Double digit touchdowns for the fourth time in his career isn’t out of the question.
- Bryant is the best red zone receiver in the league and boasts the best touchdown conversion rate since 2010
- His all-star quarterback is 100 percent healthy after missing all but four games last year
- The Cowboys have a top-ranked offensive line, which is great for the offense as a whole
- Bryant has injury concerns after two foot surgeries in six months
- The Cowboys are projected to be a run-first team, which means fewer opportunities for No. 88
- A friendly strength of schedule does not necessarily translate to fantasy points for wide receivers
There has never been any question regarding Bryant’s skillset. He came into the league as a top-rated wide receiver and has matched the hype in the news with his play on the field. The only concern we have as fantasy owners is both his physical health, and his mental health. He is one of the most passionate players in football, but at times his emotions can get the better of him which allows his opponents to get in his head, resulting in inconsistent play. Add that to his draft price and you can build a case to spend elsewhere.
But he’s also a game-changer. He had four straight seasons of 100-plus targets and three straight with double digit touchdowns (including 16 in 2014). Despite a run-first philosophy down in Dallas, Bryant is worth every bit of his ADP and a great option if you don’t have a top draft pick.
Other View Points
Bryant said he doesn’t plan on matching 2014’s production. Instead, he plans on being better than ever:
"Man, I'm not even trying to [get back] to 2014. I'm past that. I'm going to be better than that. I'm going to. The way we've been working, the way the coaches have been on us, the way we've been holding each other accountable, I think that alone is going to make us all be better than what we were in these past years."
Joseph Nammour over at NumberFire likes Bryant to be a league winner in 2016:
“Bryant is younger than Antonio Brown and A.J. Green are and is still an elite receiver in the prime of his career. You should treat him as such in your upcoming fantasy football draft. He has all the upside he had from a year ago when he was being drafted earlier than he is now.”
Our Chad Parson’s isn’t on board and wrote up Bryant as a player to avoid at his ADP:
“Back in April, I wrote about Bryant's 'Lost Year' in 2015. Bryant has been the frustrating stud wide receiver to own among the league's elite over the past few seasons. He disappears for quarters at a time, especially when he does not get early game targets. The Cowboys have a quality offensive line and added Ezekiel Elliott - all signs point to a run-heavy attack in 2016, attempting to keep Romo taped together as an oft-injured older quarterback. There is far more risk than reward with Bryant in general for 2016 and at WR6 he is a clear wide receiver to fade.”
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