Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Football Laundromat: Dez Bryant Edition

Have you seen this child?

Aloha, readers. TC Fleming here. During the Cowboys season, I write each week about a wrinkle in the offense of the opposing team. With no opposing team due to the bye week, I'd like to use this space to reveal some research I've done into a topic I've done some thinking on.

The impetus for all this is Johnny Knox. I was born just outside Chicago and am a Bears fan, so I wanted to get a gauge on what Knox's 500-yard rookie season might portend for the rest of his career. How do receivers who go on to quality careers perform in their rookie seasons? How long does it take them to get to the high level of play they maintain for most of their careers?

Of course, Cowboys fans have more stake in these questions than anyone. What is a reasonable expectation of how good Dez Bryant can be this year? What does it mean if Bryant keeps up this pace and finishes around 800 yards? Were he to live up to expectations, what could we expect his career arc to look like?

To start, I made a list of players who made the All-Pro team at wide receiver from 1999 to 2008 (the site I used for this didn't have the 2009 roster, and trying to determine if another site's list matched the definition of "All-Pro" we're rolling with just seemed like a hassle. Sue me.) Here is that list:

Derrick Mason
Randy Moss
Terrell Owens
Rod Smith
David Boston
Troy Brown
Eric Moulds

Jerry Rice
Hines Ward
Torry Holt
Chad Ochocinco
Mushin Muhammad
Steve Smith
Santana Moss
Donald Driver
Andre Johnson
Larry Fitzgerald
Braylon Edwards
Reggie Wayne
Marvin Harrison
Wes Welker
Isaac Bruce
Cris Carter
Jimmy Smith

I took everyone on that list and entered the stats for their first five years into a nice spreadsheet. From that I was able to get this delightful table. This is the year-by-year averages for the first five years of everyone who has made an All-Pro team at receiver:

Year 13172740315.032311 of 234
Year 23505584015.354558 of 2335
Year 33486495215.0846312 of 2352
Year 43506895514.0656613 of 2357
Year 5359831,15914.0867717 of 2374

To decode that a little bit, 'G' is total games played by these receivers. As you can see, they got on the field more in Year 2 than Year One but leveled off after that. The Rec (Receptions), Yards, TD, R/G (Receptions Per Game), Y/G (Yards Per Game) are all the averages of those All-Pro receivers. The last two columns refer to how many receivers in the group crossed the vaunted 1,000-yard barrier and what percentage of the overall group those 1,000-yard receivers account for.

The thing I'm watching is the yards, and the rookie year stands out the most. That collection of elite talent averaged only a 400-yard season in their rookie years. That speaks a certain amount to how difficult it is to get adjusted to the NFL game. But I'm also bothered a little bit that a) I expect more out of the Best of the Best and b) While we're all hoping Bryant makes All-Pro teams, this group is not exactly the group that we hope Bryant is one day in. It's more of a niche within that group.

Guys like Derrick Mason, Hines Ward, Troy Brown, those are guys who started out buried on depth charts, fought to show they were useful then expanded their niche until they experienced the success that landed them on this list. That's impressive, but it's not necessarily the trajectory of Dez Bryant. He's in that other group of people on this list. The massively-hyped, high-round picks who followed up on their lofty expectations. Your Randy Moss, Larry Fitzgerald, Andre Johnson group. That's Dez Bryant's bar.

In part, this is a discussion about pure talent. While shiftiness and grit and stuff like that is part of talent, certainly players like Bryant, Moss, Fitzgerald and Johnson are regarded as being bigger, stronger and faster than Mason, Ward and Brown. But just as big a factor in their development is the situation they're in when they enter the league. Some guys have to fight for roster spots and playing time. Sometimes their playing time has more to do with the performance of the people in front of them than it has to do with them. Those are the guys who I can understand turning in a 400-yard season. They might be ready to do more, but the chances aren't there. I think we all feel to some extent that Miles Austin was this way at the start of his career. But those hyped guys, they come in with a role laid out for them.

So to that end, here are the first-five-year averages of All-Pro receivers of the last 10 years that entered the league as a first-round pick:

Year 11564466115.453471 of 119
Year 217568104715.174666 of 1155
Year 316273113515.4105777 of 1164
Year 416475113515.575767 of 1164
Year 516785124014.696828 of 1173

And just so we're clear, here is the list of those receivers:

Randy Moss
David Boston
Eric Moulds
Jerry Rice
Torry Holt
Santana Moss
Andre Johnson
Larry Fitzgerald
Braylon Edwards
Reggie Wayne
Marvin Harrison

Now this is more like it. Comparing the graphs is instructive for getting an idea of how receivers progress, only with the first rounders doing so at a higher level. Their first year in the league, they nearly universally turn in a pretty unspectacular year by the standards of the league in general and by the standards of what we will come to expect from them. In their second year, they make sizable leap in performance and start looking like a future All-Pro. Then their third and fourth years they start producing 1,000 yards with regularity, followed by another little uptick in the fifth year.

I'm not sure about you, but I find this extremely refreshing. It's my nature to worry a bunch about whether or not Bryant's going to be a bust, and if he failed to produce 1,000 yards this season, I'd start thinking that maybe it's something he's not capable of. And it might bug me, you know? But it turns out that's quite normal. In fact, only seven players in history have crossed the 1,000-yard barrier in their rookie season. And even that wasn't a guarantee of stardom. Here's that list:

The greatest ever?

John JeffersonSDG197814561,00117.913472
Joey GallowaySEA199516671,03915.57465
Terry GlennNWE199615901,13212.66676
Randy MossMIN199816691,31319.017482
Anquan BoldinARI2003161011,37713.68686
Michael ClaytonTAM200416801,19314.97575
Marques ColstonNOR200614701,03814.88574

So yeah, the most striking thing is how short of a list it is. Jerry Rice didn't have 1,000 yards in his first season. Neither did Marvin Harrison or Isaac Bruce or Tim Brown or Michael Irvin or Marcus Robinson. Being slow to pick up the play book, failing to fully grasp the nuances of the position, not being comfortable making the pre-snap adjustments needed, whatever is keeping Bryant from seeing the field appears to affect even the greatest receivers. It's just really hard to play football, y'all.

The other thing is that the list highlights how fickle the position can be. While seeing those year-by-year averages should calm anyone upset that Bryant isn't on pace to set the franchise mark for yards in a season yet, keep in mind 600 yards is by no means some sort of guarantee of future success. Roy Williams had 817 yards in his rookie year, a mark he has surpassed only twice in the ensuing five seasons. After his stunning rookie year, Michael Clayton's next highest yards total is 484. After being among the last of the Buccaneers cuts this year, he has yet to catch on with a team. And for every Michael Clayton or Joey Galloway, there's a Marvin Harrison or Michael Irvin who kind of looks like a bust before they put it together after a few years. To the Michael Irvin point, look how bad Irvin was to start his career. It's easy to forget:

Year 1143265420.45247
Year 262637814.52463
Year 3122041320.75234
Year 416931,52316.48695
Year 516781,39617.97587

The only way to know with certainty that a receiver is going to have sustained success at his position is after he does it. In every other scenario (fast start, slow start that picks up, two strong years in a row, etc.) there's a gaggle of cautionary tales of receivers who had a similar arc to that point but only frustrated all involved from that point forward.

So yeah, you just read 1,500 words for me to tell you that it's hard to predict the future success of wide receivers. Sorry about me. But seriously, I hope this has given you some sort of lines to think along, a baseline to measure against, when calculating how well or poorly Dez Bryant is doing this season. And even with all this gobbledygook I just wrote, the biggest thing I think all of us are going to go off of is how he looks. If he ends up with a season of games like last week where he was overpowering defenders in a way that, due to rawness and poor luck, didn't show up in the boxscore, I think we'll feel just fine about things for him from there on out. Maybe not Johnny-Knox-level good. But good. lol. :)

No comments: