Monday, May 22, 2017

Bag of Footballs - May 22 - All Eyes on Dez Bryant in 2017

Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant comes out of the tunnel to take the field before an NFL football game against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field on Sunday, Jan. 1, 2017, in Philadelphia. (Smiley N. Pool/The Dallas Morning News)
/Smiley N. Pool/Staff Photographer
Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant comes out of the tunnel to take the field before an NFL football game against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field on Sunday, Jan. 1, 2017, in Philadelphia. (Smiley N. Pool/The Dallas Morning News)

All eyes on Dez

It seems like every offseason for the last several years, there has been reason to write a piece on Dez Bryant and where his career is taking him and his team. He has been the face of this franchise for a few years running, as a bridge between the older Cowboys (Tony Romo and Jason Witten) and the new ones (Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott). He has more jerseys sold and more fans for life than almost anyone in the 19 seasons I have covered this team. He is adored and revered by almost all, local or national.

He got there because he was capable of things like this:
... and this:
... and this:
You won't often find wide receivers with that type of brute strength. His personality and charm simply run up the score, but at the core is a player who could not be stopped when he was determined to get into the end zone.
And yet, in this sport where recency bias plays a large role, you can definitely make the case that he needs a massive 2017 to re-establish his league dominance. Actually, you could make the case he needs a big 2017 to show he deserves his very well-compensated job in 2018.
Let me be clear: I have very little belief that the Cowboys and Jerry Jones would break up with Dez Bryant in the next 12 months. He means too much to the franchise as a face, a presence in the room, and just as a marketing machine of what the Cowboys are all about. Furthermore, we know how loyal Jerry is to his favorites, and there is no question that Dez would enjoy the benefits of a longer leash. But, from a simple question of playing to his level of compensation -- what the NFL has had its top players measured on since the inception of the salary cap -- there is no question that the clock is ticking to save his massive contract from being a massive disappointment.
Bryant has the second-largest contract of any wide receiver in the NFL. He signed his deal in the summer of 2015, when so many wide receivers were all getting new deals. Julio Jones got the biggest, at $71.2 million ($47 million guaranteed), and then Dez and Demaryius Thomas slid in right beneath with $70 million deals that were nearly identical -- save for Dez getting $45 million in practical guarantees and Thomas getting $43 million. These deals would take the three wide receivers from about ages 26 to 30, so we had some very interesting apples-to-apples comparisons for players in their primes at this most vital position.
So, I took the seven biggest receiver contracts (all over $50 million) since 2015 and ran a chart. Six of them (all but Antonio Brown) signed their deals in 2015 and Brown signed his in 2017. With that, we ran the statistical production of these seven receivers for the past two seasons. As you might imagine, Dez and his injury issues have put him well behind his colleagues:
I also took the liberty to rank them from first to seventh in each statistical category over the same span of time, so that we can see who is doing what:
From this, you can see that Dez ranks last in every single category, save for touchdowns, where he outranks Jeremy Maclin by one.
This is all very troubling, of course. If you are going to give your receiver top-of-the-industry dollars, then you are doing it with the idea that he will produce at his 2012-14 levels, when he was a top-five receiver in the league, thus putting himself in position to be paid like one. Back then, the top five were Calvin Johnson, Demaryius Thomas, Antonio Brown, Andre Johnson, and then Dez Bryant. Vincent Jackson, A.J. Green, Jordy Nelson, Julio Jones and Brandon Marshall were likely the next five.
You pay guys based on what they have done to set the pace for what they will do. Unfortunately, -- and, again, it is important to remember that this is through no fault of his own -- he has not played anywhere close to a top-five level. In fact, last season, he was 84th in receptions, 51st in yardage and tied for ninth in touchdowns. He had 3-4 incredible games, including his big night in Pittsburgh and a really big day against Green Bay in the playoffs.
The biggest issue with Bryant's production, obviously, is his injury situation. In 2016, he suffered a concussion and a hairline fracture in his knee. In 2015, he broke his foot twice and required surgery, and appeared try to gut through the pain. Nobody would ever question his toughness or amazing physical style. But, with players who fit this profile in any sport (but especially this one), they don't always age well.
By the way, if you would like some more rankings and stats, here are those same tables for 2015-16 as they pertain to the Cowboys themselves. If we are blaming the quarterback situation from 2015, or the rookie quarterback in 2016, that would apply to these players, too, right?
And the rankings of the four top receivers on the Cowboys against each other:
So, again, he can still catch the fade for a touchdown and is impossible to cover in the red zone, but as far as catches or yardage go, he is fourth out of four, and one of those four is a 35-year-old tight end in Witten. Surely, his luck has been bad and like any other contract, there is implied risk for both parties. But has he already left his prime, based on his "beast mode" style that puts too much stress on the body as he leaves his 20s?
Furthermore, there is a really interesting story revolving his contract, and the way the Cowboys have handled it relative to their handling of Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, or even Witten's. We know the drill around here. Every spring, we hear of cap stress and the need to find money. Every spring, the big earners get their contracts reworked to create this room.
But, according to everyone in the know, the Cowboys have not touched Dez Bryant's contract once since it was signed. No restructuring and no pushing the cap hits down the road. They are paying him out on schedule. Why is this important? Well, I will tell you. If -- and like I wrote at the top, it is a massive long shot with the way the Cowboys love him -- they wished to say goodbye to Dez Bryant if 2017 was just as disappointing as 2015 and 2016, they could actually save quite a bit of money against the cap.
In 2018, he counts $16.5 million to play versus just $8 million if they walked away from him. And then in the final year of 2019, he counts another $16.5 million and would cost just $4 million to cut. In other words, they had guaranteed Dez $45 million when he signed his deal and will have paid him all $45 million by the end of this season. All they would owe moving forward in Years 4 and 5 would be the prorated signing bonus. This may not mean anything, but in talking with a few different folks who make decisions, it is not a shock they haven't touched his deal. The feeling has always been that based on his style, when he loses his ability to simply overpower players as a receiver, his career may not have much of a second act. He doesn't have the wheels or the route-running genius to mature into a Larry Fitzgerald-type as he extends his career. Bryant is a special player with special and unique gifts. The question remains how long he can hold on to them while defenders try to attack his vulnerable knees and ankles.
Again, at this point, we would still all agree that a lot of this is circumstantial evidence and we all will still pencil Dez Bryant in for 1,200-1,300 yards and a dominant 2017. His 2012-14 run looks like it might have been his peak (well-timed to get his deal in 2015), but there is no reason he can't return to that in 2017, as he is still dominating, if you look at his signature moments in 2016. But, it isn't just about his missed time. He has played in 22 of 32 games in these past few years and, of receivers who played in 22 games or fewer in the past two years, Dez still trails Alshon Jeffery, Sammy Watkins, Steve Smith, Jordy Nelson, Eric Decker and Calvin Johnson. Nelson (who did not play a snap in 2015) and Johnson (who did not play a snap in 2016) played just 16 games and outproduced Dez in every category.
And, while Jordy Nelson has the benefit of a quarterback situation that Bryant has not had, it is tough to say Alshon Jeffery or Sammy Watkins or Eric Decker have had amazing situations during this span. And nobody is handing any of those guys $70 million, either.
I know this will not be a popular opinion piece, and Dez Bryant is as beloved a player as I can recall, which means that even if he has another season like the past two, nobody would advocate moving on.
But I do think it is interesting that the Cowboys have not touched his deal this offseason when they needed some cash. I think they have responsibly put themselves in a good spot with his money. If they need to do something, they are in a very good position to do so.
Meanwhile, Bryant remains determined to re-establish his spot in the hierarchy of pass-catchers in this league. Reports of his offseason workouts all verify that he has not lost any sort of fire in his belly, and he certainly doesn't believe he has played his best football.
That is great news for all involved, because 2017 is a year when he needs to quiet any sort of talk about a decline.

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