We’ve known since he came into the league in 2010 that Dez Bryant possesses one of the elite skill sets of any wide receiver in the NFL, but the question was always whether or not he could capture the mental aspect of the game enough to let his physical tools shine. With an average of eight catches for 129 yards and five total touchdowns in his last three games alone, it appears the third-year receiver is finally breaking out. Bryant is now on pace for 95 receptions for 1,304 yards and 11 touchdowns—not too far off from my preseason prediction here at Blue Star:
Dez is going to see 125 looks and haul in 79 passes. His YPC will jump to 15.5, giving him 1,224 yards on the season. Most importantly, he’s going to score 11 touchdowns. You can take it to the bank.
I underestimated Bryant’s targets (and thus receptions); the receiver is on pace for 137 of them, due in large part to the increase in overall passing for the Cowboys. Nonetheless, the fact that Bryant is cashing in on his potential seems to be something deeper than things “clicking” for him. Sure, Bryant looks to be maturing, but the Cowboys have also utilized the receiver in a much different manner over the second half of the season. Specifically, Bryant is getting the downfield looks he craves.
In the Cowboys’ first three games, Bryant didn’t have a single target over 20 yards. Not one. That might seem outrageous for a receiver with Bryant’s ball skills, but it isn’t unusual in Dallas. Actually, Bryant ranked just 51st and 54th in deep ball rate in his first two seasons; for whatever reason, Jason Garrett didn’t send Bryant downfield. The trend continued through the Cowboys’ first six games in 2012, when only 5.9 percent of Bryant’s targets came at least 20 yards downfield. Not surprisingly, Bryant struggled to start the season.
Since that time, however, there’s been a major shift in Bryant’s utilization. In the Cowboys’ most recent six contests, Bryant’s deep ball rate has skyrocketed to 32.7 percent; yes, that’s well over five times the rate over the first six games. On top of that, the average length of Bryant’s targets has jumped as well. With an average distance of only 10.2 yards in the Cowboys’ initial six games, Bryant’s targets have averaged 14.1 yards—an increase of nearly 40 percent—since Week 8.
Thus, while Bryant’s certainly grasping the game differently than he did to begin the season, the biggest reason for his recent boom might just be that the Cowboys are finally molding their offense around Bryant as opposed to vice versa.
Jonathan Bales is the founder of The DC Times. He writes for DallasCowboys.com and the New York Times. He's also the author of Fantasy Football for Smart People: How to Dominate Your Draft.