Dez Bryant’s Future Lies in the Slot

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Perhaps one of the bigger stories of the whole offseason is that former Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant remains unsigned at time of writing. But fear not, I see a bright future still in the NFL for Dez, if he wants to embrace it.

Now before I delve into this piece, I’m just going to get this out of the way – I have never been the biggest fan of Dez Bryant (I’m sure he won’t read this so I feel comfortable in admitting that). Now, while I have always considered him a very good receiver, I’ve felt he was a little overrated and had he been drafted and played for a different team he may not have been rated quite as highly as he has been throughout his career. When I think about the top receivers of the past 10 years I think of the likes of Julio Jones, Antonio Brown, A.J. Green, Calvin Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald. Bryant, while talented, falls below that tier of players in my eyes.

It’s a little difficult to explain in detail why I have felt this way. It’s likely just personal preference at the position over the years and the guys I just mentioned were always more fun to watch and in most cases have been more consistent throughout their careers.

But let’s give Dez his dues. When we look back on his career it is fair to say that in the 2012, 2013 and 2014 seasons he should be considered a top 3 receiver, if not the best in the league during those seasons. Per Pro Football Reference:

Dez Bryant was an All-Pro in 2014 but the last 3 years he has had foot, ankle and knee injuries to deal with. But last season was his first 16 game season since 2014, which is a good sign moving forward. While a stat line of 69 catches for 838 yards and 6 TDs, not to mention a catch rate of 52.3%, hardly set the league on fire, it was important for Dez to get those 16 games under his belt. He’s also still only 29 years old, so you’d have to think he perhaps can still produce at least another solid year or two before it’s all said and done.

So why hasn’t he been signed? There seems to be a lot of opinions on this. ‘’Dez can’t separate anymore’’ and ‘’he’ll destroy a locker room’’ are just some of the reasons flying around over the last few months. Dez Bryant himself said in a tweet that the reason he has not signed yet has a lot to do with his own personal decisions. A decision he did make earlier in the offseason, as was widely reported, was turning down a multi-year offer from the Baltimore Ravens. Did they not offer enough money? Did he not like his fit in Baltimore? He also said he now has an offer from the Cleveland Browns after visiting them recently.

So what is his fit now in an offense when he undoubtedly is signed? Can he win enough on the outside to be a traditional X receiver? His 2017 tape suggests that he cannot, at least not consistently. He also scored below the 10th percentile in success rate vs man and press coverage in 2017.

This suggests that wherever he does end up, he’ll need to accept an extended role working from the slot, particularly against zone coverage looks. His career trajectory from here could be something similar to Larry Fitzgerald in Arizona, if he is wants it. A lot of his successes in 2017 from the tape I watched came from slant routes and working the middle of the field against zone coverage. It’s easy – and correct – to say Bryant isn’t elite anymore, but he showed me he has the strength and YAC ability to produce from the slot.

While in the play below Bryant is lined up on the outside and runs a dig route vs Washington, it’s what he does after the catch in using good body control, footwork, and strength to gain those extra yards that stand out. Albeit against soft coverage this highlights what Bryant can do when given space to work in. Space he can find more of if he lines up in the slot.

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Bryant has also demonstrated that he can use comeback routes to create space to work in and move upfield against zone coverage, and a prime example of this last year was against the Oakland Raiders. Facing similar coverage to the play above, Bryant runs a good comeback route here, high-pointing the ball and bringing it down quickly enough that he is able to turn the corner past the pursuing linebacker to the outside for the first down.

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This next play is very similar to the one above, except this time against the Atlanta Falcons we see the strength Bryant has in being able to shake off a defender to create space for himself and work his way upfield.

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Now something to note with his 2017 tape was that on multiple occasions, other than what I have demonstrated here, Bryant faced off coverage or soft coverage. Outside CBs don’t fear Bryant as much as they once did. Bryant can still highpoint the ball effectively but he lacks the straight line speed to gain separation and beat a CB deep, particular CBs who have the speed, technique and timing to stay with him and make life difficult. However, he has the tenacity and strength to shrug off a smaller nicker corner, another reason why a primarily slot role can work for him.

Does this mean that Bryant no longer has big play ability? Well, no. He was still able to demonstrate that he can make big plays even if a bit more few and far between. This example below was his longest play of the season last year, and what’s great about this play against the New York Giants is the initial release on the slant route, the catch, and the strength again to shrug off the defender and take it to the house. What also works in Bryant’s favour here is the strong safety to his side blitzes, giving Bryant more room to work with after the initial release.

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So while we’ve so far seen Bryant lined up on the outside on these plays, the next play against the Los Angeles Rams sees him lined up in the slot before Cowboys WR Terrance Williams moves in motion to the far side of the formation. Again the coverage favors Bryant here and he is just able to sell the out route while showing the strength to separate enough from the CB to make the leaping grab just as the CB catches up to him down the field.

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As I mentioned before, Bryant’s career from here can mirror that of Arizona Cardinals’ WR Larry Fitzgerald. When Bruce Arians joined the Cardinals in 2013 he moved Fitzgerald inside more than he ever had done up to that point in his career, lining up 38.9% of the time inside, up from 13.9% the year before per ESPN Stats and Information. In 2014 his inside snaps increased again to 48.5%.

Larry Fitzgerald was the same age as Dez Bryant is now when his snaps inside began to increase and I think we can all agree that Fitzgerald’s production has not been affected by this at all. In fact, it’s only solidified his own Hall of Fame candidacy.

But back to Dez – 38 of his 69 catches last year were thrown between 1 and 10 yards and he gained 449 yards on those throws, averaging 11.8 YPC and 3 TDs. On passes thrown 11-20 yards he had 15 catches for 231 yards, averaging 15.4 YPC and 3 TDs. Compare this to passes thrown over 21 yards – 3 total catches for 109 yards.

Dez Bryant moving to slot receiver makes sense. He can be successful vs zone coverages and can work the middle of the field as well as to the outside from the slot position. It’s a question now of whether he wants to embrace it and which team can convince him (if he needs convincing) that this is where his NFL future can be, and that he can thrive there into his 30s as others have before him.

Follow Justin on Twitter @JustinTwell78. Check out his work here, including his look at New York Jets’ WR Robby Anderson, the elite Minnesota Vikings’ linebacker corps, and whether time of possession is a battle worth winning.

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