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Dallas Cowboys

Is Dez Bryant still elite WR?

One of the things NFL fans love to do is debate who the “best” players are at different positions. When Dez Bryant — widely regarded for most of his career as one of the most dangerous wide receivers in the NFL — has a down game to open a season, the questions will fly, whether fair or not.

From 2012 to 2014, Bryant had over 1,200 yards in each of the three years, eclipsing 1,300 in two of the three seasons. Following his career year, when he posted 1,300 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2014, Bryant signed a five-year, $70 million contract that made him one of the highest-paid receivers in the NFL.

However, since that season, Bryant has failed to play a full 16-game season, playing only nine games in 2015 and 13 in 2016. Due to a shift in the philosophy of the Dallas Cowboys‘ offense, his opportunities to put up flashy numbers have been reduced, leading to the conversations about whether Bryant still sits in the top tier of NFL receivers.

Because of the makeup of the Cowboys’ offense, the most run-heavy team in the NFL — along with the plethora of quality pass catchers such as Cole Beasley, Terrance Williams, Jason Witten, and even Ezekiel Elliott — there’s little chance that Bryant will be the central focus of the offense that Odell Beckham Jr., Julio Jones, Antonio Brown, or other top wide receivers are in theirs.

But on a play-by-play basis, Dez is as dangerous as any player in the NFL, which makes him so vital to the Cowboys’ offense and keeps him in that elite company of wide receivers.

This play early in the Cowboys’ Week 1 win over the Giants shows one of the traits that makes Dez special. Very few if any receivers in the NFL have the ability to play the ball in the air the way Bryant does. The way he tracks the ball, settles his feet, explodes to high point the ball, and snatches it with his hands is unbelievable. This ball wasn’t complete — the throw led Dez a little too far to the corner, and his second foot wasn’t able to come down in bounds because it got caught on top of Janoris Jenkins’ leg — but Dez’s special traits are clearly evident. Bryant will make many plays like this in 2017 and beyond.

On this RPO near the goal line, Dez generates a ton of separation on the slant route, which has been one of his best routes since he came into the league. Jenkins, his well-known adversary, has no inside help. Without it, the only thing that can keep Bryant from a touchdown is a poor throw from Dak Prescott.

With Prescott, who uses his feet to escape pressure but tries to throw rather than run, one aspect of wide receiver play that is extremely important is playing with instinct to find open areas of the field.

On this play, Bryant shows this instinct, driving hard from the back of the end zone to the goal line, showing that he still has the burst to get away from coverage. He finds a wide open space for yet another would-be touchdown, and Prescott again misses him.

Each play highlights a different trait that makes Bryant special as a wide receiver, and didn’t even touch on how dominant he is with the ball after the catch.

Whether Bryant ever has another 1,200-plus-yard or 12-plus-touchdown season remains to be seen, but his playmaking ability and his impact on the game remain elite.

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