It wouldn’t be a Tennessee Titans offseason without a raging debate about whether or not the team should sign [insert famous aging wide receiver here]. It’s seemingly a yearly tradition. How many past-their-prime wide receivers has this team signed since moving to Tennessee? Yancey Thigpen, Carl Pickens, David Givens, Eric Moulds, Randy Moss, Andre Johnson, and Eric Decker all come mind right away. None of them have produced for the Titans anywhere near the level that they produced for their former teams.
As Terry wrote this morning, the Titans have emerged as heavy favorites from at least one sports book to sign former Cowboys star Dez Bryant.
But should the Titans sign Dez Bryant? I don’t think so.
First, let’s look at Dez from a pure production standpoint. Here are his stat lines since entering the league:
Dez Bryant Career Stats
When most people hear the name “Dez Bryant”, they automatically think of the 2012-2014 dominant Dez who was among the more dominant receivers in the NFL. That guy hasn’t existed the last three seasons. Yes, he was injured for a chunk of 2015 and 2016, but even looking at his stats from a per game basis shows a player in steep decline. Also, can you really use injuries as an excuse for an aging player? Does that make you feel better or worse about a guy who is about to turn 30?
The trend line with Dez is pointed down, as you can see from his yards per game stats over the course of his career.
Now compare that to the aging curve below for NFL wide receivers.
Looks pretty similar huh? I’m not saying that it’s impossible that Dez could have a late career resurgence given the right situation, but it would be going very much an outlier in the data.
Why has Bryant’s effectiveness dipped recently? This is what former NFL scout Bucky Brooks had to say about it last season:
“Game film, traditional statistics and quantitative data all suggest Bryant is a player on the decline with an increasingly limited game,” Brooks said. “Bryant is basically a jump-ball specialist who lacks the route-running skills to get open against elite cornerbacks. Studying the All-22 Coaches Film, I see that Bryant primarily runs three routes from an out-wide alignment: slants, go-routes and digs/crossers. He uses his superior strength and length to push off or separate from defenders at the top of routes. Bryant’s lack of polish on intermediate routes prevents him from being an integral part of the passing game, particularly when opponents employ press coverage at the line of scrimmage.”
The stats back that up. Matt Harmon’s Reception Perception pegged Dez in the bottom 10% of NFL receivers when it came to winning against press man coverage last year.
Dez Bryant scored below the 10th percentile in success rate vs. man and press coverage for #ReceptionPerception last season.— Matt Harmon (@MattHarmon_BYB) April 2, 2018
Here are his route percentage and success rate charts pic.twitter.com/pkisjnt13E
Compounding that problem is the issue of drops. Last season Bryant led the NFL in drops, failing to haul in 12 of 81 catchable passes per PFF. A wide receiver that struggles to get open and then drops passes when he does get open is not a very useful player.
So if you’re not getting 2012-2014 Dez Bryant, the question then becomes whether 2015-2017 Dez is good enough to start on this team. Again, I would say no.
We have to assume that Corey Davis is going to be a big part of the offense in 2018. He was the #5 overall pick last season and showed enough flashes last year to at least earn a starting role next season. Benching Davis for an aging Dez Bryant makes the offense slower and threatens to stunt the development of your most promising player at the position. This would be a massive mistake.
So would you rather start Dez Bryant or Rishard Matthews across from Davis? I’m taking Matthews and it’s not particularly close. Over the past three seasons — one in Miami and the past two in Tennessee — Matthews has turned 256 targets in to 2,402 yards and 17 touchdowns. Over that same time period, Bryant has turned 300 targets in to 2,035 yards and 17 touchdowns. Matthews has been more productive on fewer targets while also offering outstanding work as a run blocker. Rishard Matthews is a better player than Dez Bryant at this point in their respective careers. Full stop.
While Bryant is clearly an upgrade over Taywan Taylor and Tajae Sharpe — though I’d argue that Taylor’s skill set theoretically fits better in this offense than Bryant’s does — and the other receivers on the back end of the roster based on what we know right now, but this is where we get in to the issue of Dez’s temperament. We assume that the Titans will be running more 3+ wide receiver sets in 2018 under Matt LaFleur, but how much more is a real question. The 2017 Rams under LaFleur and McVay had at least 3 receivers on the field for 84% of snaps per SharpFootballStats.com, however LaFleur’s other major influence, Kyle Shanahan, used 3 or more receivers on just 52% of snaps. Chances are the 2018 Titans fall somewhere between those two. Would Dez Bryant be happy being on the field for 70% of snaps? 60%? 50%?
How many games with 50% snaps or 2 targets does it take for Bryant to be seen screaming at wide receivers coach Rob Moore on the sidelines? You can’t run an offense through Dez Bryant in 2018. Does Dez know that? If not, you’re inviting trouble. If you’ve watched the Cowboys season of All Access on Amazon, you’ve seen how Bryant can be in meeting rooms. Is that the example you want set for young receivers like Davis and Taylor and Sharpe? Here is what Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones had to say about Dez’s antics after he was released:
“The other thing that we all see, and it is certainly visible to anyone who watches our games, watches our sideline, is Dez is certainly a fiery guy who plays with a lot of emotion both on and off the field,” Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones said on the team’s podcast. “Sometimes that can be a distraction. It can be a distraction for Dez, it can be a distraction for other teammates. And we just have to really get our hands around when you put all the full body of work together where that’s headed.”
Make no mistake. Bringing Dez Bryant in is a massive risk to the locker room. The Titans have taken great care to bring in players that meet the description of tough, dependable, and team first that Jon Robinson set out in his very first press conference. That process has led to the Titans having one of the strongest, veteran-led locker rooms in the league. It doesn’t mean that they can’t take a risk on guys with a checkered history, but the potential reward must justify that risk and in this case I don’t think it does.