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Fantasy Football 2018: Dez on the Decline?

It has been just over a week since the Dallas Cowboys parted ways with Dez Bryant, and the mercurial wide receiver has yet to find a landing spot. There are several reasons for this. First, the Cowboys did Bryant no favors by waiting a month into free agency to release him. Had he been let go following the season, I believe that some team (perhaps Carolina, Oakland or the Los Angeles Rams) would have attempted to acquire his services. Now Bryant finds himself on the outside looking in, as most teams have either already filled their receiver needs or plan to in next week’s NFL Draft.

Another reason Bryant is still on the market is the concern due to his recent struggles. From 2012-2014, Dez was a monster. He played all 48 regular season games in that span, averaging 81.98 receiving yards per game and scoring an incredible 41 touchdowns. However, the last three years have not gone nearly as well. He has averaged just 53.55 receiving yards per game and scored just 17 touchdowns in 38 games during that span. How much responsibility Bryant himself should bear for his declining numbers is up for debate.

The 2015 season was a bust all around. Bryant broke his foot in Week 1, and by the time he came back, quarterback Tony Romo was lost as well. Bryant had to deal with Matt Cassel for the majority of his snaps, and the results were about what you would expect. 2016 was the year of rookie sensations Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott. However, as impressive as Prescott was in his rookie campaign, he and Bryant never truly developed the rapport one would typically associate with a quarterback and his star receiver. Overall, Bryant has caught just 49.3 percent of targets since 2015, down from 62.6 percent from 2012-2014.

Critics will point to an increase in drops last season and a lack of separation and game-breaking speed as evidence that Bryant is no longer a viable fantasy starter, but I disagree. Bryant was never an elite burner and is still one of the toughest receivers to bring down once he has the ball in his hands. Bryant is still just 29 years old, the same age as Antonio Brown and Julio Jones. It’s not as if we are talking about a receiver who is on his last legs. I think Bryant can still be an upper-echelon fantasy wide receiver in the right situation. Despite all of the negatives over the last two years, Bryant finished both 2016 and 2017 as fantasy’s overall WR25.

For fantasy purposes, I would like to see Bryant wind up in San Francisco or Green Bay. The 49ers still have the fourth-most salary cap space in the league but boast Pierre Garcon and Marquise Goodwin as their best two receiving threats. Goodwin was much improved a season ago and Garcon is a solid player, but I think Bryant would thrive with Jimmy Garoppolo as the centerpiece in Kyle Shanahan’s passing offense. Bryant would instantly become San Francisco’s go-to target in the red zone. 49ers’ wide receivers have caught a total of 15 touchdowns in the last two seasons. Bryant has totaled 14 in his last two “down” seasons while missing three games in the process.

In Green Bay, Davante Adams has proven that he can be a No. 1 wide receiver, but Aaron Rodgers and company have frequently been able to elicit high-end fantasy numbers from multiple wideouts. In two of the last four seasons, Green Bay has produced two top-seven overall wide receivers. Bryant may not be the clear-cut favorite for targets in Green Bay, but Rodgers has always had a knack for spreading the wealth. Bryant would be a good bet for double-digit touchdowns in the Packers’ always prolific passing attack.

However, Bryant seems hellbent on making the Cowboys pay for cutting him. It sounds like he wants to find a home with an NFC East team so that he can play Dallas twice a year. The New York Giants would probably make the most sense if that is, in fact, Bryant’s top priority, and the recent release of Brandon Marshall will only fuel speculation that there may be interest. A Dez-to-New York deal would likely appease Bryant’s revenge narrative, but it probably wouldn’t do much for his fantasy prospects. He would be playing second fiddle to Odell Beckham, Jr. and would be on the receiving end of passes from a declining Eli Manning. Should New York select standout running back Saquon Barkley with the second overall selection on Thursday, that would likely lower the ceiling for Bryant even more.

Washington may make some sense because they also reside in the NFC East. Unlike the Giants, Washington does not have an elite receiving threat on the outside, which would theoretically increase Bryant’s target share. Bryant’s fortunes could once again be boosted by having an accurate quarterback (in this case Alex Smith) serving up a healthy dose of catchable balls. But as would be the case in New York, I just do not see the ceiling in Washington that I envision in Green Bay or San Francisco. The same can also be said for less likely landing spots such as Indianapolis and Jacksonville.

Ultimately, Dez Bryant’s landing spot will likely play more of a role in his fantasy value than any perceived decline in skill. I believe that if Bryant ends up in Green Bay or San Francisco, he is squarely on the WR2 radar this season. I also feel the same way were he to end up in New England, but I do not see that happening. However, if he winds up anywhere else, he is likely no more than a boom or bust WR3 in 2018.

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