In his heyday, Dez Bryant was football’s preeminent touchdown-scoring receiver. Utilizing a rare combination of size, body control, and explosiveness, the mercurial superstar snagged an NFL-best 50 touchdown receptions for the Cowboys from 2011 to 2014, racking up an average of 84 catches and 1,216 yards per year. Bryant was one of the NFL’s ultimate all-around offensive playmakers. Had the Cowboys cut him loose back then, 31 teams would’ve lined up for the chance to add him to their offense.
It’s easy to forget all that now. Fast forward to the present, and Bryant’s skill set is a little more, let’s say, niche. He’s still got that size and body control, but a series of back and lower-body injuries have sapped the former All-Pro of some of his explosiveness—and his production has suffered. Over the past three years, he’s missed 10 games and averaged a relatively pedestrian 50 catches, 678 yards, and six touchdowns per season. It doesn’t help that he never developed much chemistry with Tony Romo replacement Dak Prescott, but that drop in effectiveness (and 10 dropped passes last season, per Football Outsiders) led to his unceremonious release in mid-April. Thirty-six days later, Bryant has yet to find a new home, and, apart from the reported multiyear offer he turned down with the Ravens, the market for his services has been tepid at best.
Part of that is due to the timing of his release: By the time Dallas tossed Bryant aside, a majority of teams had already spent the bulk of their free-agency budgets on other players and/or addressed their needs at the receiver position. Past that, his fiery, emotional demeanor and those post-breakup comments about a fractured Dallas locker room could scare off franchises that lack strong leadership or an established culture. An anonymous league evaluator suggested to Yahoo Sports’ Terez Paylor that Bryant needs to land on a team “with an experienced quarterback that won’t take any [expletive] from him.”
That might be true, but probably more importantly, Bryant needs to pair himself up with a quarterback who throws with both anticipation and pinpoint accuracy. In the early part of his career, Bryant got away with being a subpar route runner simply because he was so much more explosive than everyone around him, but of late, defenders have closed the athleticism gap. Bryant’s game is dependent on more basic hitch routes, jump-ball nine-routes, and slants, and while he’s working on refining his route-running this offseason, his top priority should be to sign with a team whose signal-caller isn’t afraid to throw it up to him even when he draws tight coverage. That’s key because, as Romo recently explained, “Dez is never actually covered, even when he’s covered. That’s a rare trait. If he was singled up, if you could put the ball in a certain spot, he could always get it.”
Bryant may not thrive on separation at this point in his career, but he hasn’t forgotten how to time his jump, elevate, and reel in an end zone pass over a cornerback—and he still knows how to use his frame to ward off a defender and catch a slant on third down to move the chains. In the right situation, the 29-year old receiver could thrive. Here are four landing spots that I think make the most sense.
Green Bay Packers
There may not be a quarterback better suited to maximize Bryant’s talents than Aaron Rodgers, particularly in the red zone. The Packers’ superstar QB is one of the league’s best at throwing into tight coverage, and it’s not hard to picture Rodgers tossing back shoulder fades or end zone corner teardrops to the 6-foot-2, 220 pound pass catcher. That’s exactly why the recently retired Jason Witten picked Green Bay as his former teammate’s future landing spot. “I still believe Dez can high-point the football as good as any other wide receiver in the National Football League,” Witten said. “So, you partner him up with Jimmy Graham and Rodgers, I think that offense can put up a lot of points.” I certainly agree with the logic.
Graham’s a premier red zone isolation-route specialist, and, as Witten points out, Rodgers and head coach Mike McCarthy could present problems for a defense by sending another similarly skilled target out to the other side of the field. And that’s not even mentioning Davante Adams or Randall Cobb. And yes, Adams and Cobb are both entrenched on the depth chart, so Bryant would have to learn to live with a situational role in the passing game. But if he’s still looking for revenge against his former team, playing for the rival Packers could be a good start. I’m intentionally passing up an opportunity to make a Dez Caught It joke.
Speaking of Graham: It took the Seahawks about two and a half years to figure out how to best utilize their elite red zone mismatch threat—he caught 10 touchdowns last season, the majority coming on end zone fade or back-shoulder routes from inside the 5-yard line—and then they promptly let him leave in free agency. The big tight end’s departure creates a hole in Seattle’s passing game arsenal, and Pete Carroll and Co. failed to add anyone who can come close to replicating what Graham did for Russell Wilson up close to the goal line. Bryant could rectify that situation, and he’d give the team a big-bodied threat on third downs all over the rest of the field, too.
Wilson’s no stranger to throwing passes or handing off to strong, at-times-demanding personalities (Marshawn Lynch, Percy Harvin, and Doug Baldwin all come to mind), and he’s an excellent, accurate anticipation passer who’s capable of taking advantage of Bryant’s unique skill set. Assuming the team is willing to take on the risk Bryant brings as a potential distraction, the former Cowboy could be just what that passing attack is missing.
Should Andrew Luck make it back onto the field this season, he’ll have to make do with a group of pass catchers made up of, basically, T.Y. Hilton ... and a bunch of big question marks. The Colts need more depth and talent at receiver.
Of course, Bryant’s not going to solve all of the Colts’ potential passing-game problems. But for a team that plays in a division against defensive backs like Jalen Ramsey, A.J. Bouye, Johnathan Joseph, Kareem Jackson, Tyrann Mathieu, Malcolm Butler, and Logan Ryan—among others—it wouldn’t hurt to have another physical, post-up player like Bryant who can win with size even when there’s blanket coverage. And Luck, when healthy, would have no problem putting the ball up for him so he can make a play.
Los Angeles Chargers
Philip Rivers was able to keep the lead-footed, late-career version of Antonio Gates involved in the Chargers offense over the past few years precisely because of his ability to throw with anticipation, so I like his chances of syncing up with the (much faster) current version of Bryant, too. Rivers is an aggressive, fearless passer—and, while that gunslinger style sometimes leads to interceptions, the wily veteran quarterback has never hesitated to throw the ball to the pass catchers even when coverage is tight.
Sure, adding Bryant might push Mike Williams back down the depth chart for another season—but L.A. looks ready to contend right now, and it can’t necessarily bank on getting a huge jump from last year’s first-rounder, who missed big chunks of his first season to injury and caught just 11 passes. Bryant is much more of a known quantity, especially in the red zone, which is where the Chargers struggled most last year, finishing 28th in the NFL in touchdown percentage in that area of the field. Lined up opposite Keenan Allen and alongside tight end Hunter Henry, the Chargers could do worse than making Bryant Rivers’s third option.
Besides, after watching the Rams add Ndamukong Suh, Marcus Peters, and Aqib Talib over the past few months, it wouldn’t hurt for the Chargers to add a big-name player like Bryant to generate some excitement among its new fan base in L.A.