The Patriots’ decision to release wide receiver Kenny Britt marked the third wide receiver cut by the team since veterans reported to training camp on July 25th.
Britt joins former Eagles standout Jordan Matthes and the once upon a time rising star Malcolm Mitchell as receivers that couldn’t stay healthy long enough to get with the program in Foxboro.
With the Britt release, a thin wide receiver position in New England got even thinner, and the rumblings for three-time Pro Bowler Dez Bryant became roars from many Patriots fans in the immediate aftermath.
Bryant, currently a free agent, hasn’t been able to find a home since the Cowboys cut their franchise leader in touchdown receptions in April.
Things with Dez are as they always are, complicated.
The former Cowboys star reportedly turned down a deal from the Baltimore Ravens only to have his market evaporate into nothing following the 2018 NFL Draft.
Money, and questions about Bryant’s ability to play at a high level, leave him without a job with the 2018 regular season fast approaching.
The first part of the Dez equation could end all discussions, if there ever were any, with the Patriots.
If Bryant wants a big-money deal to play football in 2018, he’s not getting it from Bill Belichick.
But that doesn’t answer the second part of the debate; can Dez help the Patriots on the field this season?
And after reviewing his 2017 season in Dallas, the answer to that question is yes.
No, Dez isn’t the Patriots’ savior at wide receiver, but it’s apparent that he’d be more productive than the guys currently behind Julian Edelman and Chris Hogan on the depth chart.
Below, I’ll take you through my defense of Dez’s ability to still play at a high level while also pointing out some of the reasons why he remains unsigned.
Bryant has never been known as a great route runner, but after evaluating his 2017 tape, he graded out better in my system in that regard than I expected.
The notion that Dez can no longer separate isn’t a total myth, but it was more of a problem for him in the deep portion of the field than it was on short and intermediate routes.
Bryant has made a living on a limited route tree that features a high-volume of slant routes, which set up fade routes downfield for almost all deep threat receivers.
Although Dez isn’t the deep threat he once was, his footwork and ability to separate on slants is still there.
On this play, Bryant is going to easily separate from 49ers cornerback Dontae Johnson, who’s now a member of the Seattle Seahawks. To get away from Johnson’s press coverage, Dez uses a quick outside jab/stutter step move with his shoulders and arms/hands selling the fake throughout the beginning of his route stem. He then pushes vertically for three steps before cutting on an angle across the field on the slant for a 12-yard gain. Bryant displays quick feet and good cadence in his route to leave Johnson in the dust.
Along with slants, you’ll also see Bryant run a lot of curls, another staple to a perimeter receivers repertoire.
Here, Dez is matched up with former Rams corner Trumaine Johnson, who just signed a massive contract with the New York Jets. Bryant is going to start this route with an elongated crow hop to gain inside leverage before scissoring his hands/arms through to jump onto Johnson’s outside shoulder, before throwing on the breaks. The quick inside-out move puts Johnson in a blender and leads to an easy completion for Bryant and the Cowboys.
There’s plenty of evidence from last season of Bryant creating separation on underneath routes that make you question those that say he has lost all of his ability to separate downfield.
Working the Sideline
Another area of Dez’s game that still strikes me as a positive is his ability to work the sideline, whether that be finding pockets in the coverage or on back shoulder throws.
Let’s start with finding soft spots in coverage with this example against now Rams corner Marcus Peters, one of the top cover corners in the NFL a year ago.
Peters brackets Dez with safety help over the top, playing him to the inside while the safety takes away the deep part of the field. Bryant is going to recognize the coverage, get down the sideline into that pocket between the corner and safety, and then cuts off his route to the sideline in a soft spot in the zone. That’s a savvy veteran move to be able to diagnose the coverage mid-route and find an area along the sideline for Dak to deliver him the ball.
Another strength for Dez is his ability to catch the back shoulder, a throw that we’ve seen Tom Brady perfect throughout his career with the Patriots.
Whether it’s in the red zone or in between the 20’s, when the corner plays over the top of Bryant he’s going to look to work the sideline on the back shoulder like he does above. Dez fights through the illegal contact, which draws a flag, and sells the fade, before opening his hips to the football as Prescott throws him open on the back shoulder. He also picks up 17 yards after the catch on the play. Due to his size and strength, Bryant is surprisingly effective at gaining yards after the catch despite a lack of speed and elusiveness.
Red Zone Threat
Bryant has made the bulk of his money in the NFL by being one of the premier red zone threats in the game, and he’d combine with Rob Gronkowski to make a dynamic receiving duo down by the goal line.
Over the last seven seasons, Bryant has dominated NFL defensive backs on jump balls in the end zone. And when given the opportunity, he can still go up and get it with the best of them.
Former Redskins cornerback Bashaud Breeland found this out the hard way last season. Bryant runs a three-step stem slow playing this fade route holding Breeland inside by running his stem towards the cornerbacks inside shoulder. Then, he releases on the fade and goes up over Breeland’s back to haul in an inaccurate pass from Dak Prescott. Vintage Dez.
But it’s not just the jump balls that can lead to touchdowns from Dez on the goal line. In the series of plays above, you are going to see him run a straight go route, work the back of the end zone and catch a back shoulder for touchdowns. He can still help your team inside the 20.
Inability to Separate Downfield
The narrative that Dez can no longer separate stems from his inability to run by defensive backs, and that’s a fair criticism of his game at this point of his career.
Bryant’s ability to stack defensive backs has mostly disappeared, as his tape is littered with examples of him struggling to separate on goes, fades, and double-moves. Corners aren’t afraid of Bryant’s deep speed anymore, and they stay over the top rather easily as shown in the examples above.
Unfortunately for Dez, the juice in his legs likely won’t return to what it once was, and it turns most of his deep patterns into 50/50 balls that are inherently inefficient pass attempts.
Inconsistent Route Running
Another aspect of Dez’s game that would concern me as it pertains to his fit in New England would be his tendency to give up on routes or not run routes through the end of the play. I don’t think effort is the issue with Dez, but sometimes his attention to detail isn’t always there.
On this play, Dez is going to run a slant, and it looks like Prescott makes an inaccurate throw. However, if you watch closely, Bryant doesn’t run all the way through on his route, and Dak throws the ball where he thinks Dez is going to be. The laziness on the play forces Dez to go diving after the ball, and it leads to an incompletion.
The Patriots made it a point over the last calendar year to add some big-body targets to their wide receivers corps that has notoriously been one of the shortest groups in the NFL.
That’s why it has long been my stance that Dez Bryant’s skill set, which is redundant to Kenny Britt’s, was something that the Patriots already had with the receivers on the team.
However, now that Britt and Jordan Matthews are gone, the Patriots are back to being a finesse team at wide receiver, and Bryant could bring some physicality and vertically to the position.
As stated in the intro, Dez would have to be willing to take significantly less money than he’s used to if he wants to play for the Patriots.
But if you read into his social media posts, it appears that the former Cowboys star is campaigning for a contract with his favorite player, Tom Brady.
Bryant isn’t a savior. He’s not going to completely erase all the concerns that people have with the Patriots’ current wide receiver depth chart, and he comes with plenty of question marks of his own.
But he showed enough last season to suggest that he’d produce as a veteran wideout that can do some things that others currently in the locker room simply cannot.