We have another exciting TFA throwdown. In this edition, we have Dez Bryant (written by Matt Okada) vs. Amari Cooper (Written by Zack Marmer).
— Matt Okada (@FantasySensei) June 26, 2017
Dez Bryant (FFC ADP – 2.06)
By Matt Okada Follow @FantasySensei
Dez Bryant is far and away one of the most polarizing personas in the NFL, and consequently in the fantasy football community. He made SportingNews.com’s recent list of the Top 20 Most Hated NFL players (#16), and has been decried by the masses (not residing in Dallas) for being cocky and volatile. Here’s the thing. There are three adjectives that identify nearly every superstar receiver in the NFL. Cocky. Volatile. Damn-good-at-football. I’m here to prove why the latter should define your view of Bryant. I should also hope to prove why it makes him not only the superior pick in this TFAThrowdown, but one of the best fantasy picks of 2017.
Throw up the X
In fantasy football, the most effective way to put up points is with touchdowns — much like real football, come to think of it — and in this metric, Dez Bryant can only be described as elite. Here is a list of players with more receiving touchdowns than Dez since his rookie season of 2010: Rob Gronkowski. Yes, that’s it. Still not convinced? Try this one. Jerry Rice, Randy Moss, and Terrell Owens are the top three players in career receiving touchdowns, and they scored at a rate of 0.71, 0.65, and 0.69 TD/game, respectively. Bryant currently sits at 0.69, a rate which also eclipses that of Calvin Johnson (0.61), Marvin Harrison (0.67), and of course, Amari Cooper (0.34). As recently as 2014, Bryant led the entire league in receiving TDs with 16, posting the most dominant of three Pro-Bowl seasons in his career to date. Say what you will about his antics and injuries (and we will address those), this man is an end zone monster.
“But Matt,” you say, “those were the Romo days. This new era of Dak and Zeke is a different story.” While I’ll concede it took a little while for Dak and Dez to get on the same page last year, take a look at the latter part of the season.
In Weeks 10-16, after reestablishing chemistry following Bryant’s return from a knee issue, the duo connected for six regular-season TDs, a clip of 0.85 per game. They then proceeded to torch the Packers in the playoffs to the tune of nine catches for 132 yards and two scores. As Dak grows and the connection between the young QB and his star wideout improves, things can only get better. Plus, take a quick look at the aforementioned best year of Bryant’s career (2014): 88 catches, 1,320 yards, 16 TDs. What else was going in Dallas that year? Anyone? How about DeMarco Murray gobbling up 449 total touches (6th most of all time) en route to 2,261 total yards and 13 scores. Even if Zeke comes close to those numbers, which would be monumental, history shows Dez can thrive in an obscenely run-heavy scheme.
Less D in Dallas
The Cowboys’ surprisingly solid defense in 2016 was one of the keys to their 12-4 record, and to a couple other numbers as well: 30.6 pass attempts per game (30th in the league) and 47.7% opponent time of possession (3rd lowest in the league). Supported by a defense allowing the 8th-fewest points per game, the Dallas offense was content to pound the ground with a league-leading 499 rushing attempts, curtailing Bryant’s ceiling. With rookie phenom Ezekiel Elliott leading the charge, Dallas will not be looking to change that strategy much, but game-script may dictate otherwise. The Cowboys defense has been wrecked this offseason, with the losses of their strongest interior D-lineman in Terrell McClain and four of the top six members of their secondary (Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne, Barry Church, and JJ Wilcox). Meanwhile, the NFC East is suddenly considered one of the most competitive divisions in the league and has seen an influx of offensive star power — Brandon Marshall (Giants), Alshon Jeffery (Eagles), and Terrelle Pryor (Redskins), to name a few — contributing heavily to the Dallas schedule considered by many to be the most difficult for any team in 2017.
So what does all this mean for Dez Bryant? Essentially, it means less running-the-clock-out in Dallas, a positive regression to the mean in pass attempts, and an increase in opportunity for Dez. When Dak was slinging the pigskin, Dez accounted for a 25% target share — placing him firmly in WR1 territory — but in such a run-first offense, this only equated to 96 targets over the course of his 13 games. If Dallas’ defense does suffer (and by “if,” I mean “when”), the team will be forced to throw more often, which can only mean more catches, yards, and sweet, sweet TDs for Bryant. While we’ve shown Dez can be a WR1 even in a run-first system, a nominal bump in pass attempts and a healthy season for No. 88 could add up to 140+ targets, which would translate to downright elite numbers.
Keeping the doctor away
Of course, this brings us to most people’s biggest fear with Dez: injuries. Over the past two seasons, Bryant has dealt with foot, back, and knee issues that have cost him ten games and jaded fantasy owners everywhere. Some have attributed this losing battle with health to his aggressive and fearless playstyle, a key cog in his ability to dominate the end zone. And to be fair, his risk factor in 2017 is higher than some. But when it comes down to it, I’m simply not concerned. For one, Bryant entered each of the last two seasons in less than ideal situations: a contract holdout led him to skip all of spring camp and OTAs in 2015 and he was recovering from foot surgery coming into 2016. This year, in Bryant’s own words, “I’m not dealing with really anything. I feel damn good. I know once I’m 100 percent, I’m hard to deal with.”
Moreover, recency bias has blinded fantasy owners to the fact that Dez played all 16 games every season from 2012-2014, and played them hard. He averaged 91/1,312/13.7 over that span, numbers that would have made him the fifth-highest scoring WR in PPR formats last year. Bryant is still in the heart of his prime at 28 years old and is fully capable of putting together a complete, healthy campaign in 2017. If he does, he’s a lock for high-end WR1 status.
Is Amari Cooper the safer pick in this TFAThrowdown? Maybe. His first two seasons in the NFL have produced consistent WR2 results, he has a young star at QB, and has yet to miss a game to injury. In all honesty, I have little against Cooper except for his apparent disdain for the end zone. But safety doesn’t win fantasy championships — boldness and value do. With an ADP of 18th overall, and a fantasy potential in the neighborhood of last year’s Mike Evans or OBJ, Dez Bryant is quite possibly the most valuable second-round pick on draft boards this year. He too has a young star at QB and has proven he is capable of 16-game, elite WR1 seasons. I expect to see Dez’s numbers skyrocket, and would not be shocked to see him crest 300 fantasy points in PPR formats. Even with a great third-year jump, Cooper’s limited value in the red zone will translate to limited value in fantasy, and leave him short of Bryant’s potential. #ThrowUpTheX!
Projected Stat-line: 88 receptions / 1,295 yards / 13 TDs
Amari Cooper (FFC ADP – 2.07)
By Zack Marmer Follow @leagueedge
Is he one of the league’s top rising talents destined for greatness? Or will he forever be on the cusp of the NFL’s elite? Amari Cooper is amongst the more polarizing fantasy picks again this year. The reasons against him are that he isn’t a huge factor in the Red Zone and that he is out-targeted by his teammate Michael Crabtree. Amari’s naysayers can point to his first two years in the league and compare to his teammate where Crabtree has the edge in touchdowns (17 to 11) and targets. (291 to 262)
What most of the camp that is hesitant to draft Cooper won’t admit is that they are really just disappointed that he hasn’t become Odell Beckham Jr. Drafted #4 overall in the 2015 draft, expectations were sky-high for the Alabama prospect. What has he done with them? Only 2-straight 1,000 yard seasons, a feat matched by only 6 other players since the AFL/NFL merger back almost 50 years ago. Those players? John Jefferson, Randy Moss, Marques Colston, A.J. Green, Odell Beckham Jr. and Mike Evans. Seeing as two of those (Evans and OBJ) came from the legendary WR draft class off 2014 (the year before Cooper was drafted) expectations for immediate NFL success became almost the standard. By almost all measurables, Cooper hs been nothing short of an anomaly, and he just turned 23 years old. Dez Bryant, by comparison, didn’t sniff 1,000 yards until his 3rd NFL season by which time he was 25 years old.
Location, location, location
What’s the first rule of real estate? Hint: check the title of this section. What does that have to do with predicting Amari Cooper’s 2017 fantasy success? Well, it’s more like situation, situation, situation. The Raiders situation on the surface seems pretty similar to the Cowboys situation. Both have a young QB, outstanding offensive lines, like to lean on the run game, and have average (if not overrated) defenses. So which receiver is in the better situation? Dez Bryant is the most established target but in his offense, Cole Beasley, Jason Witten, Dak Prescott, and Ezekiel Elliott all command chunks of the offense whether it be via rush or catch. In Oakland, the only real competition will come from Michael Crabtree and Marshawn Lynch.
The difference in these players will be how they accumulate their fantasy points. While Dez has more competition for attention in the big D, he should be viewed as a top red-zone target. Zeke and Dak may pilfer some easy scores, but Dez is still an elite red-zone option through the air, and it likely won’t be Beasley, Witten, or Terrance Williams who get anywhere near the red-zone targets Dez will get.
Amari, on the other hand, will be a go-to option between the 20’s all year. Reports out of camp are that Cooper has bulked up in hopes of winning more 50/50 balls in the red-zone. That’s good news because if Cooper can even get his TD total in the 8-10 range, he should easily outscore Dez in most formats.
What’s the catch?
If your league awards PPR points, Amari is really the easy choice. Cooper averaged 5.13 catches per game to Dez’s 3.85 in 2016. I see both catch rates increasing this year as both will look to get more involved in their respective team’s offense. With a year of starting experience under his belt, Dak will surely look Dez’s way a bit more than he did last year. Dallas played a conservative offense that played to the team’s strengths, but I would expect them to take more chances and let Dez do what he does best: win via athletic prowess on jump balls.
Cooper saw nearly identical targets his first 2 years in the league, but year 3 is where I foresee the Raiders letting Cooper evolve into a truly elite player in terms of statistical dominance.
Deciding Factor: predictability
My rule when constructing my roster in redraft leagues is to go safe for my first 3 picks. You won’t win your league with your first 3 picks, but you can very easily lose your league if you hit a dud with one of those. Your first 3 picks should be all about safe, predictable production with upside for more. Amari Cooper fits that bill perfectly in the mid-late 2nd round. You know you are getting at least 1,000 yards and 5 scores, but the upside is there for him to explode for 1,300-1,600 yards and 10 scores.
One of the writers I respect most in this industry is TJ Hernandez who recently published this article on predictable stats for wide receivers. The most predictable stats year over year are:
targets per game (.66)
receptions per game (.62)
yards per game (.58)
Those correlate to Cooper’s stats being very predictable. Bryant’s specialty is touchdowns. You know what the year-over-year correlation is for touchdowns for receivers? .28. That is far from what anyone would consider predictable even for one of the best red-zone threats in the NFL, as evidenced by having the same amount of touchdowns as Cooper has since Cooper was drafted. (albeit in 10 fewer games, which doesn’t even speak to Dez’s injury concerns)
At the end of the day, therefore, Cooper is the much safer play. Take him instead of Dez, then look for high-upside players in later rounds to give your team a good balance of steady production and upside. If Dez has a season anything like the last 2 years again, you could be kicking yourself all the way to missing out on the fantasy playoffs.
Projected Stat-line: 98 receptions / 1,380 yards / 8 TDs
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