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Running the Numbers: How Much Should Dez Get Targeted?

Posted Oct 8, 2013

With 141 yards on 10 targets in Week 5 against the Broncos, wide receiver Dez Bryant continued his remarkable run of efficiency. For the number of targets he sees, Bryant’s ability to maximize the value of his looks has been incredible.

The Cowboys actually don’t target Bryant all that much when you consider his dominance, though. With 46 targets, he’s currently ranked 10th in the NFL among wide receivers, just two more than the Bears No. 2 receiver Alshon Jeffery. Bryant ranked 11th among receivers in targets in 2012 and 28th two seasons ago.

Here’s how Bryant’s targets/game have increased over his career.

Pretty obvious trend. Despite the jump in targets, though, most people seem to agree that the Cowboys need to feed Bryant the ball even more. Even when he’s double-teamed, it seems like Bryant offers a positive expectation when he’s targeted.

Since 2010, here’s the frequency with which Bryant has been targeted per game.

The distribution here unsurprisingly resembles a bell curve. In the majority of his games, Bryant sees somewhere between four and nine targets. With those looks, he’s been able to produce at an amazingly efficient rate.

Take a look at Tony Romo’s passer rating when throwing to Bryant over the past three seasons.

This is one of the most incredible charts you’ll see on any receiver; over the past three seasons, the lowest passer rating Romo has recorded when targeting Bryant was 110.8! The Romo-to-Bryant connection that year still ranked eighth-best in the NFL. Last season, the duo was third. In 2013, they’re second behind Denver’s Peyton Manning to Demaryius Thomas.

 

What’s the Sweet Spot?

When a receiver is performing at a level as high as Bryant, it’s pretty clear that he should be targeted more often. But it’s not like the Cowboys can throw to Bryant on every play (well, probably not, anyway) since defenses would adjust.

As I’ve discussed in the past, there’s a point known as the Nash equilibrium at which total production can be maximized. We know that Bryant’s efficiency will eventually decline as he sees more targets, but that’s OK.

Bryant’s current level of efficiency – a league-leading rate over the past three years – is so high that it makes sense to feed him more and more until the other receivers can produce at the same level because they see so much single coverage. If Miles Austin, Terrance Williams and Jason Witten’s can’t replicate Bryant’s efficiency at any point, even if singled up while Bryant sees constant double teams, then the ’Boys should just force the ball to Bryant.

At a certain point, however, it just wouldn’t make sense to continue targeting Bryant if defenses adjust in extreme ways. But we haven’t even come close to reaching that point. Here’s how Bryant has performed at specific target intervals over the past three years. The left side of the graph represents his yards per target, a great measure of efficiency.

You can see Bryant has actually been at his most efficient with fewer targets (between two and five). That’s somewhat misleading since he was likely targeted when wide open in those games. Nonetheless, we would indeed expect higher efficiency with fewer targets and declining efficiency as targets increase.

It’s interesting to see that Bryant has had greater efficiency when seeing between nine and 12 targets than between six and eight. Why? My guess is that when he sees relatively few targets (between six and eight), it’s because defenses are often doubling him or playing him more aggressively in some manner. That’s what happened in the games against the Giants and Rams this year, a pair of contests in which Bryant combined for only 14 targets and 60 yards.

In the games in which Bryant sees more targets, it often means he’s also seeing easier coverage or just finding a way to get open. He had between nine and 12 targets against the Chiefs, Chargers and Broncos, and he averaged 121 yards and 1.67 touchdowns in those games.

The final drop in efficiency when Bryant sees 13-plus targets is likely representative of the Cowboys’ big losses. When Dallas is losing late in games, Romo is obviously forced to throw a lot of low-percentage passes, many times to Bryant.

The best way to visualize Bryant’s dominance is to compare him to the Cowboys’ other receivers.

In his rookie year, Bryant was producing at around the same level as Austin and Witten. Despite increased defensive attention, Bryant has obviously emerged as a far superior option since then.

An interesting point here is that, over the past three seasons, Austin and Witten have still produced at a lower level than Bryant at his worst. That’s evidence of 1) the declining receiving ability of Austin and Witten, and 2) Bryant’s ability to outperform his teammates even when he’s often double-teamed.

There are many factors that dictate yards per target, and this is far from conclusive evidence that Dallas needs to target Bryant at all costs. But it does suggest that he’s at least capable of producing numbers comparable to his teammates when double-teamed.

The Cowboys need to get Bryant more targets however possible. When he sees single coverage – any time he sees single coverage – Romo should probably be looking his way. At this point, Bryant is so much more efficient than any other player on the Cowboys that it would be a huge mistake to not increase his targets to a league-leading level.

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