(Editor's Note: This is the eighth of an 11-part series analyzing every position on the Cowboys roster, providing a quick look back before addressing the needs of each spot on the field and how it can be improved heading into the 2016 season. Today we examine the wide receivers.)
The first order of business is Dez Bryant's health. The week after the season he underwent another procedure on his surgically-repaired right foot and a cleanup surgery on his right ankle. Bryant should be available for the offseason program, though it's possible the team would monitor his workload with an eye toward training camp.
Bryant will be entering the second season of a five-year, $70 million deal he signed last summer. The rest of the season-long depth chart is under contract through at least next season: Terrance Williams (2017), Cole Beasley (2018), Lucky Whitehead (2017), Brice Butler (2016) and Devin Street (2017).
Let's start with Bryant, the catalyst at the receiver position and really the entire downfield passing game. He was never really himself the entire season, first missing five games in September and October following surgery to repair the fifth metatarsal in his right foot that he fractured in the opener against the Giants. Bryant returned for eight straight games before sitting out the final two games with nagging right foot and ankle injuries. His final stat line over nine starts: a career-low 31 catches for 401 yards and 3 touchdowns.
Even dating back to training camp, Bryant never found a rhythm on the field. He missed virtually the entire offseason during contract negotiations, then sat out a large portion of training camp and preseason with a hamstring injury. Factor in his fractured foot in early September, and the star wideout simply had very little on-field time in 2015. That should change in 2016.
Bryant played with starting quarterback Tony Romo in only three games due to Romo's fractured left collarbone. Their injuries had a trickle-down effect on the entire offense. Without either there to consistently keep defenses honest, the field shrunk for the rest of the group. In nine of 16 games the Cowboys' leading receiver was a running back or tight end, an indication that the offense was forced to – or at times, chose to – settle for shorter throws.
He might be listed as a running back, but Lance Dunbar's season-ending knee injury in Week 4 hurt the passing game, too. Although it was early in the year, Dunbar was the team's leading receiver after four games (21 catches for 215 yards). He's scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent in March.
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Really, the entire group will look to rebound collectively. Bryant plans to put a frustrating 2015 behind him. A full and productive 2016 would help everyone else, including Terrance Williams lining up opposite No. 88 on the outside. Williams and Beasley tied for second in catches (52) behind Jason Witten (77); Beasley had the most touchdowns (5) and Williams the most receiving yards (840). Both are more effective when the full complement of skill players are on the field.
We've mentioned a healthy Bryant and Romo are the best possible upgrades on offense. It's possible the team could look to add another speedy wideout through the draft, but they'd also like to see development from their current reserve receivers. Lucky Whitehead made some things happen in space as a runner and receiver. Butler showed he could stretch the field but only appeared in five games due to a hamstring injury.
By The Numbers:
- In Romo's last full start of the season in Week 11 at Miami, he threw his 50th touchdown pass to Bryant and the duo passed Troy Aikman and Michael Irvin for the most quarterback-receiver touchdowns in franchise history. It took Romo and Bryant 68 games to score 50; Aikman and Irvin scored 49 in 128 games.
- Bryant also reached 400 career catches at Miami in his 80th career game – the fastest a player has reached that mark in franchise history.
- No real surprise with Romo and Bryant missing so many games: the Cowboys' pass plays over 20 yards dropped from 53 in 2014 to 40 in 2015. By comparison, their opponents had 55 of those plays.