A few weeks ago, Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant claimed that he could potentially break out for over 2,000 receiving yards and 20 touchdowns in 2013. Let me start by telling you right off the bat that he's right. Any statistician would tell you that there's a non-zero probability of Bryant posting a 2,000/20 line, which means that the receiver is correct in labeling it a "possibility."
It's also possible that Tony Romo and Kyle Orton get injured in the first quarter of a game and a non-quarterback comes in to throw for 250 yards, so we really need to figure out howpossible Bryant's dream season really is. There's an enormous difference between a 1-in-a-million chance and a 1-in-100 chance, so let's figure out which one is closer to reflecting reality.
There are two ways to make this determination. The first is to simply look back to see how many players have crossed those thresholds in the past. The record for receiving yards in a season was set by Calvin Johnson just last year when he produced 1,964 yards, meaning no one has ever hauled in 2,000 yards in one year. Of course, the NFL has changed quite a bit lately and it's not unreasonable to think that some receiver, Bryant or not, will cross 2,000 yards within the next decade.
The record for receiving touchdowns in a season is 23 by Randy Moss in 2007. Only two players, Moss and Jerry Rice, have ever crossed the 20-touchdown barrier. If we assume such a threshold has truly been breakable since, say, 1980, and that only a team's true No. 1 receiver could accomplish it, we're looking at right around 1-in-1,000 odds. When you factor in the changing landscape of the NFL and the fact that Bryant is one of the league's most dynamic receivers, you could argue that his chances are better than that, perhaps even by a wide margin.
The other way to determine the likelihood of Bryant's 2,000/20 season is to project him as normal and then work from there. As in my projection of Miles Austin, we can use some math to come up with a "typical" 2013 season for Bryant.
Bryant saw 137 targets last year. Even though the Cowboys were down a lot in 2012 and thus forced to throw the ball often, there's a good chance we'll see Bryant's total targets increase. He's now the clear No. 1 option on offense, so his target rate will probably resemble the nine per game that he saw over the second half of the 2012 season – good for a total of 144 passes thrown his way.
Bryant caught 67.2 percent of his 2012 targets, but that rate will probably decline in 2013. First, few No. 1 receivers continually post such efficiency simply because they often see a lower quality of targets than other receivers. When Romo looks to someone to make a play in a low-upside situation, it will typically be Bryant. Last year, only two true No. 1 wideouts had a higher catch rate than Bryant: Andre Johnson and Demaryius Thomas. A bunch of No. 2 wide receivers checked in above Bryant – Eric Decker, Josh Morgan, Golden Tate, Jordy Nelson – but those sorts of receivers usually have a higher catch rate because they see superior targets. When all is said and done, Bryant's catch rate will probably hover somewhere around 64 percent, meaning the most likely catch total is exactly what he had in 2012: 92.
Last year, Bryant posted 10.1 yards per target. That's really a standard number for an elite wide receiver, although Bryant could see a slight decrease in efficiency due to increased defensive attention. If we drop that number just a bit to 9.8, Bryant would be in for a 1,411-yard season.
Bryant converted 13.0 percent of his catches into touchdowns in 2012, nearly matching his career mark of 13.5 percent. With the Cowboys likely throwing deep to Bryant more often and targeting him even more in the red zone, I actually anticipate his touchdown rate jumping to 15.0 percent this year. That would make 14 the most likely touchdown total for Bryant in 2013.
So using a little math, we've got an initial projection for Bryant: 92 receptions for 1,411 yards and 14 scores, a phenomenal season that tops his 2012 breakout campaign, but a far cry from 2,000 and 20.
None of this means that Bryant can't reach those marks, though. Based on the typical distribution of wide receiver stats, we can estimate the odds of Bryant reaching each of the totals. If Bryant sees 180 targets and manages 11.2 yards per target, for example, he'll eclipse the 2,000-yard barrier. Similarly, if he catches 110 passes and takes 18.2 percent of them into the end zone, he'd haul in 20 touchdowns. [embedded_ad]
Based on his projections and past receiving numbers, the odds of Bryant checking in with over 2,000 yards aren't good, perhaps around 1-in-250. He'd need to see either an exorbitant number of targets or catch a near-record percentage of his targets, perhaps 75 percent or so.
The probability of Bryant reaching 20 touchdowns might not be as low as you think, however. Even if he catches the exact same number of passes as he did in 2012, it's not unreasonable to believe that Bryant could see an abnormal surge in touchdown rate to 21.8 percent, giving him 20 touchdowns. If he can catch even more passes, which is certainly possible, that required rate could drop to as low as 17 percent.
Ultimately, no one thinks it's likely that Bryant will really post either 2,000 yards or 20 touchdowns, but the idea that it's impossible is wrong. Bryant would need a magical season to even approach 2,000 yards, but the chances of him finding his way into the end zone 20 times could be about as good as hitting on a single number in roulette.