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Spagnola: Don't Scoff At Bryant's Numbers

IRVING, Texas - Just the facts, and nothing but the facts on Dez Bryant.

He is 23 years old, and doesn't turn 24 until Nov. 4, meaning he played nearly his entire rookie season at age 21.

He played just two full seasons of college football, and then just three games in a third. That means, had he played four full seasons of college ball, 2011 would have been his NFL rookie season. If he had, as many young kids do, red-shirted a year and then spent four seasons in college, this would be his rookie season.

He had the shortened offseason here at The Ranch that first year in the league as most rookies do. He missed almost all of training camp his rookie year with an injury. He played in 12 games then in 2010, with just two starts, and then suffered a season-ending ankle injury in the 12th game. He had no organized offseason last year thanks to the NFL lockout, something a kid who played at Lufkin (Texas) High and just two full seasons of college ball at Oklahoma State sorely needed. Again, that is fact.

The Dallas Cowboys selected him with the 24th pick in the 2010 draft, the second wide receiver taken, just two picks after Demaryius Thomas. And this is fact, too, not my opinion: If the Cowboys had a top-10 pick that year, even top 12, they would have selected Earl Thomas, who went 14th to Seattle, not the ultra-raw Dez Bryant that high. Too risky. Let's remember, there were well-documented reasons why a kid with top-10 talent lasted until 24. It's not as if the Cowboys thought they were hoodwinking everyone else.

In his rookie season, which should have been his senior year at Oklahoma State had the NCAA not suspended him his junior season, Bryant caught 45 passes for 561 yards and six touchdowns, along with scoring two more on only 15 punt returns – playing in just those 12 games. His 45-reception total was one shy of Bob Hayes' franchise record for most receptions by a rookie (46). Give me just a little leeway here, but had he played one more game before suffering the fractured ankle on Dec. 5, he would have broken that record Hayes set in 1965.

In his second NFL season last year, Bryant caught 63 passes for 928 yards and nine touchdowns while playing in 15 games (13 starts). The 63 catches led all Cowboys wide receivers, and were just six short of matching the most by a Cowboys wide receiver (Miles Austin) in the past two seasons.

So let's total up those two-year numbers for a guy who basically had just two years of college experience: 108 catches for 1,489 yards and 15 receiving touchdowns in 27 games played.

Now then, let's put those numbers in some sort of historical perspective. We'll start with receivers who began their NFL careers with the Cowboys. The only guy I could find with better first two-year numbers than Bryant has a bust resting in the Pro Football Hall of Fame rotunda. And no, it's not Michael Irvin.

We're talkin' Hayes. Here were his numbers from the 1965-66 seasons: 111 catches for 1,981 yards and 25 touchdowns, the first 12 of those touchdowns setting the franchise record for a rookie receiver.

Next, Drew Pearson, whose name is in the Ring of Honor: 84, catches for 1,475 and four touchdowns. Then the Hall of Famer Irvin: 58 catches for 1,032 yards and seven touchdowns. Now there is an asterisk with Irvin, since he suffered a torn ACL in the sixth game of his rookie season.

And must stop here to pick a recent bone with someone saying Dez just can't stay healthy, a relative leap since there is only two years of evidence. Irvin was slowed his rookie year with a sprained ankle, played in only six games his second season and then, on PUP to start his third season, played in just 12 games in 1990, so 32 games in a three-year period.

Remember Alvin Harper, by the way a first-round pick, the No. 12 selection in 1991 on the genius of Jimmy Johnson? His first two-year numbers read: 55 catches for 888 yards and five touchdowns. And let's go one more. Tony Hill, a rookie in 1977, third-round pick out of Stanford: 48 catches, 844 yards and six touchdowns.

I'll refrain from saying, hmmm, right, cuz this is just the facts.

OK, let's resume our perspective march.

So now we'll compare Dez' two-year numbers with those posted by players currently ranked among the NFL's top 10 in career receptions. Only six of those in the top 10 had more receptions than Dez after two years: Randy Moss (149), Isaac Bruce (140), Marvin Harrison (137), Jerry Rice (135), Torry Holt (134) and Art Monk (114). But his 108 is more than the likes of Cris Carter, Tim Brown, Terrell Owens and Andre Reed.

His 1,489 yards are more than those posted by Carter, Reed, Brown and Owens. And when it comes to his 15 receiving touchdowns over those first two seasons, only Moss (28), Rice (18) and Bruce (16) had more.

Can I have another, hmmmm, while remembering basically two years of college ball, and just for comparison sake, Owens' two-year totals across the board read: 85 catches, 1,456 and 12 touchdowns.

OK, so Dez Bryant isn't Calvin Johnson. But if he were, the Cowboys never would have gotten their hands on him at No. 24, agree, two spots behind where Denver selected Thomas, the first receiver taken in 2010, who has totaled 54 catches for 834 yards and six touchdowns, in, if we're being honest though, a QB-challenged offense. As for Johnson's two-year numbers: 126 catches, 2,087 yards and 16 touchdowns. How about like, oh, Roddy White, second this past season in the NFL with 100 catches. His first two years in Atlanta: 59 catches, 952 yards and three touchdowns.

Steve Smith has had a pretty good career in Carolina, right? His first two seasons' totals: 64 catches, 1,026 and three touchdowns. Or Greg Jennings: 98 catches, 1,552 and 15 touchdowns. And Dez is in the ballpark of Brandon Marshall: 122 catches, 1,534 and nine touchdowns, but nowhere near Dwayne Bowe: 156 catches, 2,017 and 12 touchdowns.

Oh, let's go one more since a whole lot of folks got their panties in a wad when Minnesota's Percy Harvin said he wanted out of Minnesota before coming back to minicamp practice the next day smiling, wondering what all the fuss was about. His first two seasons: 131, 1,658 and 11 touchdowns, meaning his average per catch was 12.65 yards compared to Dez' 13.8.

There, those are the facts, not perception, but cold, hard facts.

So while everyone wants Dez to instantly be Michael Irvin, remember Irvin wasn't instantly Drew Pearson, and Pearson wasn't instantly Bob Hayes. Not until Irvin's fourth year did he catch as many as eight touchdowns in a season, one fewer than Dez caught in his second, and never more than the 10 he totaled in 1995. Pearson, in 11 years loaded with so many memorable catches, never caught more than eight touchdown passes in a season, although his first five in the league were 14-game schedules. Remember, Dez had nine TDs this past season.

So this perception Dez will never become more than he is now is half-cocked, because if you factor in his limited college experience at Oklahoma State, he is a young receiver – a year younger than Irvin was his rookie season – with tremendous physical talent who has plenty of room to grow but has put up more than respectable numbers in his first two seasons.

Now I'm not smart enough to know where he is going to be in three more years, and I've only seen 28 of the Cowboys' 52 seasons. But I will venture to say Dez Bryant is the most physically-gifted receiver the Cowboys have ever had since Hayes, who had the one dimension that might have elevated him above Dez – uncommon, Olympic-gold speed. Irvin never made the catch Bryant did that one day this spring, when he went up way high on a comeback smoke screen to pull in what seemed like an errant pass with only his left hand. Man.

And I also know the quarterback has not given up on him, even though his confidence in Dez somewhat eroded by midway through last season when he realized he had to check himself counting on Dez to be where he's supposed to be, when he's supposed to be there.

Tony Romo told us last week while we were filming The Blitz, which can be seen on, "He just keeps improving and improving. He's a kid that I enjoy playing with because he wants to get better. He's always asking, 'Hey Tony, what can I do to be better?' I love playing with guys like him, Miles (Austin) and these guys. They want to be better themselves and they're trying to do anything they can to get better.

"The guys that really want to be great and have that ability to be great, you can't have enough of those guys. And we got a few of them. Dez is just a great kid like that. He's getting better and better every week."

That was quite obvious watching OTAs and the three minicamp practices. Dez was catching timing routes from Romo, back-shoulder throws, slants and most importantly, comeback routes that he repeatedly failed to read early last season. And the owner went way out of his way to point out Bryant being in so much better condition.

While most national observers, who really aren't close to the scene here whatsoever, seem to pile on Dez, how about Jerry Rice, who included Dez in his list of Top 6 receivers under the age of 26, putting the young guy in the same category with the likes Antonio Brown, Victor Cruz, A.J. Green, Harvin and Julio Jones.

So keep a close eye on Dez. He's on the verge.

And that's a fact, in my opinion.

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