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Why Dez Bryant does and doesn’t make sense for the 49ers

Breaking down the pros and cons of signing the former Cowboy.

NFL: Washington Redskins at Dallas Cowboys Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The rumor mill has been churning again on Dez Bryant potentially landing in San Francisco. There isn’t a great deal of substance or sources at this point; Mike Freeman of Bleacher Report claims, “the best guess from those around the league is Bryant will get his wish to play with the 49ers, but that isn’t a done deal by any means.”

As Bryant awaits a suitor, let’s look at some of the reasons the Niners would want to add the veteran wideout, and some of the reasons they’d want to steer clear.

Why adding Bryant makes sense

Immediate upgrade and depth at WR
While the 49ers are crowded at wide receiver, they’re still thin on overall talent.

Pierre Garçon is the best of the bunch, but he turns 32 in August and is coming off a neck injury. Marquise Goodwin had a breakout year in 2017 but suffered a nasty-looking concussion in the season finale—harkening back to his previous injury-riddled stint in Buffalo. Trent Taylor returns as a solid slot option in his second year. Dante Pettis brings big-play potential but has a slight frame and will need to adapt not only to life in the NFL, but to Kyle Shanahan’s robust playbook. The only names that really matter further down the depth chart are Aldrick Robinson and Kendrick Bourne. Both saw action last year and will battle for a roster spot (advantage goes to Bourne).

Dez Bryant, despite his decline in production the past couple season, gives this group a considerable upgrade in both talent and security. If, say, Garçon had to miss any time (knock on wood), would anyone really feel great about Goodwin, Taylor, and Pettis being the top 3?

Red-zone ability
In 2017, Bryant ranked 10th in the NFL in red zone targets with 20. He pulled down 11 of those targets and scored five touchdowns inside the 20. Almost one third (31.7 percent) of all the Dallas Cowboys’ pass attempts in the red zone were directed at Bryant—which ranked him fourth in the league.

At 6’2, 220 lbs, Bryant, alongside TE George Kittle, would be another big red-zone target for Jimmy Garoppolo. Despite the past couple seasons being “down years” in the scope of his career, he’s still a physically strong receiver who can catch in traffic and go up and fight for the ball. The ability to thrive in the red zone with Garoppolo could lead to more touchdowns instead of field goals — which could make a sizable difference in wins vs losses — which could ultimately make the difference between a playoff appearance or a spot on the couch in January.

Gas left in the tank
29 years old isn’t young for an NFL receiver, but it’s not old either. Plenty of wide receivers are still very much in their prime at that age. I’d never compare Dez Bryant to Jerry Rice but to bring context to the age discussion, Rice was 29 in 1991. The Hall of Fame wide receiver went on to have several seasons after ‘91 in which he posted career bests. With Bryant still unsigned, there’s a notion he’s washed up and doesn’t offer much to prospective teams. While he’s unlikely to replicate the success of his early career, it’s entirely possible he still has enough left—and the chip on his shoulder—to rebound with a couple more solid seasons.

Pairing with Garoppolo
Another factor in Dez Bryant’s drop-off is that it coincided with Dak Prescott’s ascension to the starting lineup in Dallas. Prescott is a good quarterback but he can struggle with finding his receivers and accuracy on contested passes. Garoppolo excelled at quick-release, timely passes; fitting the ball into tight windows routinely during his five games as starter. He’s also been very efficient at going through his progressions quickly. With separation being an issue at this point in Bryant’s career, the accuracy and quick delivery of Garoppolo at mid-range could elevate the embattled wide receiver’s game.

Why adding Dez doesn’t make sense

Attitude & track-record
Bryant’s locker room and off-the-field problems are well-documented. In 2012, he was arrested for domestic violence after pushing his mother during an altercation. The year prior, he and his friends were kicked out of a shopping center after a dispute with security, although no charges were pressed.

To be fair, those have been resolved and were in the first couple years of his career. Since then, the outspoken veteran has had locker room tirades and vocalized frustrations in the media and on Twitter. The way he’s viewed is similar to how Terrell Owens was perceived during his playing days. Owens may have had a stronger reputation for causing headaches but as a Hall of Fame receiver, teams were much more willing to put up with it for his on-field production. Bryant doesn’t have that luxury.

Locker room chemistry
Joe Staley, Fred Warner, Richard Sherman, Jimmy Garoppolo — the list of players and coaches who have lauded the attitude and culture of the locker room goes on and on. There’s a great deal of excitement. There’s a feeling that this team has something special; that they’re truly committed to the vision and to one another. Introducing a strong personality like Bryant, who’s known to publicly express dissatisfaction, could cause a significant rift. Garoppolo is only entering his first full season as a starter, Shanahan is only in his second year as a head coach, and the roster is littered with youth. Outside of Richard Sherman, who obviously plays on the opposite side of the ball, the 49ers may not have a person in the building who’s capable of reigning in Bryant.

Declining skills
Some of it may be due to the transition from Tony Romo to Prescott, but hands and speed have nothing to do with who is under center. Bryant has had his fair share of drops and his speed doesn’t scare anyone. He has difficulty separating from defenders, which he makes up for much like Anquan Boldin did for San Francisco—by outmuscling them and winning jump balls on contested catches. Bryant doesn’t do as a good job of it as Boldin did though.

The 3-time Pro Bowler has not registered a 1,000 yard season since 2014, although he might have hit the mark in 2016 had he not missed three games. His route running also leaves much to be desired.

When you couple his current skillset with the aforementioned reputation issues, it’s easy to understand why Bryant has yet to be signed.

Lack of development for younger wideouts
Adding Bryant bumps Trent Taylor and Dante Pettis down on the depth chart. Bryant could provide a boost in the near-term but he’ll take away playing time from two young, promising receivers the team just drafted. Impeding their growth early on could limit, or at least delay, their potential down the road.

The verdict

I’m torn on this one. I think that even a lesser version of Dez Bryant instantly improves the receiving corps and gives the team some veteran insurance at the position; however, the very real potential to disrupt a tight-knit locker room dynamic and take away from the development of Trent Taylor and Dante Pettis can’t be overlooked. Lynch and Shanahan haven’t given many reasons to doubt their direction, even if some of the draft selections this year might have raised a few eyebrows. There is no doubt they’ve strongly considered all the factors presented here, in addition to plenty of others. Whatever route they go, I’m confident it’ll be the right one. The positives and negatives of Dez balance out pretty evenly from my perspective. That said, I do believe they ultimately pass on Bryant and roll with who they have. It’d be hard to justify moving up in the second round to get Dante Pettis, only to have him sit at fourth or fifth on the depth chart with the addition of Bryant. Furthermore, the idea of jeopardizing the positive energy inside the building right now is too great a risk.

Which side of the fence are you on?


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