The Cowboys’ Dez Bryant ranked 35th of 78 qualified wide receivers by the game charters at Pro Football Focus. (Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press)

It was an underwhelming year for Dallas Cowboys star wide receiver Dez Bryant. The three-time Pro Bowl honoree had 69 catches on 132 targets for six touchdowns, matching the second-lowest touchdown total of his career. He has gone 23 regular season games without a 100-yard receiving effort.

Bryant, however, is unwavering in his ability.

I’m a hell of a football player,” he told Brandon George of the Dallas Morning News. “I know that. I believe that. I let a lot of things get in the way that bothered me mentally.”

Bryant revealed that he has played through tendinitis since facing the Kansas City Chiefs in early November, but he also acknowledged he allowed in-season distractions to put a damper on his play. Still, having the team’s second-largest salary-cap number ($16.5 million) next season, behind only left tackle Tyron Smith, prompted some to question what value, if any, he can provide the franchise going forward.

Team owner Jerry Jones has also chimed in, commenting on 105.3 the Fan that the Cowboys need more from their star wideout.

We need bigger plays,” Jones said Tuesday. “That’s obvious to everybody is we didn’t get big plays. There’s a lot into that, but we’ve got to get more from [him] — he’s [a] top player on our team. He certainly expects to make big plays, the expectation for [quarterback Dak Prescott] to get him the ball is there. We’ve gotten used to it. Yeah, we need more from that area.”

It’s not news that a team wants its best players to perform at a high level, although for wide receivers, it isn’t as simple as saying, “Be better.” The receiver is dependent on his quarterback and play-calling to be productive. But let’s get one thing out of the way: To borrow from Keyshawn Johnson, Bryant is getting the damn ball. His 27 percent share of targets this season ranked ninth among the league’s wideouts and was on par with his target share from 2013 and 2014, plus higher than 2016, the three years he was nominated to the Pro Bowl.

Season Targets per game Target share
2010 6.1 13%
2011 6.9 18%
2012 8.6 21%
2013 (Pro Bowl) 10.0 28%
2014 (Pro Bowl, first-team all-pro) 8.6 29%
2015 8.0 14%
2016 (Pro Bowl) 7.4 20%
2017 8.3 27%

The problem, therefore, appears to lie in Bryant’s ability to make something happen, and Pro Football Hall of Famer Tim Brown told ESPN Radio that what Bryant “has to get better at is his route-running,” and he must improve his ability to beat defenders one-on-one.

When asked to elaborate, Brown explained Bryant is only making catches on two routes: the slant route and the back-shoulder route. “Those are routes that basically don’t call for you to beat the coverage,” Brown explained. “If the ball is close on the slant route, you’re probably going to get it. If the ball is close on the back-shoulder route, you’re probably going to get it. But if you got to run a curl route, or if you got to run an in route, or if you got to run a deep cross route — something like those routes, which calls for you to separate yourself from a guy in order for the quarterback to get you the ball — then you’re not seeing him catching those kind of passes in man-to-man coverage.”

The numbers do suggest a decline in Bryant’s route-running ability. His 1.7 yards per route run in 2017 was a career low if you discount the 1.4 yards per route run in 2015, a year in which Bryant played just nine games because he required a bone graft procedure on his broken foot.

But, according to the NFL’s NextGen stats, Bryant did a better job of gaining separation from his defenders in 2017, averaging a gap of 2.4 yards this season. Last year he averaged just 1.8 yards of separation. More distance between him and his defender should result in more yards after the catch, but it hasn’t — at least not with Prescott under center.

On throws by Prescott, Bryant has averaged 3.4 yards after the catch per reception, with one out of every 16 targets ending in a touchdown. When Tony Romo was the team’s quarterback, Bryant averaged 4.9 YAC/catch with a touchdown once every 11 targets.

Prescott also saw slightly more pressure in 2017 than he did a season ago, and he wasn’t as accurate with his passes. He also had to attempt to throw the ball a fraction of a second faster than he did in 2016. That may not sound like much, but timing is everything.

Dak Prescott Percent of drop-backs
under pressure
Completion rate
under pressure
Time to throw
2016 36% 53% 2.9 seconds
2017 37% 47% 2.8 seconds

This isn’t to say Bryant and Prescott don’t have chemistry — they do. During Prescott’s rookie year, Bryant was ranked 18th of 83 qualified receivers by the game charters at Pro Football Focus, who rate a player’s process — was he in the right position, did he run the right route, etc. — in addition to quantifying the performance on the field. But this year, Bryant’s PFF rating plummeted to 35th of 78 qualified receivers. Prescott saw his rating fall from 10th in 2016 to 15th in 2017, illustrating further that these two have their fortunes intertwined.

And it may just be as easy as that: Bryant and Prescott weren’t in sync this season. That’s no consolation for fans who expect more from a player taking up such a large part of their team’s salary cap, but it does suggest that the duo can rekindle their excellence in 2018.

Read more on the NFL:

Carson Palmer follows Bruce Arians into retirement. Is Larry Fitzgerald next?

Power ranking the NFL playoff teams — Patriots, Vikings and Steelers lead the way

The ‘mother of all stats’ doesn’t see the Patriots as Super Bowl contenders

Examining the Redskins’ top quarterback options if Kirk Cousins leaves

‘I think I am being considered, yes’: ESPN’s Jon Gruden on becoming the Raiders’ next coach