Despite the NFL providing countless feel-good stories on a yearly-basis, rarely do we see happy-endings.
In the finale of our three-part feature series, we explore that not-so-cheery side of the NFL.
Today we evaluate the downward trend of the careers of Demaryius Thomas and Dez Bryant, while at the same time evaluating their lasting legacies from their time in the league.
If you missed Parts 1 or 2, they will be listed below!
Part 1 on Demaryius Thomas: https://husseyshuddle.xyz/?p=1500
Part 2 on Dez Bryant: https://husseyshuddle.xyz/?p=1511
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By 2017, the franchises that Demaryius and Dez had spent their entire respective careers on, the Denver Broncos and Dallas Cowboys, began to look a lot different.
Demaryius still had a role in Denver, but his production had started to wane over the previous campaign, which correlated with the offense’s struggles as a whole.
Dez, meanwhile, was coming off a couple of decent but unspectacular seasons for his previously established standards, showing a noticeable drop-off from his 2012-2014 form.
What was particularly concerning for the pair of players was that both remained on lucrative contracts with high annual cap-numbers, despite the diminishing returns. Needless to say, a pivotal 2017 was on the horizon.
However, in each case, a resurgence would never manifest itself.
The Broncos and Cowboys would both miss the playoffs that year, albeit in different fashions.
For Denver, this was their 2nd-consecutive season without a playoff appearance, as they cratered to a 5-11 finish. Thomas, despite once again remaining healthy for a full 16-game slate, failed to reach the 1,000 yard plateau for the first time since 2011, his second season in the league. He also carried over the trend from the last two seasons, struggling to reach the end-zone to the degree he once did. His yards per catch also declined from previous campaigns, to boot. This, combined with Denver’s continued failure to find a successor to Peyton Manning following his retirement in 2015, signalled that the team’s current core was a sinking-ship.
Meanwhile, in Dallas, expectations were sky-high after the team exploded onto the scene in 2016 with a pair of dynamic rookies in quarterback Dak Prescott and running-back Ezekiel Elliott, who led the team to the NFC’s best record at 13-3. Bryant saw a decline statistically from his days catching passes from Tony Romo, but still managed to have a vintage performance in the NFC Divisional Round against Green Bay, where he recorded a pair of touchdowns. It could be believed, logically, that at just 29-years-old going into 2017, that Bryant still had productive years left in him.
When the season began however, drama surrounded the Cowboys. Elliott was facing a 6-game suspension stemming from an offseason incident that he would appeal but eventually ended up serving after much-publicized debate. Along with this, the team also fought the injury-bug, with players like All-Pro offensive tackle Tyron Smith missing time, which in turn contributed to a sophomore slump for Prescott, who threw 13 interceptions just a year after only throwing 4 as a rookie.
Caught up in the middle of all this turmoil, the Cowboys regressed to a 9-7 finish, which did not qualify them for the playoffs.
Bryant, for what its worth, had a respectable season in 2017. He caught 69 passes for 838 yards and 6 touchdowns, all while playing in all 16 of the team’s games. Unfortunately, a deeper look at the numbers revealed a troubling decline for the receiver. From 2010-2014, Dez posted a catch percentage of 62.6% of passes thrown his way. This contrasted sharply with the next three campaigns from 2015-2017, where he caught 50% of his targets despite receiving similar usage within the Cowboys’ offense.
2018 saw our two high-profile pass-catchers go on different paths, but with ultimately similar results.
During the offseason, in a decision that caught some off-guard, the Cowboys released Bryant after 8 seasons with the team. This was largely speculated to be a salary-cap casualty, as the receiver was scheduled to count $16.8 million on the team’s balance-sheet in 2018. Of course, given the receiver’s controversial history, many speculated that reasons for his release went beyond just the numbers game. In his Dallas career, he made 3 Pro-Bowls, but also had been criticized for missing team events, having emotional outbursts on the sidelines, in addition to his eventually-dismissed domestic violence charge from 2012.
Any team signing him on the open market had to be in on the whole package with Dez, who to his credit, wasn’t nearly as disruptive around Dallas during his final years with the team.
Regardless of his numerous accomplishments on the gridiron, Bryant would go unsigned for the entirety of the 2018 offseason.
On the flip-side, as the 2018 season approached, Demaryius remained in Denver, albeit on a hefty-contract that like Dez, he was struggling to live-up to. The Broncos entered another year with considerable uncertainty at the quarterback position, while many members of the club’s 2015 championship had already moved on. Suffice to say, this wasn’t exactly an improving situation for the now-31-year-old receiver, who continued his decline.
2018 saw perhaps his most disappointing pro-season, as instead of being able to post another season of 1,000 yards, he legitimately appeared to have lost a step. Denver managed to start off with a 2-0 record with wins over Seattle and Oakland, but would crumble in the ensuing weeks, losing four consecutive contests with Thomas and the offense showing little signs of life. A win against Arizona in Week 7 briefly gave the team life, but a 30-23 loss to Kansas City the following week dropped the squad to 3-5, making Denver a long-shot for the postseason.
During those 8 games, Thomas mustered 402 yards and 3 touchdowns, which were respectable but did not do justice to the electric playmaker he once was. Further, his role in the team’s offense declined significantly, with the Broncos instead focusing on more of a ball-control attack centered around surprise rookie Phillip Lindsay. With the disappointment of another failed campaign in the making, Denver traded Thomas to the playoff contender Houston Texans, for what amounted to a mere 4th-round pick.
In Houston, the thought process was Thomas could ease himself into the offense until he could fulfill the role of #2 receiver opposite star DeAndre Hopkins. Being just a few seasons removed from Pro-Bowl level play, many were optimistic that Thomas could reemerge in a better environment.
Unfortunately, as it turns out, we witnessed little difference.
Thomas would ironically play his old team in his debut with the Texans, and put-up a solid 3 catches for 61 yards. A week later, he was held off the stat-sheet in a win over the Redskins, where he caught no passes and only received a single target. His best performance came in his third game with Houston, as he caught 2 touchdown passes from quarterback Deshaun Watson. As a whole though, the big picture for Thomas wasn’t any better than it was in Denver, with the receiver catching 23 passes for 275 yards and 2 touchdowns in seven games. The explosive element that had made him so successful from 2012-2016 had seemingly vanished. Also plaguing him not just this season but for most of his career, were consistent drops, which were coming more and more into focus as the receiver declined.
However, those issues were only minor in comparison to what Thomas would endure next.
In a Week 16 matchup against Philadelphia, the typically-healthy Thomas suffered the most serious injury of his entire NFL career: a torn Achilles’ tendon. Needless to say, this would be a serious injury for any player, but for a player that once possessed track-speed that struck fear into opposing defenses like Thomas? The effects could send a crushing blow to his NFL future.
As this was all occurring for Demaryius, Dez was still vying for a team to give him a chance to get back on the field. Reportedly, the receiver had turned down a multi-year contract from the Baltimore Ravens in the offseason, instead, holding out hope for a more lucrative one-year prove-it deal that would allow him to cash in after the 2018 season. Only, that ideal offer never came his way, which left him stuck without a team well into the 2018 season.
Come early November, however, Bryant’s patience finally paid-off, with the receiver-hungry New Orleans Saints giving him a call. There, Bryant would slide in as the offense’s assumed #2 target behind sophomore star Michael Thomas.
Only, tragedy would strike before we could ever see this in action. During a team practice, Bryant would suffer a torn Achilles’ tendon, the same injury that would later end the season for Thomas. Before he could ever play a game for the Saints, he would be placed on injured-reserve.
Following his injury late in 2018, Bryant would vie to be signed to an NFL roster for 2019, but given his health concerns, this opportunity never presented itself in the form that he wanted it.
During the offseason, he posted multiple workout videos on his social media accounts, indicating the progress he was making in his recovery. Yet on July 30th, on the eve of NFL training camps, Bryant responded via Twitter to a fan referencing his controversial past with the Cowboys in relation to the 2019 offseason drama surrounding Ezekiel Elliott. Never a man to keep things buttoned-up, Bryant responded, “this is exactly why I don’t have no interest in playing football right now…I have not reached out to no organization trying to play…people forget real quick we are still human…my anxiety and depression came from this type of stuff…what I realized nobody care but me.”
He would later add, “I’m not retiring bro…I’m just taking care of myself…that’s a promise.” Bryant would follow through on this, focusing on projects outside of football during the 2019 season in order to get his mental-health where he needed it to be. He would describe himself as being in “good spirits”.
Back on the field, Thomas did manage to secure another contract, this time a one-year pact with the New England Patriots, once a sworn rival when he was with Denver. The move reunited the receiver with his former Head Coach Josh McDaniels, who drafted Thomas back in 2010. The Patriots were desperately in need of an outside presence at receiver, and Thomas met the profile of a low-risk high-reward type of signing that the team has been famous for.
Demaryius was still on the mend though after suffering his Achilles’ injury in December the previous season. He would have some nice moments in the preseason, including turning back the clock in the team’s 4th exhibition contest with 87 yards and a pair of scores. Still, in a surprise move, the team released the veteran as part of their final cuts.
Just a few days later, NFL Network’s Mike Giardi reported that the team remained interested in bringing back the long-time NFL veteran. Sure enough, the Patriots re-signed Thomas within a week of releasing him after 1st-rounder N’Keal Harry was placed on injured-reserve.
Again, this reunion would be short-lived. Just a week after he signed back with the team, New England traded Thomas to the New York Jets for a late-round draft pick after signing the controversial Antonio Brown. Demaryius would later reflect on his decision to re-sign with the Patriots, calling it a “waste of time”.
With the Jets, Thomas would play 11 games and start 10, but proved to be a shell of his former-self. In a wafer-thin Jets receiving-core, the 5-time Pro-Bowler was held to just 433 yards and a single touchdown. Near the end of the season, injury issues kicked in again, with a nagging hamstring problem forcing him to miss several games down the stretch.
The Offseason of 2020
With COVID-19 casting a cloud over the 2020 NFL Offseason, this put many players that had checkered injury histories in a bind. Social distancing measures made it difficult for players to have team doctors perform medical checkups, which hindered the ability of 2019 injured players to find employment.
Of course, given the recent history of both Demaryius and Dez, this was a major roadblock to continuing their respective careers. Still, each receiver has expressed a desire to get back on the field.
Bryant worked out with Kansas City Chiefs star quarterback Patrick Mahomes over the offseason, though this wasn’t an official workout for teams. The receiver that played his college ball at Oklahoma State has recently voiced his intentions to do what it takes to get back on the field in 2020, saying on June 30th, “I hope it’s a season I need my redemption.”
Yet, given the fact that he hasn’t appeared in a game since 2017, it has to be considered a long-shot that he will ever be signed to an NFL roster again, despite being just 31 years-old.
Thomas, after one of his worst seasons as a pro in 2019, faces similar prospects. Plagued by some of the same injury concerns as Bryant, while also displaying a decaying skill-set over the past two years, he remains unsigned to date.
As recently as July 2nd of this year, his 2019 team, the New York Jets, have reportedly expressed interest in a reunion, though nothing concrete can be pointed to as of yet. Whether that happens and in what role Thomas will be tasked with playing if he does, remains completely up in the air. One thing we can likely assume though, is that his best days are behind him regardless.
The Legacy Debate
It is almost time to wrap-up our three-part series, but before we do, a look at the lasting legacies of both Demaryius Thomas and Dez Bryant, the lone wide receivers taken in the 1st-round of the 2010 NFL Draft.
At their peak, both players were among the best at their position, though they did so while possessing different strengths.
Demaryius, who was a surprise as the first pass-catcher taken off the board in 2010, certainly lived up to the billing that many once thought he never would. It was a slow burn to begin with, but as soon as Peyton Manning arrived in Denver to stabilize the quarterback position, the pair became one of the league’s most prolific duos.
Though he suffered from drop problems throuhout his tenure in the league, he overcame these by becoming one of the best receivers in the game with the ball in his hands, possessing track-like speed in a six-foot-three, 225-pound frame.
He played a pivotal role on one of the best offenses in NFL history in 2013, while also capping off an incredible four-year run with a 2015 Super Bowl Championship. Though many critics will likely attribute the success of his career to the presence of the Hall of Famer Manning, it really isn’t all that fair to the receiver, who caught passes from a laundry-list of quarterbacks otherwise in his NFL journey. Further, there was a reason that he was consistently Manning’s most trusted target, which goes to show how special of an athlete the Georgia Tech product was during his prime years.
If this is essentially it for Thomas, it has been a hell of a ride. His career totals rest at: 724 receptions, 9,763 yards, 63 touchdowns and 143 games played.
Dez, who was selected just a few slots behind Thomas, was the much more publicized receiver throughout his NFL career, partially because he played for the Dallas Cowboys but also due to the extensive profile he had established before ever even playing in an NFL game.
The spotlight was on from day-one with Dez, and though it wasn’t always easy, to most observers, he proved why he was worthy of such a high selection.
Highlights of Dez’ career include being the Cowboys All-Time leader in touchdown receptions with 73, ahead of legends such as Michael Irvin, Drew Pearson, and longtime teammate Jason Witten. An impressive accomplishment to say the least.
To this day, Dez still has many critics over how he conducted himself with the Cowboys, with some calling his antics a distraction, despite many of his former teammates and coaches coming to bat for him otherwise. Regardless of what some may think one way or the other, there was no denying how big of an impact he had on the Cowboys when he was locked-in.
Though it was relatively short-lived, from 2012-2014, he posted one of the best stretches by any receiver in the past 15 years, highlighted by 41 touchdowns over that span. His impact on the 2014 Cowboys cannot be understated, as he, quarterback Tony Romo and running-back Demarco Murray dominated en-route the most successful Cowboys season in the past 20 years. One can only wonder what the trio might have been able to accomplished for an encore in 2015 had they managed to make all the financials work.
The one black-eye on his career, and this era of Cowboys football in general was the lack of team success. In this sense, his career was short-changed in relation to what Thomas experienced in Denver. But, this doesn’t discount all the highlights and memories that he gave football fans, whom he never cheated with a lack of effort. We haven’t seen many receivers who possessed his special ability to win tight-contested battles, especially in the red-zone.
If he never plays another NFL snap, his career totals stand at: 531 receptions, 7,459 yards, 73 touchdowns, in 113 games.
That’s enough from us, we want to hear from YOU!
Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!
What are your thoughts on the legacies that Demaryius Thomas and Dez Bryant leave behind?
Who had the better career?
What are some of your favourite memories of each player?
Thank you all very much for taking part in this three-part series!
If you enjoyed the article, there are several other in-depth pieces like this already on the site. A few months ago, we dove into the careers of Todd Gurley and Melvin Gordon, which you can check out in the link post below!
Gordon and Gurley: At a Crossroads https://husseyshuddle.xyz/?p=58