Which Cowboys wide receiver will have the better fantasy season: Dez Bryant or Miles Austin?
In this era of prolific passing attacks, it has become a common dilemma in fantasy to decide between talented tandems of wideouts who play for the same team. The Giants, Packers, Falcons, Patriots, Eagles and Cowboys all boast dynamic duos at the position. In some of these scenarios it's clear -- at least in terms of average draft position (ADP) and projections -- which receiver is expected to be the better fantasy option, but in others, particularly in Dallas, it's difficult to discern the wiser investment as we sit on the doorstep of the 2012 campaign.
When deciding between Dez Bryant and Miles Austin, fantasy managers are evaluating these commodities in a specific draft range; in most standard drafts, you'll find the Dallas duo available between the late fourth round and the early sixth. Bryant is currently going as the 15th wide receiver on average in ESPN live drafts with an ADP of 43.7, while Austin is landing as the 18th receiver on average and 54th overall. Bryant finished 18th at the position in ESPN standard leagues in 2011 with 139 points, while Austin's injury-marred season left him as the 39th fantasy wideout with 97 points. There are valid arguments for each player as the more promising prospect for 2012, just as there are legitimate cases against each player.
In their short time working together, quarterback Tony Romo and Austin have formed what is likely the most prolific pass-and-catch duo of undrafted players in the league's history. On a Sunday afternoon in Kansas City nearly three years ago, with Roy Williams sidelined due to a rib injury, Austin burst onto the NFL and fantasy football scenes with a dominant performance that saw him haul in 10 catches for 250 yards and two scores. It was a breakout game that led to a breakout 2009 season, establishing Austin as one of the game's young elites at the position in just a matter of months. Since that breakout effort, Romo and Austin haven't been able to consistently connect, with injuries disrupting their chemistry. Austin was averaging 118.5 yards and 7.8 receptions and had two touchdowns in the first four games of 2010 before Romo broke his collarbone in Week 5. Paired with veteran journeyman Jon Kitna for the remainder of 2010, Austin saw his production decline, resulting in a disappointing fantasy campaign.
Then last season, the duo of undrafted stars started the season gangbusters once again, with Austin posting 14 receptions, 233 yards and four scores in his first two games before a hamstring injury that first surfaced in training camp last summer returned in overtime of Week 2 versus San Francisco. Austin was never the same in 2011, sitting out for six games (over two stretches) due to the hammy issue. With 11 100-yard games since 2009 and a proven penchant for the big play, there is little doubt that Austin can produce when he and Romo are healthy. One element that could help with Austin's prospects in PPR leagues going forward is the fact that he lined up in the slot on just over 55 percent of his snaps in 2011, and has been deployed in a similar fashion in sets in training camp. Health, however, remains a continued concern, as Austin is currently dealing with an ailing hamstring that cropped up in camp on Aug. 5.
If we have enduring concerns about Austin's ability to stay on the field, it's Bryant's off-the-field behavior that might be the red flag in the way of his promising career. While Bryant's arrest this July was his first as a professional, he has inspired great concern for the Cowboys' brass with a series of off-the-field issues and has, by many accounts, carried himself immaturely and unprofessionally since being drafted in the first round in 2010. It's unclear if a suspension from Roger Goodell awaits Bryant, but many insiders close to the situation feel that it would be a one-game punishment, if anything. Bryant, for his part, also has some injury history that merits mentioning. He is also dealing with a hamstring injury at the moment, although he doesn't have the distressing history with such injuries that Austin does. Bryant dealt with numerous nagging injuries in his rookie campaign, which was cut short by a month by a broken ankle, and he endured a quad injury early last season that saw him miss one game. The cause for zeal over Bryant's potential comes from when he's at his best on the field and can appear unstoppable on particular plays. The counter to this is a lack of consistent execution and what some might say is inconsistent effort. Just last season, Bryant never topped 90 yards in a given game or 15 fantasy points in any single contest. In 27 NFL games, he has topped 100 yards just once, despite what scouts tab as dominant potential. There are some indicators, however, that suggest Bryant is capable of reaching his vast potential. With nine scores in the red zone on just 21 career red zone targets, he's quite a scoring threat given his otherworldly ability to adjust in the air and leverage his size and athleticism when coverage is at its tightest.
Dez Bryant, Past 2 Seasons
Source: ESPN Stats & Information
Miles Austin, Past 2 Seasons
Source: ESPN Stats & Information
While both players inspire valid degrees of concern, they also both have youth, undeniable talent and a capable quarterback on their side. The absence of Laurent Robinson, who finished as the 15th wide receiver in ESPN standard leagues last season with 145 fantasy points, can only serve to increase the attention that both Bryant and Austin will receive from Romo. Austin has averaged 7.2 targets per game over the past two seasons, while Bryant averaged 6.7 last season and nearly 7.2 when Austin was inactive in 2011. If we assume that a good percentage of the Robinson targets will be shared amongst this duo, both should average more than seven targets per contest. This isn't a feast-or-famine scenario where only one wideout can "eat" this season; as the premier threats in a potent passing game likely to surpass 500 attempts, both players can realistically be projected to top 70 receptions and 1,000 yards with a quality share of scoring opportunities.
While it's not unreasonable to expect somewhat similar statistics for this duo, I'd prefer to invest in Bryant for 2012. Bryant is a player I value as the greater talent with an immense burden to prove that he's a valuable long-term asset to not just Dallas, but to the NFL. Austin has the better track record in terms of statistical precedent in this league, but he's not without his warts given that hamstring issues are known to persist (particularly for speed players). While Bryant didn't exactly dazzle last season, he was still a solid No. 2 option and established a healthy floor for production, falling just shy of the per-game fantasy point clips of A.J. Green and Brandon Marshall. Bryant is simply a superlative talent, one possibly bested only by a handful at the position (Calvin Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, Green, Julio Jones and not sure who else). While inherent risk is associated with Bryant -- both in terms of a possible suspension and some durability concerns -- fantasy football is about balancing the risk and reward of investments in players, and few bear as much potential reward as I see it. Austin remains a very capable No. 2 fantasy receiver, but I have some doubts if we'll see him return to the No. 1 perch he established in that brilliant '09 stretch. Even in a vacuum, expecting both to play the full 16 this fall, I'm banking on Bryant to yield a greater return.