Commentary

Bryant poised to match 2008 heroics

Updated: August 27, 2009, 6:16 PM ET
By AJ Mass | ESPN.com

32 Questions

Can Antonio Bryant repeat?

Here's a quick trivia question for you: Name all the wide receivers who reached more than 80 receptions, more than 1,200 yards receiving and at least seven touchdowns last season.

Think you've got it? Well, there are only four names on the list, and they don't include Calvin Johnson, Randy Moss or Terrell Owens. The correct answer is Larry Fitzgerald, Andre Johnson, Roddy White and -- you guessed it -- Antonio Bryant. And yet, when looking at the fantasy projections for wide receivers, according to ESPN standard scoring, Bryant doesn't even show up on the first page of rankings, barely squeaking into the top 25 at the No. 24 spot. But why? Isn't it entirely possible that his "breakout performance" was not a fluke? What's the concern?

Actually, the naysayers have a lot of facts to back up their case. Bryant had never had a season like that before, and he's been in the league since 2002. Only once previously had he cracked the 1,000-yard barrier, just barely, in 2005 with Cleveland, the second of his four NFL teams.

Antonio Bryant
Tom Hauck/Getty ImagesAntonio Bryant was eighth in fantasy scoring among wide receivers last season, but few people believe he'll come close to that in 2009.

Yes, it seems Bryant tends to wear out his welcome quite quickly. In 2004, Dallas traded him to the Browns in midseason after he had a verbal altercation with then-coach Bill Parcells. Cleveland got rid of him in 2006 after Romeo Crennel took over as coach. He then signed with the 49ers, only to be suspended for four games near the end of the '06 campaign for violating the league's substance-abuse policy. The 49ers released him in the offseason, and he eventually was deemed unsignable for 2007; he completely sat out that season.

But then-Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden took a chance on Bryant last season, and it paid huge dividends. What some people see as baggage, we see as motivation for Bryant to prove that 2008 was indeed just the tip of the iceberg. Even though Tampa Bay changed coaches, it didn't bring in a completely new regime (new coach Raheem Morris was Gruden's assistant), so there's no need for Bryant to go back to square one in the "changing his reputation" game. Morris already is firmly on his side, which is a large reason the Bucs allowed Joey Galloway and Ike Hilliard to seek employment elsewhere and used their franchise tag to keep Bryant. The one-year, $9 million deal certainly will give Bryant plenty of added incentive, not only to prove he's worth the money this season, but also to ensure another contract comes his way next season.

When word came down Aug. 11 that he had a torn meniscus in his left knee and would undergo surgery that likely would force him to miss the rest of the preseason, Bryant's name slid down draft charts like he was cruising on a backyard water slide. Totally understandable. But now that Bryant appears ready to resume practice as early as next week, and could even suit up for the team's final preseason game, why doesn't Bryant's stock appear to be rising?

Maybe it's because Jeff Garcia is no longer the quarterback in Tampa Bay, and the prospect of having Byron Leftwich, Luke McCown or even rookie Josh Freeman in charge of finding Bryant downfield doesn't seem so appealing to some fantasy owners. If that's the holdup, we think it is a completely unfounded fear. For one, Bryant had only 10 fewer targets than Michael Clayton, Galloway and Hilliard combined last season. Who's going to compete with him for the ball this season, regardless of who is doing the throwing? Aside from Clayton, what wide receivers are on the roster? Maurice Stovall? Dexter Jackson? Sammie Stroughter?

None of those guys is going to challenge Bryant's No. 1 status. So, even if there are fewer throws downfield, an greater percentage of those passes should be headed Bryant's way. At worst, it's a wash. Those who argue that Kellen Winslow's arrival at tight end will hurt Bryant's value also are shouting into the wind. If anything, a bigger threat over the middle will relax the coverages downfield, allowing Bryant more freedom to catch those bombs headed his way.

We're not about to suggest that you should draft Bryant ahead of fantasy stalwarts like Fitzgerald, "Megatron," Moss and T.O. But if Jimmy Smith, in his mid-30s, was able to put together 1,000-plus yard seasons with an inexperienced Leftwich, why can't Bryant -- who's 28 -- surpass that total and then some with a far more experienced Leftwich?

We think he'll not only match last season's fantasy numbers (157 points in ESPN standard leagues) but surpass them, once again finishing in the top 10 of wide receivers, and we're going to draft him accordingly.

AJ Mass is a fantasy baseball, football and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. You can follow AJ on Twitter or e-mail him here.