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Better NFL Player: Cowboys Dez Bryant v. Giants Hakeem Nicks

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Last August I wrote a  Fantasy Football article that contained a special segment for rookies and second year stars. At the top of each list were Dez Bryant and Hakeem Nicks. Here’s an excerpt from that article:

Rookies

Dez Bryant the closest thing to Andre Johnson that a rookie could be. He’s still raw in some attributes but he runs great routes, has great hands, speed, and gets the ball at its highest point. Jordan Shipley will get plenty of receptions this year in the slot, but he won’t get the touchdowns that you want; these will go to T.O., Ochocinco, and Jermaine Gresham. He will still have solid yards with a plenty of catches. Demaryius Thomas is a big physical receiver. He will be the #1 from day 1 if he can stay healthy. That’s a big if, because he keeps getting nicked up. Mike Williams was a 4th round pick for Tampa Bay. He would have gone a lot earlier in the draft if it wasn’t for character issue. Make no mistake about it; he didn’t fall in the draft due to talent. He has already taken over as the teams #1 receiver and seems to be on the same page with QB Josh Freeman.

2nd Year Stars

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Hakeem Nicks will be the premier receiver for the Giants early on in the season. His hands are ridiculous. Mike Wallace is a big play machine. My biggest question with him is who is going to be throwing him the ball early on in the season while Big Ben is out. Michael Crabtree was dynamic last season even though he missed all of camp and the first part of the season. No doubt that he’ll be even better with a season under his belt and a whole off-season workout complete with training camp and preseason. Johnny Knox is going to fit in well in Mike Martz new system in Chicago. He’ll be what Eddie Royal was for Jay Cutler in Denver, when Royal had 91 catches as a rookie.

Obviously, I have been high on both players since they came out of UNC and Oklahoma State. But, recently while speaking with RotoExperts’ colleague, Jake “Allin” Ciely, I found out that he’s an even bigger Nicks advocate than I am. While I like Nicks’ game, I would take Bryant over him if I were starting a franchise.

So, the Roto Rumble was born. If you had to pick one for your franchise, who would you pick? Taking off-field issues out of the equation, who is the better football player and on-field contributor? Jake and I will make our cases for Nicks or Bryant.

Roto Rumble

Jayson Braddock: Hakeem is an elite athlete with massive hands but he has limitations that Bryant doesn’t. When people evaluate Bryant, I believe that they factor in his off-field concerns into their opinion of him as a receiver. The funny thing is his that off-field issues aren’t anywhere close to anything that someone like Kenny Britt is dealing with. Bryant has been in the news for jewelry loans, sagging pants, and lying to the NCAA while at Ok State.

On the field, Bryant can simply contribute in more areas. They can have him return kicks and punts to change key field position and momentum in a game. As a pure receiver, Bryant attacks the ball at its highest point. He’s a red zone threat because of this and the fact that he can contort his body to the most awkward of angles to complete a reception. He’s a big, physical receiver that attacks defenders, like Brandon Marshall after a completion. He has the speed that Nicks lacks, to keep cornerbacks worried about the deep route.

Jake Ciely: Hold on Jayson. We’re taking off-field issues out of the equation? I don’t think you can, and actually, you even brought it up from the get-go. You have to admit players’ personalities and issues play a part into evaluations. Look at Terrell Owens. Does anyone doubt his ability to still contribute at a late age? No. Yet, we see few teams calling due to his personality. Even if it pales in comparison to Britt, Bryant’s issues and attitude (labeled diva-ish) come in to play. When Deion Sanders walks away from you, and says you’re one of those “guys,” you know there is a problem.

You say he contributes in more areas with returns on punts and kickoffs. I’ll give you the punt returns, but the kick returns were less in number and impact. That said, I have my doubts whether the Cowboys will risk him in the return game again. In fact, if they were smart, they wouldn’t. I’d much rather have my elite receiver healthy and there for my QB every game than risking his health for a few extra yards on a punt return.

Nicks too is a terrific redzone target. Verticals: Nicks 36”, Bryant 38” – so even with Bryant’s extra inch in height, you’re talking about three total inches, and actually Nicks gets one back with his enormous 10 ½-inch hands. As for the speed, you give Bryant too much credit and Nicks not enough. Their 40-times were nearly identical (Nicks: 4.51, Bryant 4.52) as were the 20-yard split (2.60/2.58), shuttle times (4.43/4.48) and 3-cone drill (6.96/7.21). So let’s look at a comparison of TDs to receptions. Nicks has 17 TDs in 126 receptions, while Bryant has six in 45 receptions. That’s 13.5 percent for Nicks and 13.3 percent for Bryant. I think I’ve fully established both are top-notch redzone WRs.

A big difference comes in the QB play. I am an Eli Manning supporter, and someone who thinks he receives too much criticism for being the brother of that other guy who pops up in a commercial every other day. Even if you factor in Jon Kitna in place of Tony Romo (injury), both had higher completion percentages and better QB ratings than Manning did. Nicks has to deal with less quality play and an offense that runs 10 percent more passing plays. Given the same quality of play and offensive systems, Nicks numbers would be even more impressive.

JB: My point was that the character issue doesn’t change the talent. T.O. is still, easily, one of the Top 10 receivers of all-time. If Bryant can play at that high of a level, I will put up with the “diva” label. In this era, every premier wideout has some level of diva in him. Also, what Bryant did, didn’t seem diva-ish to me. It came off more as a maturity issue, personally and financially.

I agree that the Cowboys should use Bryant less in the return game. As he becomes more of the number one receiver type, he’ll become too valuable to place in the game on those plays, as they are higher risk of injury plays. But, the fact that he can still do those plays adds more value to him. Remember early on in Chris Johnson’s career, Jeff Fisher would place CJ back on kick/punt returns in crucial moments of games. That’s the way I see Dallas using him. Also, I believe we would both consider DeSean Jackson the No. 1 in Philly, and it didn’t work out to bad for the Eagles having him return punts against Nicks’ Giants team last season.

I never said that Nicks wasn’t a top-notch redzone receiver. The debate is about who is better. Bryant not only is better in the redzone, he’s a more complete receiver. As far as route running, that I would give to Nicks. The 40 times you mentioned are “paper” times. I’m going off the eye test of in-game speed. It’s cliché to bring up Jerry Rice’s 40 time, but for sake of this debate I will. He ran in the 4.7 range on “paper.” When he placed on the pads and stepped between those lines, he was one of the fastest men on the field. The same applies to Bryant. Watch the separation, space between Bryant and defenders.

When it comes to talk of the systems and quarterbacks that the players play with, I have to disagree with your take. Nicks has a one-year head start on Bryant. Even with the early jump, I would take Bryant over Nicks this year. I don’t believe Nicks would put up better stats then Bryant in the same system because he’s the feature in New York. If you look at who he has to contend with for balls, then you know he’s going to get the most looks. In Dallas, Dez has a quarterback that can afford to go to the open man because he has so many top options i.e. Jason Witten, Miles Austin, Roy Williams and Martellus Bennett. Eli’s passer rating wasn’t as good because his receiving options weren’t as good. Nicks also benefited from playing with the same quarterback for the last two years, while Bryant played with Tony Romo, Jon Kitna, and Stephen McGee as a rookie.

In five years, we may find out that we were debating the equivalent of Andre Johnson vs. Larry Fitzgerald. Even if that’s the case, give me the guy that has the potential to develop into Johnson when he matures. In any situational pass play you can imagine, I would feel more comfortable with Bryant as my receiver. When it’s all said and done, if you ask me to choose Bryant or Nicks….I’ll choose Dez Bryant 10 times out of 10.

JC: I’m actually not saying either is better in the redzone. I’m saying the declaration that Bryant is better is incorrect. If you look at the numbers, they are nearly identical thereby pointing to equality rather than one being a notch above the other. Oh, and don’t try to sneak Stephen McGee past me. Dez was already hurt and out at that point – he’s probably happy about that though, ha.

That’s a fair point that the times are “paper” times. I have always referenced Larry Fitzgerald’s 40-yard time when talking how unimportant it is. Nicks’ route running, as you agree is one of the best, creates as much separation as any other factor. But again, now we are talking eye-tests and opinions. So let’s take this back to the numbers.

When you consider Success Rate, Nicks was out-performed Bryant by a significant amount as he finished with a 56.5 rate, while Bryant checked in at 47.5. Going back to the QB point, Bryant’s four best games (from Oct 25 – Nov 14) were with Kitna at the helm. So, the QB play can’t be contributed to his lower success.

Most will agree Football Outsiders has the market cornered on advance stats, so let’s look there. These are some telling numbers especially since they hold true despite missed playing time from respective injuries, etc. Nicks tops Bryant in every area, and often by quite a large margin.

Nicks ranks well ahead of Bryant in Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement (DYAR) and Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA). Both of these metrics aim to compare the WR to an average-level replacement and adjust for situation and level of opponent. The one area they are equal is in Catch Rate, but Nicks simply makes more of a positive impact with his plays.

Before you argue that Manning can’t go to others like earlier, realize that Nicks became the No. 1 option in 2010. Steve Smith had over twice as many targets in 2009, and Mario Manningham had more in 2009 and was still around last year. In fact, Manningham still had 60 catches and 92 targets last year. If you take the Top Five options for both teams, you have 78 percent of Eli’s pass attempts and 76 percent of Dallas’. Even if you go one target deeper to Marcellus Bennett versus Derek Hagan (Smith’s replacement), you are at 86 for New York and 84 for Dallas. So they both equally have enough options to spread the ball around. If anything, when healthy, the Top Three for the Giants have an argument for one of the best units in the league.

I agree, we could be talking the equivalent of Calvin Johnson to Andre Johnson (I like Calvin better than Fitz). However, with Dez we are talking “if’s” and with Nicks it’s evidence. You may pick Dez 10 out of 10 times, but you would simply be wrong more often than not.

Wrap Up: For those of you that know Jake and I, you realize that we could keep going until after both of these players retired.  With that said, we will call a truce for now on this Roto Rumble and allow you to form your own opinion for debate in sports bars throughout around the country.

Debating is what makes sports great. What makes this debate intriguing is the contrary styles being used to evaluate the two players. Jake is very stats driven and I rely mostly on my eyes. The truth on the matter probably lies somewhere between the two methods.

I appreciate my colleague Jake “Allin” Ciely offering his time and informed opinion on this topic. You can read his work both here on the site and at RotoExperts.com. You can also follow him on Twitter @JakeAllinCiely. Now, let’s get the NFL back so we can all laugh at how wrong Jake was!

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Jayson Braddock is an NFL Scout / NFL Writer & On-Air Personality. Jayson is also a football insider for the Dylan Gwinn show on 790 AM in Houston, TX - Listeners NOT in the Houston metropolitan area can hear Jayson on iheart radio or sports790.com. You may email Jayson directly @ [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @JaysonBraddock