|Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press|
|Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant will be expected to improve upon his 63 catches and nine TDs from last season.|
IRVING, Texas -- The word "potential" has haunted Dez Bryant during his young career.
It's a blessing, yes, to be gifted with the type of skills any receiver would covet. It is also a curse.
Through two injury-plagued seasons in the NFL, the Dallas Cowboys wideout is still trying to figure out how good he can be. Still trying to take his raw materials and mold them into a game-changing, play-making machine who is more than the sum of his highlights.
That was on Bryant's mind as he wrapped up the first week of organized team activities at Valley Ranch. It was just moments after receivers coach Jimmy Robinson spoke of Bryant being a "work in progress."
"He did a pretty good job last year when you look at the production," Robinson said, "and hasn't even come close to scratching the surface."
Bryant heard the remarks and smiled. He took it as a compliment and a challenge.
"When I hear it, it makes me want to work harder," said Bryant, the 6-foot-2, 218-pound former first-rounder from Oklahoma State. "It's fun always going up against the challenge of what you need to."
After piling up 928 yards on 63 catches with nine touchdowns last year, Bryant wasn't satisfied with his performance. Just the opposite.
He believes he's improved mentally this offseason, noting how when coach Jason Garrett shouts out a play, Bryant is already thinking of his assignment as the call is coming out.
Yet even in the past when Bryant understood his assignment, he couldn't always perform it to the best of his ability. He suffered a thigh bruise in 2011 that caused him to miss one game and landed him on the injury report four times. But Bryant surprised reporters Wednesday by saying he never felt 100 percent healthy in 2011. Not one time.
"I don't think I was ever where I wanted to be," Bryant said in a moment of self reflection. "It was just the injuries, my performance. I didn't feel like they healed quick enough."
There were still the highlights. The 50-yard catch against the New York Giants. The winding, 42-yard rumble against the New York Jets that led him to say on the sidelines, "You better put 2-4 (Darrelle Revis) on me." The sideline sidestep against the New England Patriots that made safety Patrick Chung fall down. The second-effort 34-yarder against the St. Louis Rams.
That wasn't all he put on film, though. There were also moments of maddening inconsistency. So when Bryant went back and watched his cut-ups from 2011, he cringed a little bit. He called last year "frustrating."
"Some of the game tape that I watched from last year, I really wasn't too proud of myself," Bryant said. "I know it's because of the injuries, but I feel like this year, I'm spending more time focusing on my body and making sure everything is right."
No lockout this year has allowed him to work with strength and conditioning coach Mike Woicik, one of the best in the business. Bryant reported that he's stronger than ever, feels more explosive coming out of his breaks and simply feels good. He moved to DeSoto, Texas, closer to the facility, and he's been in town all offseason. That's paid off, too.
What will Bryant's 2012 be like?
"Well, we're just going to see," Bryant said, smiling. "Just going to continue to keep working hard and we're going to see what happens."
The world will be watching, as it has always been with Bryant. So will his coaches and teammates, who rave about his highlights in practice. Just not the kind of highlights you expect.
Quarterback Tony Romo noted another impressive trait.
"You get out there and watch him, he'll finish those drills," Romo said. "He'll run 30 yards after the catch. I'll tell you what, go watch him after a catch and see what he does. Play'll be over and he'll still be running 20 more yards. He's got a great upside. He's continuing to work his butt off, he's just going to get better and better every year."
The next step for Bryant is to be consistent. It's a battle for all young players, and Bryant isn't immune. He showed strong signs in a rookie season that included 45 receptions for 561 yards and six touchdowns before breaking his fibula. Same last year, even if Laurent Robinson emerged as a go-to receiver alongside him.
Garrett wants more, especially with Robinson having moved on to Jacksonville.
"He's shown all of us that he's capable of doing a lot of great things on the field, but you have to do them play in and play out," Garrett said. "You've got to do them quarter in and quarter out, game in and game out. That's something that he, like a lot of younger players, has to get better at. It starts with practice."
Bryant's focus on film study has increased, as has his attention to detail. Can he make that next step and find out how good he really is?
"I feel like it's already much better than last year," Bryant said.
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