Dez Bryant vs. Demaryius Thomas: Superior receiver in Year 4?

General managers and scouts will often give top draft picks three seasons of playing time before making definitive judgments about their abilities. This is to allow blue-chip prospects enough time to hone their skills and fully maximize their immense potential. Given that premise, I thought it would be fun to check in on the first two receivers selected in the 2010 NFL Draft: Demaryius Thomas and Dez Bryant.

In a draft-day surprise that shocked those who observed both players in college, Thomas was taken ahead of Bryant, picked 22nd overall by the Denver Broncos. Thomas, who tallied 120 receptions for 2,339 yards and 15 touchdowns during a stellar three-year career in Georgia Tech's option offense, was viewed as a dynamic athlete with tremendous potential. But scouts were concerned about his limited experience in a pro-style passing attack. Evaluators wondered if he would be able to follow in the footsteps of fellow Georgia Tech product Calvin Johnson by developing into an elite receiver despite his lack of exposure to the complexities of the NFL-style game.

Bryant, selected 24th overall by the Dallas Cowboys, missed most of his final season at Oklahoma State after being ruled ineligible by the NCAA. However, he was widely considered the top receiver in the 2010 class after putting up stellar numbers as a collegian. He tantalized scouts with his remarkable combination of size, speed and ball skills. Although there were plenty of concerns about his character and off-the-field demeanor, most observers believed his talent outweighed the risk, especially in a league that was placing an increasing emphasis on the passing game.

Now that we have three years of game tape to assess, I thought this would be a great time to take a look at how well Thomas and Bryant have progressed. Which receiver will ultimately prove to be the crown jewel of the 2010 class? Here are my thoughts:

Ball skills

There has been a seismic shift, size-wise, at the receiver position, fueled largely by teams' desires to expand the strike zone for the quarterback. Part of that expansion can be attributed to the size, athleticism and ball skills frequently displayed by big-bodied receivers. Bryant epitomizes this combination as he terrorizes opponents on the perimeter.

Studying Bryant's performance from 2012, I marveled at his ability to come down with the contested catch. He frequently outleaped defenders on 50/50 balls down the field, displaying remarkable hand-eye coordination as he grabbed the pass. To take advantage of Bryant's stellar ball skills, the Cowboys will routinely target him on back-shoulder fades near the end zone. In the video clip to the right, taken from the Cowboys' matchup against the Washington Redskins, quarterback Tony Romo finds Bryant for an 11-yard score on a back-shoulder throw in a critical fourth-down situation. The fact that Romo targeted Bryant on a deliberately underthrown toss shows the unbelievable confidence he has in the young pass catcher's stellar ball skills.

Thomas also demonstrates remarkable hands and ball skills as a big-bodied playmaker. He easily adjusts to errant throws on the perimeter, utilizing his superior size and athleticism to snag contested balls in traffic. Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning capitalizes on Thomas' skills by tossing the ball high and outside, giving his young playmaker a chance to reach over the outstretched arms of smaller defenders and grab the ball.

Given Thomas' ability to expand the strike zone, it is not surprising that Manning frequently targets him in the red zone, where the condensed field forces the quarterback to make precise throws. The video clip to the right, taken from the Broncos' Week 17 win over the Kansas City Chiefs, demonstrates how Thomas' superb ball skills expand the strike zone. On the play, Thomas runs a skinny post behind the Chiefs' defense. An underneath defender is sitting directly in the throwing lane, but Manning, undeterred by the obstruction, tosses the ball high to the back of the end zone. Thomas overpowers his defender to create space and snatch the alley-oop for a 13-yard score.

Advantage: Bryant

Route running

Precise route-running skills are routinely overlooked in the evaluation process, because coaches believe they can develop those skills through diligent work on the practice field. Coaches will stress the finer points of balance, body control and burst to help talented receivers create separation from defenders at the top of breaks. As I studied Bryant and Thomas, I saw a pair of young pass catchers who are, at this point, better athletes than route runners.

Bryant, in particular, has yet to consistently display the necessary discipline to be able to defeat defenders with a wide array of fakes, stems and releases. Although he is routinely open over the middle of the field, a close examination of the game tape shows that his success is often a byproduct of his remarkable athleticism, not his polished route-running skills; he simply overwhelms defenders with his sheer talent.

Of course, Bryant would find it easier to get open against elite cornerbacks if he were to pay closer attention to the details of route running. I'm not trying to minimize his immense talent, potential or production. However, it's clear that Bryant's route-running deficiencies were part of the reason Romo couldn't target him consistently earlier in his career. The duo showed better chemistry down the stretch in 2012, and the biggest reason for this was Bryant's moderate growth in this area.

Thomas is also a work in progress as a route runner. He entered the NFL with limited experience in the passing game after playing in a triple-option offense at Georgia Tech, where he primarily ran vertical routes (go-route and post-routes) or quick screens and slants. That lack of experience led to a slow transition to the pro game, which contributed to his paltry numbers over his first two seasons.

However, Thomas made significant strides in Year 3, with Manning coming over from Indianapolis. The veteran quarterback worked tirelessly with Thomas on the finer points of route running, to ensure the duo was on the same page in the passing game.

This is apparent in the video clip above, taken from the Broncos' matchup against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Thomas, aligned on the right, is instructed to run a fade against Cover 2. On the play, he uses a crafty inside release to slip past the rolled-up corner, then quickly works to the outside, creating a window for Manning, who squeezes the ball through before the safety can get over the top. The fact that Thomas worked back outside might seem like a minute detail, but the added space was likely the difference between a completion and an interception.

Advantage: Even

Run after the catch

The proliferation of the West Coast offense has prompted coaches and scouts to carefully examine receivers' running skills in the evaluation process, as offensive coordinators want receivers on the field who can transform short passes into big gains.

Bryant shows exceptional running skills with the ball in his hands. He is a big, explosive athlete with the size, speed and strength to run past or through defenders in the open field. Most impressively, he is a fearless runner with the instincts and awareness to weave through traffic after snagging a quick slant or shallow crosser over the middle.

In the video clip to the right, taken from the Cowboys' matchup against the New Orleans Saints, Bryant snatches a slant against tight man coverage, then races 58 yards for a score. The most impressive part of the catch-and-run was Bryant's display of strength as he ran through tacklers on the way to the end zone.

Bryant's success as a runner can partly be attributed to the dynamic skills he has shown as a punt returner, an area in which he had flashes of brilliance as a rookie, when he averaged 14.2 yards per return and notched two return scores. Not only are those numbers on par with the production put up by perennial Pro Bowlers at the position, they're indicative of a player who is comfortable with the ball in his hands in the open field.

Thomas is also a standout playmaker with the ball in his hands. He possesses the size, strength and speed to outrun or overpower defenders in space, and also has the natural running skills to slither through seams in traffic. These traits jumped off the tape; I'm convinced he is one of the most explosive runners that I've seen at the position.

To capitalize on Thomas' skills as an open-field runner, the Broncos frequently get him the ball on a host of wide-receiver screens on the perimeter. This allows Manning to log the kinds of easy completions he needs to maintain his rhythm as a passer while providing Thomas with big-play opportunities in the open field.

In the video clip to the right, taken from the Broncos' Week 1 matchup against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Thomas showcases his explosiveness as a runner, quickly snatching a "now" screen from Manning and weaving through multiple defenders en route to a 71-yard score. Few receivers in the NFL are capable of matching Thomas' explosive skills with the ball in his hands.

Advantage: Thomas

Explosiveness

With NFL teams increasingly likely to build their offensive game plans around the passing attack, coaches expect elite receivers to routinely produce big plays on the perimeter. Whether it means chalking up first downs or putting the ball in the paint, top receivers must be able to deliver game-changing moments.

Bryant has definitely developed into one of the most explosive receivers in the NFL; in 43 career games, he has totaled 44 receptions of 20-plus yards, 11 of which covered at least 40 yards. Additionally, Bryant has recorded 27 receiving touchdowns, including 12 scores in 2012 -- third-most in the NFL last season.

Looking at Bryant's game on tape, I was surprised by his production on down-field routes. He has a knack for slipping past defenders on vertical routes, and his ability to deliver explosive plays fuels the Cowboys' offense. The Cowboys take advantage of those skills by frequently targeting Bryant on deep routes down the boundary.

In the video clip to the right, taken from the Cowboys' Week 10 matchup against the Philadelphia Eagles, Bryant executes a clever stutter-go move to run past Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie for a 49-yard gain. The hesitation creates space -- and a huge window for Romo to squeeze the pass into along the sideline.

After showing flashes of brilliance as a playmaker throughout his brief career, Thomas blossomed into one of the NFL's top big-play threats in 2012. He ranked behind only Calvin Johnson with 29 receptions of 20-plus yards, which included five receptions of 40 yards or more. Thomas' standout performance last season followed a spectacular finish to the 2011 campaign -- when Tim Tebow was at the helm.

Breaking down Thomas' game tape, I was amazed at his versatility as a playmaker. He is a rare receiver who has both the speed to run past defenders on vertical routes and the running skills to turn short passes into huge gains. This makes him a threat to score from anywhere on the field -- which is a play caller's dream in the NFL.

Advantage: Thomas

Clutch factor

Elite players have a knack for stepping up when the season is on the line. Prime-time performers show that they can carry the offensive load, if needed, while also displaying the confidence and composure to make plays against defenses designed to neutralize their effectiveness.

Bryant has definitely shown those traits, despite playing for a Cowboys squad that has failed to reach the playoffs in each of the past three seasons. He single-handedly carried the offensive load for Dallas during the final half of the 2012 season, recording at least one touchdown in seven straight games down the stretch. Additionally, Bryant topped the 100-yard mark three times in that span, including a nine-catch, 224-yard effort in a narrow loss to the New Orleans Saints.

While those performances certainly stand out on tape, Bryant's ability to come up with big plays in the game's waning moments was what caught my attention. He repeatedly made spectacular plays with the game on the line, and appeared to become Romo's primary weapon in critical moments.

In this clip to the right, taken from a Week 14 game against the Cincinnati Bengals, Bryant comes down with a crucial 27-yard touchdown on a brilliant dig route over the middle. Although Romo and Bryant connected on those kinds of plays frequently over the season, the fact that they were able to make this play with the defense directing a double team toward the young star is a testament to his clutch skills, particularly when one considers that the Cowboys were attempting to rally from a fourth-quarter deficit.

Thomas was just as productive as Bryant down the stretch. He notched four of his seven 100-yard games after the team's Week 7 bye and averaged 89.2 yards per game over the final 10 contests.

Those numbers are part of a two-year trend in which Thomas has taken his game to another level when it has mattered most. In 2011, Thomas posted three 100-yard efforts over the final seven games, including the playoffs. Most importantly, he showed big-play ability, notching four 40-yard receptions in those games -- along with that walk-off touchdown against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the wild-card round.

Advantage: Bryant

Conclusion

The comparison between Thomas and Bryant is as close as any I've made since starting the "Who's Better?" series a year ago. Both players have developed into Pro Bowl-caliber threats who are on the verge of joining the ranks of the elite at their position.

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While Thomas certainly has earned the respect of his peers and fans, as evidenced by his Pro Bowl selection, I believe Bryant is the better overall player at this point. He is a dominant playmaker with all of the tools that scouts covet in a No. 1 receiver. Now, he still needs to take his game to another level, but he has started to show signs of being a transcendent superstar. I think he'll emerge as a top-five player this season.

That certainly doesn't diminish the ascension of Thomas to the upper echelon of NFL receivers, but the fact that Eric Decker also enjoyed a phenomenal season with Manning under center suggests that the Broncos' quarterback and the system are chiefly responsible for the receivers' production. If Thomas continues to string spectacular seasons together, he will get the recognition he deserves. But if I had to build a passing game around either Bryant or Thomas right now, I would opt for Bryant.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks