Dez Bryant: What a Difference a Year Makes

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COMMENTARY | File this under "it's only preseason" if you must, but Dez Bryant has been dominant so far.

His stat line through three games -- 13 receptions on 14 targets (92.9%) for 183 yards and one touchdown -- offers little doubt that he's one of the best wide receivers in the league. Keep in mind, those numbers come on only 69 snaps.

Throughout the summer, he has been garnering constant praise from reporters and coaches alike. He had a cool, quiet offseason and now seems to be sizzling at midseason speed. Things are very much looking brilliant for him, which is quite a change from 2012.

All the recent praise and adulation makes it easy to forget that at about this time last year, news reports of Bryant's arrest over an altercation with his mother were still fresh. The charges were eventually dropped, but it was yet another case in what was becoming an old story. Between arrests, refusing to carry a veteran player's pads, lawsuits over unpaid jewelry debt, baggy jeans, injuries, and inconsistency on the field, Bryant was building a reputation that perfectly fit the mold of (bad) Cowboys draft picks. The pressure on him to step up in 2012 and be the receiver that they moved up to draft had never been greater.

Initially, said pressure looked to be too much. Through the first seven and three quarters of games, Bryant was credited with seven drops and two interceptions (per Pro Football Focus). Despite catching 66% of his targets, he managed only 141 yards-after-contact and found the end zone only twice. Not exactly No. 1 wide receiver numbers.

Then this happened.

It was the catch that never was. When the official review came back and overturned the ruling of a touchdown, heartbreak quickly replaced elation. After a long comeback from one of the ugliest games that saw the Cowboys fall to an early 23-point deficit and turn the ball over six times, only to lose by a fingertip, felt like a new kind of defeat.

But it was that non-catch, that very moment-with the entire team surrounding him as he lay on the ground-that we knew. After all of the hype and all of the scouting reports and all of the expectations and ups-and-downs, we finally knew that No. 88 was capable of being the best wide receiver in league.

He would go on to finish the last seven games of 2012 with 50 receptions for 879 yards and 10 touchdowns. His yards-after-catch improved to 327. He finished the season ranked third in touchdowns, fourth in missed tackles forced and sixth in yards. Otherwise known as No. 1 wide receiver numbers.

Of course, no one ever questioned his athletic ability. Instead, they questioned his maturity. They wondered if what's going on underneath the helmet would stand in the way of his rare talent, which was, at that time especially, a fair concern.

It's easy to overlook the roles maturity and focus play when it comes to football success. We all know that Bryant changed as a player during the 2012 season. What's just as important is how he's changed as a person.

You may recall the set of rules Jerry Jones and the Cowboys laid out for him on the heels of his arrest last summer. Who knows how much or how little that had to do with him growing up and who cares? What's clear is the support system in place at Valley Ranch, and his positive response to that support system.

If that's not enough, look no further than Michael Jordan. It's been reported that he has taken on a bit of a mentor role, reminding Bryant that distractions away from football can lead to career-threatening consequences. Obviously, there's a financial investment regarding their recent deal, but if it's true that Bryant has asked to have his payment deferred until this season's completion, then it's true that he is a much different person entering 2013 than he was at this point a year ago.

Preseason stats may mean little but progress can't be ignored. The only element missing from Bryant's game had nothing to do with his ability to be a playmaker and had everything to do with his self-inflicted problems. With all of that in the past, it's almost scary to think how good he will be in 2013.

Justin Bonnema is a freelance writer and a featured columnist covering the NFL and fantasy football. Follow him on Twitter: @justinbonnema.

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