Surprised to see him available late in the first round of the 2010 NFL draft, the Cowboys made a trade with the New England Patriots to select Bryant at No. 24 overall even though some teams might have been scared off by off-field issues.
Bryant showed off his first-round talent for Dallas. In 113 games, he hauled in 531 passes for 7,459 yards and a franchise-record 73 touchdown catches before his release after the 2017 season.
Bryant's path back to the NFL with the Baltimore Ravens was an arduous one because of an Achilles tendon tear in his first practice with the New Orleans Saints in 2018. But the 32-year-old will get a chance at redemption against his former team when the Cowboys (3-8) play at Baltimore (6-5) on Tuesday (8:05 p.m. ET, Fox).
"It goes without saying the respect Jerry [Jones] and I have for Dez Bryant," Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones said. "He came in here, his story's well documented against all odds in terms of the things he had to overcome as a young man and had the type of success ... he'll go down as one of the great receivers in Cowboys history. Just a tremendous competitor. Fiery, passionate. Helped us win a lot of games."
There were missteps along the way for Bryant and the Cowboys. He went days without communicating with the team after hurting his knee in 2016. He missed a conditioning test in 2017 and tardiness was a constant issue. After his release, he called two teammates "snakes" because of the role he felt they might have played in the team's decision to cut him.
But his spot in Cowboys history cannot be overlooked.
From 2012 to 2014, Bryant was one of the best receivers in the NFL, earning two of his three Pro Bowl appearances after averaging 91 catches for 1,312 yards and 14 touchdowns during that span.
Here's a look at some of Bryant's highlights and near-misses, along with how current Cowboys players view him heading into Week 13.
Power of No. 88
Bryant fit in perfectly with the legacy of No. 88 in a Cowboys uniform. Legendary wide receiver Drew Pearson started it, is in the Cowboys' Ring of Honor and up for selection (again) to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Michael Irvin added to it in his Hall of Fame career, becoming the franchise leader in receptions and yards at the time of his retirement in 1999.
Bryant's 531 receptions is third most in franchise history, behind tight end Jason Witten and Irvin. His 7,459 yards is fifth in franchise history, and no player has more touchdown catches than his 73. Witten had 72 and Hall of Famer Bob Hayes had 71.
"Very prestigious number. Grateful to put that number on my back every Sunday and every day at practice," Lamb said. "For me to go against a guy [in Bryant] I actually watched growing up excel in this jersey number, to have the opportunity to play against him is a huge honor on my end and speaks volumes on his part. He definitely did a great job here and I'm looking to continue the legacy with the jersey number."
Lamb is adding each game to the Cowboys' rookie record for catches in a season. He has 53 receptions for 650 yards and four touchdowns in 11 games.
"CeeDee, just from Day 1, the conversation and really the respect that he has for the number and frankly how he views it as an added responsibility. I cannot say enough about the young man from the day he arrived here," Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy said. "He's a class act. He's very mature, very professional in everything that he's done. I definitely feel like that carries over to the playing field. He carries the number with great respect."
Bryant up on a pedestal
Lamb, 21, was 11 years old when Bryant was a rookie. Cowboys wide receiver Michael Gallup, 24, was 14. When Bryant was at his best in Dallas, Lamb and Gallup were just getting into football.
"I think the most obvious you'd take away from Dez is just the jump ball," Gallup said. "He was a deadly threat in the red zone. If we were in midfield, he was still going to go jump up and get the ball regardless. It was fun to watch him do what he does."
Type Bryant's name into Google and his Cowboys highlights are everywhere. At times it seemed as though only Bryant and longtime Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo knew what was coming. Their red zone work was uncanny, with different kinds of fades from the high ball to the back shoulder to the low bullet to the front pylon.
Bryant's most memorable catch might have been a touchdown he pinned to his helmet against the Detroit Lions in 2013.
So reverential is Gallup he wouldn't even admit to some of his own Bryant-like catches being all that Bryant-like.
"I wouldn't go that far. I try to. I try to emulate what he had going on," Gallup said. "But he was on another level. I am trying to get to his level still, definitely trying to make plays like he did."
Bryant was also magical after the catch. Think of the 2014 game at London's Wembley Stadium when he took a short pass from Romo and sprinted past and then through Jacksonville Jaguars defenders for a 37-yard score. In 2012, he did the same on an 85-yard score against the Washington Football Team on Thanksgiving.
Every time Bryant touched the ball, there was a buzz. There's a similar sensation Lamb is generating now.
"You could tell every year he got better and that's definitely what I'm trying to do, every game get better, every week get better, every rep get better," Lamb said. "I've been having this type of approach going into this season just by me being a rookie, having something to prove. I feel like keeping guys like Amari [Cooper] and MG [Gallup] and guys like [Cedrick Wilson], just all the great guys just in the room, having them guys coming in, going to work every day, they definitely do a great job holding me accountable. But Dez, ultimately, he was that receiver."
The almost catches
As great as some of his catches were, Bryant had a number of wow moments during games that never counted.
There was a back-of-the-end-zone grab against the Chargers in a preseason game that seemed as though he jumped 12 feet in the air. There was a potential game-winning 37-yard touchdown against the New York Giants in 2012 with 10 seconds to play that saw his pinkie finger land out of bounds before his backside hit the ground.
But who are we kidding? The most famous non-catch would be a catch in the NFL today.
Rewind back to the 2014 divisional round of the playoffs. The Cowboys faced fourth-and-2 from the Green Bay 32. Romo threw a perfect pass down the sideline. Bryant leaped over Packers cornerback Sam Shields, grabbed the ball, took two steps and lunged toward the end zone. The Cowboys had first-and-goal from the Green Bay 1. Or so they thought.
Everybody knows what happened next. McCarthy, then the Packers coach, threw the challenge flag; Gene Steratore and the NFL office changed the call; the Cowboys' season ended in a 26-21 loss.
"That was a helluva catch he made that day," McCarthy said of Bryant's effort. "Unfortunately, the rules didn't line up for the Cowboys."
Before Jarvis Landry's 37-yard touchdown pass to Odell Beckham Jr. in Week 4 this season, Bryant was the last lefty to throw a touchdown pass off an offensive play in an NFL game. (Tennessee's Kevin Byard threw a TD off a fake punt in 2018.)
The left-handed throw came in Week 16 of the 2016 season against the Lions. On first-and-goal from the Detroit 10, Dak Prescott pitched the ball to Bryant on the reverse. Thinking it was a run, the Lions defender came up, leaving Witten open for the easy score from Bryant.
For years, Bryant asked to throw a pass. Truth be told, he has an excellent arm, which was on display during pregame warm-ups. The throw gave Dallas a 14-point lead on its way to a 42-21 victory.
Witten even "threw up the X," in tribute to Bryant's signature move after he scores a touchdown.
"That was dope," linebacker Jaylon Smith said. "But he's got so many plays that stick out. I can't wait to go up against him [and] get a chance to hit him."