While we never like to think of our favorite players being released, Dallas Cowboys fans have faced this reality twice in recent years. The departures of DeMarcus Ware in 2014 and Tony Romo just a few months ago make it clear that few players, if any, are safe. Could Dez Bryant be joining them soon?
After this season, Bryant’s contract will give the Cowboys options. He will count $16.5 million against the salary cap and only have $8 million left in guaranteed money. Dallas could release him outright for $8.5 million in cap relief, or use the June 1st-provision to split that up to just $4 million dead money in 2018 and 2019.
Could the Cowboys possibly consider letting go of Dez Bryant? What sort of 2017 performance would he need to have to take that option off the table?
At his best, Bryant is one of the toughest matchups among NFL receivers. He can overpower most cornerbacks and is still dangerous in the open field. Dez Bryant is still a franchise receiver when his health and the circumstances on offense allow him to be.
Health has been an issue for the last two seasons. Dez missed seven games in 2015 and three more last season. Even when he’s on the field, Bryant can sometimes look labored by his nagging injuries and it impedes performance. Even if you project his per-game stats from 2016 over a full season, they would have been significantly lower numbers in yards and touchdowns than his best seasons.
Dez Bryant turns 29 this November, which means he turns 30 midway through the 2018 season. These health issues and whatever declining physical skills he has aren’t going to be improved with age. If 2017 is another down year, a three-year trend become very difficult to ignore.
That said, defining a “down year” can get tricky. This isn’t the same offense that Dez had his best seasons with from 2012-2014. Even if Bryant’s chemistry with Dak Prescott is assumably better in their second year together, Cole Beasley has emerged as a favorite target for Prescott and will cut into Dez’s opportunities. What’s more, the ground-focused attack with Ezekiel Elliott can be detrimental to Bryant’s production.
The DeMarcus Ware comparison is a strong one. Ware was about to turn 32 when Dallas released him in 2014. Despite missing only three games the previous season, Ware’s production had plummeted to just six sacks. Dallas cleared roughly $7 million in cap space by cutting Ware and the move seemed very shrewd. Jerry Jones was even praised for thinking with his head over his heart, which has not been his reputation as General Manager.
In hindsight, some could argue that it was a mistake. Ware went on to win a Super Bowl in Denver and had 10 sacks despite a lesser role on the Broncos defense. This past offseason, some were even clamoring for Ware to return to Dallas to help one of the league’s worst pass rushes.
Ultimately, I don’t blame the Cowboys for the Ware decision. The logic was sound in the moment, and even the hindsight argument is faulty. Ware’s success in Denver came because he was surrounded by talented guys. If he’d stayed in Dallas, he still would’ve be asked to be the focal point of the defensive line. There is little reason to think that would’ve been effective.
Age and declining performance sent DeMarcus Ware, the greatest pass-rusher in Cowboys history and one of the best to ever play football, into early free agency. Clearly, it would be foolish to think that it can’t happen to Dez Bryant.
Nobody is rooting for this, of course. A big year from Dez is a great thing for Dallas. That $16.5 million cap hit is perfectly fine if he’s producing like a true franchise receiver. Dallas can afford to pay it while Prescott and Elliott are still discounted from their rookie deals, and especially when all of the Tony Romo dead money comes off the books in 2018.
This is the major difference between the Bryant and Ware situations, and one that works heavily in Dez’s favor. The Cowboys were in desperate need for cap space when they cut DeMarcus, a move that they may not have made otherwise. The 2018 Cowboys will have a lot more breathing room and may not have to make the tough decision on Bryant.
That said, if Bryant misses another big chunk of games or clearly isn’t the same athlete anymore, Dallas may need the cash to go get someone else. History has proven that Terrance Williams can’t fill Bryant’s shoes. If Dez isn’t a franchise receiver anymore, the Cowboys will need to find one and probably can’t afford to keep paying Bryant at that same level.
This topic is almost certain to be revisited after the 2017 season. Hopefully, it’s to say that Bryant was too good to even consider releasing. If Dez struggles next year, though, we may resume this conversation sooner than you think.