In 2016, a popular talking point about the Dallas Cowboys was that they had found a new “triplets”: Quarterback Dak Prescott, running back Ezekiel Elliott (both rookies, of course), and veteran wide receiver Dez Bryant. But this year, things fell apart. Elliott, as you all know, went through a long legal fight before serving his six-game suspension. In Elliott’s absence, Prescott, who had been somewhat erratic already, really seemed to fall apart, particularly after the eight-sack punishment he endured at the hands of the Atlanta Falcons and All-Pro-for-a-day Adrian Clayborn. Meanwhile, the Dak-to-Dez connection never really seemed in place all season, and was even worse once Elliott was off the field, forcing the Cowboys to try to move through the air more. In particular, Bryant has had far too many drops, is often taken out of the equation by the opposing defense’s coverage, and had the disastrous fumble last week.
Both Prescott and Elliott are going to be in their third year, and are young enough that the team can hold a reasonable expectation that they can resolve their sophomore issues. But Bryant is very different. He is 29, has already played seven seasons in the violent world of the NFL, and has seen his production fall off dramatically, partly due to injury, since his three 1,000+ yard seasons from 2012 to 2014. Significantly, 2014 was his last year playing the entire season with a healthy Tony Romo. He had developed a real connection with Romo, something that has not shown at all during his two years with Prescott.
After a year where the biggest issues for Dallas were pretty clearly on offense, there need to be some changes made. One place we may see a big one is the offensive coordinator job, where Scott Linehan’s seat suddenly looks very hot. But another, very controversial idea has also emerged. It may be time for the Cowboys to move on from Dez Bryant and try to find a new WR1.
While the blame for the lack of production with Bryant is not entirely his, there is just something that has not clicked with Prescott. Since the Cowboys are much more locked into the quarterback, the only way to try and change that would be to release Bryant. This is seen by many as heresy, but one thing it is not is a condemnation of Bryant as a player or teammate. It is just more like a case of irreconcilable differences. One Twitter commentator puts it like this in discussing how Prescott’s game may just not be workable for Bryant.
Yup or throws anticipation throws. Dak's game is leading receivers. He's never going to see or throw to a guy who isn't open yet. Just different. https://t.co/1sdSN6q61r— Steve Harrington (@NickCochNY) December 26, 2017
We saw in 2016 how effective Prescott could be without the disruptions and offensive line problems this year brought. And it is telling that the leading receiver that season was not Bryant - it was Cole Beasley (who, it must be admitted, also has fallen off badly this year). As much as Bryant has given the team, he may no longer have enough to offer. And on the other side of the coin, he may well benefit from a new team with the right kind of quarterback and return to his old, dominant self.
He will. Hence why it's great for both sides. I'd love to see Dez in a scheme and with a QB more suitable for him. Not a knock on either side, they're just different https://t.co/YrWWcLyTaa— Steve Harrington (@NickCochNY) December 26, 2017
That raises a couple of questions, of course. Bryant has one of the biggest contracts and cap hits for the Cowboys. But while releasing him outright or trading him would come with a significant dead money penalty of $8 million next year, it also would free up significant cap space. The savings would be $8.5 million in 2018 (figures per Over the Cap).
That’s a significant amount of money to find a replacement. However, we all know how the Cowboys loathe to spend in free agency. While they might make an exception in this case, that would not be a wise bet. And there do not look to be any real candidates to take over his job already on the roster. Terrance Williams seems to have a ceiling of WR2, Cole Beasley is obviously a slot receiver, and rookie Noah Brown has not shown any real reason to think he can step up, at least so far. Instead, the most likely place they might look to find a successor as the WR1 would be the draft, where the Cowboys look to be picking in the first round in the 15 to 19 range, pending the outcome of the final week of the season. And if the Cowboys should make the decision to move on from Bryant, WR would certainly be a first-round consideration.
It is of course extremely early in the draft process, but a couple of early boards (Draftrek and CBS) list some prospects that might fall in the right range for Dallas. Courtland Sutton of SMU and James Washington of Oklahoma State are the top two, and both come from schools where Dallas has some recent history finding talent - Bryant of course is an Oklahoma State prospect, and Beasley played his college ball at Southern Methodist. Both Sutton and Washington are currently seen as being in the 10 to 18 range as overall talents. Beyond that, some other players that are possible first round talents are Deontay Burnett of Southern California, Anthony Miller of Memphis, and Marcell Ateman, another OSU product. The Cowboys staff relies, of course, on their own scouting, and may see more in one of those players than other teams.
Releasing Bryant would be a highly controversial move, as mentioned. No one can question his passion for the game and his dedication to the Cowboys. Still, roster moves have to be made without emotion. And has also been brought up, the move could well be as beneficial for Bryant’s career as for Dallas.
It is not at all a given that the team would even consider this move. But the evidence is that they should at least give it some thought. Then they need to make the best call for the future of the team. One way or another, what happens at the featured wide receiver spot is going to have a large impact on the team going forward. And it will be discussed until, and long past, the beginning of next season.