It’s been a disappointing season for the Dallas Cowboys. In a strange turn of events, the defense has emerged as of late to carry the offense and keep them in games. If the offense eventually gets it together, the Cowboys win. If not, they don’t. There have been a handful of problems on offense this season. Tyron Smith has been hurt, Ezekiel Elliott has been suspended, and the poor play of Dak Prescott has really hampered the offenses ability to score points. Entering this season, Dallas had been a top five scoring offensive team in three of the last four years, with the lone exception being in 2015 where the play of the quarterback buried any chance of success. But once again, they have fallen out of the top five and currently sit 12th in the league in points scored (23.2 per game).
One name that has been thrown around as a big part of the offenses struggles is Dez Bryant. The Cowboys All-Pro receiver is having a down season. After three-straight 1,200+ yard seasons with 12+ touchdowns, the Cowboy rewarded him with a five-year, $70 million deal in July of 2015. Since then, Bryant hasn’t broken the 1,000 yard mark or reached double-digit touchdowns. He hasn’t had a 100-yard receiving game since midway through last season. And to make matters even worse, he’s developed a huge case of the dropsies lately. It has some people questioning his place on the team.
Recently, our own Tom Ryle wrote about how it may be time for the Cowboys and Bryant to part ways. If you are on the fence about Dez, I highly recommend checking this out to gain a solid perspective from both sides. Bryant still has two years left on his deal that will pay him a base salary of $12.5 million in each of the next two seasons. His signing bonus money adds another $4 million to his annual cap hit, making him a pricey resource for the next couple years. If the Cowboys were to release Bryant this offseason, he would be an $8 million dead money hit ($4 million post-June 1st), but would ultimately save the team $25 million over the next two seasons.
You can make a case that Bryant isn’t worth his cap hit and not many would be able to argue against that based on his production. His 2017 stat line so far is: 66 catches, 815 yards, and six touchdowns. This is a slight increase in catches and yards from last year, but that’s attributed to an increase in targets. Over the last three years since his new deal, he has a catch rate of 50% versus a 63% catch rate over his first five years in the league.
When you look at this situation, it’s important to examine what is best for the Cowboys starting from right now. Before we deem him cut-worthy, let’s ask ourselves a couple questions.
How are the Cowboys going to replace him?
If the Cowboys released Bryant this offseason, they would have an extra $8.5 million of cap space to work with. It’s no secret that the Cowboys don’t throw a lot of money at free agents from other teams and for good reason. Here are last year’s hottest WR commodities and first-year production with their new team:
If you think you’re not getting your money’s worth with Dez, then these figures won’t make you feel warm and fuzzy about trying to supplement production through free agency. The only standout from this group is Alshon Jeffrey who, like Bryant - hasn’t had a 1,000 yard receiving year since 2014. He also has a 47.5% catch rate this season. So how did the Philadelphia Eagles handle this Dez-like production from Jeffrey? Well, they gave him a four-year, $52 million extension putting him right there with Bryant when it comes to cap resources.
Nobody is scrutinizing Jeffrey’s non-elite production or his drops. That’s because they have more important things to talk about, like all the winning they’re doing.
Should the Cowboys dabble in the free agent market this upcoming off-season, I have to tell you - the talent is a little scarce. The top guys are players like Sammy Watkins, Mike Wallace, Terrelle Pryor, and Eric Decker. Watkins is the only remotely interesting name on the list. His 2017 stat line so far is: 39 catches, 593 yards, 8 TDs. His market value is estimated at 4 yrs, $36.8 million ($9.2 M annually) according to spotrac.
I think it’s safe to say that free agency won’t be the answer.
The Cowboys build their team through the draft. If you are looking for a cornerstone player to add to the organization, this is where you should start. The front office is in the habit of picking off good talent and don’t drive themselves towards any specific position. That could leave them in the cold at the wide receiver position if the stars don’t line up just right.
Last year, there were three WRs taken within the top 10 overall picks. There were three more taken in the second round. Of all six of these players, the only receiver that made any noise this season was the last one taken, JuJu Smith-Schuster.
The good news is, Smith-Schuster was on the Cowboys radar as he was one of only two receivers invited for a pre-draft visit with the team. The bad news is, getting instant production from a rookie is risky business. Would you want the Cowboys to invest their first-round pick in a wide receiver?
A more ideal situation would be to just let the draft come to them and hope a quality pass catcher is still available in rounds two or three.
Is Dez really that bad?
When Bryant signed his big contract in 2015, he was worth every penny. The things he was doing on the field were second to no one and he belonged in the conversation when discussing who was the best wide receiver in the league. I had just joined the BTB staff when he signed his new deal and one of my first articles on this website was to ask the community what their favorite Dez Bryant play was. I listed ten nominees and four of those plays came from the 2014 season. It was truly incredible what he was doing on the field.
So, what happened?
Injuries have played a part, but there is one common denominator from his glory years that is no longer present during his recent years of struggle - Tony Romo. Now, that is not to say that all this is Dak Prescott’s fault, but one thing that is clearly noticeable is that Dak and Dez just don’t have good chemistry that Dez and Romo had.
But that’s not to say it can’t get there.
Bryant had similar totals when it comes to catches and yards this year compared to last year, but these two seasons are the two extremes when it comes to his efficiency. He had 15.9 yards per reception last season which was the highest of his eight years in the league. He has a 12.3 yards per reception this season which is his absolute lowest of his career. Is this really indicative to a falloff from Bryant?
Prescott’s pass protection has suffered this season. The absence of both Ezekiel Elliott and Tyron Smith have created a new environment for the Cowboys young quarterback and he hasn’t handled it very well. He’s made poor reads, off-balance throws, and his accuracy has been off. If all these poor connections were exclusive to just Bryant, then we might want to take a closer look, but Prescott’s other weapons are suffering as well. The sure-handed Cole Beasley had a catch rate of 77% last year, but is at 57% this season. Did Beasley all of a sudden become terrible, too? Look at his numbers:
Where’s da sauce?
We haven’t seen Terrance William’s “Swag Walk” all season because he’s yet to score a touchdown this year.
It’s one thing if a particular receiver was struggling, but it’s another thing when all of them are.
Dez Bryant has 102 targets this season.— Marcus Mosher (@Marcus_Mosher) November 28, 2017
He has 53 catches.
PFF says that he's had just 60 catchable passes this season.
42 uncatchable passes!!!
Some have claimed that Dez has lost a step and cannot create separation. Is this an accurate claim? (data courtesy of nextgenstats)
True of False: Dez can't create separation— Dan Rogers (@DannyPhantom24) December 27, 2017
Here is the average separation from the high priced WRs in the league this year. pic.twitter.com/9qflQdQxX5
The answer to fixing the Cowboys passing game isn’t replacing Dez Bryant. A better solution would be to focus more on keeping Prescott upright, Zeke on the field, and looking to add a little speed to Dak’s arsenal of receivers.
Tom said it perfectly in his write-up with this comment...
“Roster moves have to be made without emotion.”
He’s absolutely correct. And right now, we are angry. We are looking for scapegoats because that’s what we do, but let’s just scratch our mad spot and revisit this later so cooler heads can prevail. Bryant is a good player. He’s not so good that the Cowboys shouldn’t take a hard look at some of the talent in the draft should things start to line up that way, but he’s also not so bad to where they should just just cut him loose.
For now, Dez stays.