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Stephen Jones is playing a risky game with his public comments about Dez Bryant

Stephen Jones is being tough on Dez Bryant, but will it blow up in his face?

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Arizona Cardinals Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Stephen Jones has been a part of this Cowboys brain trust since the beginning of his father’s ownership. There are well publicized anecdotes of arguments he’s had with his father, Hall of Fame owner Jerry Jones, over contracts and personnel decisions in the past. Jerry will always get his proper due as the great wheeler and dealer but Stephen deserves his fair share for his hand in negotiations over the years.

Stephen has seen first hand what ‘kicking the can down the road’ means and how these things can often hurt a team. In many ways, it’s Stephen Jones that is more of the shrewd businessman than his father. He has no qualms with making tough business decisions and moving on from players past their prime.

However, even though Stephen’s job is to play the realist in the front office, sometimes he goes about it in a risky manner. Take, for instance, this situation with Dez Bryant and talks of a pay cut or outright release. Stephen, along with the front office, are likely to explore the former first but there are easy ways to lower Bryant’s $16.5 million cap figure:

“Dallas can simply add a voidable year to his deal, and then restructure his 2018 base salary. The club could reduce Bryant’s base salary down to the vet minimum for his tenure, $915,000. They then spread that $11.585-million restructure across 2018, 2019 and what we will call “the phantom year” of 2020 at the hit of $3.86 million.”

The question is what does Stephen gain with comments about “sideline distractions” and “it’s a business”?

”Of course we pay Dez a lot of money, and he knows that. He’s as aware of it as anybody. ... He knows when you get paid that kind of money there’s high expectations in terms of the productivity. ... Those are all things we have to look at as a team, as an organization when we start to put our team together for next year.”

See this whole matter stems from a point of correctness for the Cowboys VP. Dez Bryant signed a five-year, $70 million extension with $45 million guaranteed back in the offseason of 2015. He was coming off three straight years of 90+ catches, about 1,300 receiving yards, and double-digit touchdown catches. In the last three seasons, he’s missed 10 games due to injury (seven games in 2015, three in 2016), has only 17 touchdowns, and has failed to reach 1,000 receiving yards, coming closest this past season with 838 yards on 69 receptions.

Dez is obviously a depreciating asset and Stephen has every right to want some money on a deal that’s not looking good at the moment. In fact, the Cowboys receiving department underachieved so much last season, they might as well ask Terrance Williams and Cole Beasley for money back too. There is no issue with wanting to make Bryant’s contract a friendlier deal but there could be an issue with the way Stephen is poking the bear, so to speak. It started at the Senior Bowl, where Stephen had this to say:

“The other thing that we all see and it is certainly visible to anyone who watches our games, watches our sideline, is Dez is certainly a fiery guy who plays with a lot of emotion both on and off the field. Sometimes that can be a distraction. It can be a distraction for Dez, it can be a distraction for other teammates. And we just have to really get our hands around when you put all the full body of work together where that’s headed.”

After eight years of everyone from the Joneses to Jason Garrett commending Bryant’s passion and dismissing any notions of his ‘sideline antics’ being a distraction, could a comment like that make Dez Bryant feel disrespected? It fuels a narrative that they’ve been trying to dispel for his entire career. This can all be seen as ownership just trying to flex in a tactic to gain leverage, and Stephen has double-downed with his recent comments:

Dez Bryant has been on record back to the mini-holdout he had when they franchise tagged him in 2015 that it’s not about “money,” it’s about “respect”. If Stephen Jones came to him with a “respect-laden” pay cut in a disguise of a worry-free extension like the one linked above, there is a good possibility that the two parties would work something out.

Again, Bryant is a perfect candidate for some type of reworked contract, it’s just the path in which Stephen is treading down that is risky. It’s a path that could end very badly for both parties because in the NFL, players, more often than not, will take less money to play elsewhere if they feel as though they’re being disrespected.

They don’t have to look too far for that example as they decided to move on from franchise sack leader DeMarcus Ware in 2014. They were putting feelers out for Ware to take a pay reduction to about half his original cap figure when he was coming off an injury-riddled 2013 with three games missed and six sacks. Ware instead forced their hand and they ended up outright releasing him. There wasn’t any bad blood as both parties are as close as ever. Still, Ware quickly hopped on a plane, signed a three-year deal with the Broncos for about $10 million a year, and won a Super Bowl.

If they don’t think that a team would come to Dez Bryant’s back door and unload a hefty sum of money in 2018, they’re mistaken. Bryant isn’t the same player that he once was but he can still be productive and was able to snag a Pro Bowl appearance just a season ago. Also, if you look at his statistics since breaking his foot in 2015, his numbers have actually slowly increased. The favorite topic of discussion this past season was whether Dez is still a WR1 in this league but the real answer is, like it or not, he’s the Cowboys WR1.

Surely, Stephen is aware that he isn’t exactly in the best position to lose a player of Bryant’s caliber, isn’t he? He doesn’t have a stable of reliable receivers that you would feel comfortable starting the season with. Terrance Williams’ 53 catches for 568 yards and zero touchdowns aren’t going to do. Jason Witten is still producing but he’s long past the days of leading the team in receptions. Cole Beasley had his worst production since his rookie season. What’s the plan, re-sign Brice Butler?

Stephen needs to be careful to not ruffle too many feathers. If he is prepared to possibly lose Bryant then he better have a good plan for replacement. He would likely have to be a major player on the wide receiver market in free agency, which he’s shown extreme reluctance to do. There is good reason the Cowboys have been reluctant to play big lately in free agency, the player’s on the market are usually there for a reason. Finding the diamond in the rough is a tough task.

Or else, he needs to take a chance on a rookie from the draft.

That method is fraught with danger because the odds are stacked against rookie receivers blowing up in their first year. Last year, JuJu Smith-Schuster (62nd overall, 58 rec, 968 yards, 7 TDs) and Cooper Kupp (69th overall, 62 rec, 862 yards, 5 TDs) were the standout rookies. The jury’s out but not a single wide receiver of the three drafted in the first round made an impact and John Ross zeroed out. In 2016, it’s the same story where two second-rounders shined in Sterling Shepard and Michael Thomas, while the first-rounders faltered.

Outside of the loaded 2014 NFL Draft where about 10 guys are now household names and some of them 2018 free agents, it’s an average of less than three receivers per year making immediate impacts. The Cowboys need Dez Bryant in 2018. They were 13-3 just a season ago and 9-7 is not the result they wanted, but it sure doesn’t suggest that they need to unload their best receiver.

Stephen can explore a pay reduction or follow an easier plan to cap relief as previously mentioned. With a perceived decent class at wide receiver, they certainly should think about pulling the trigger early on the position. There is no harm in putting more talent at Dak Prescott’s disposal and we’re all fans of that. But if Stephen’s goal is to make the offense more “Dak-friendly” then Dez Bryant should be a part of that.

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