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What Sammy Watkins, Allen Hurns, and the 2018 draft tell us about Dez Bryant’s future

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Stephen Jones was sending a message, and we still don’t know the outcome.

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

When news filtered out that the Cowboys had gone all in on an attempt to land Sammy Watkins in free agency, it was a shock. For three reasons.

1) The Cowboys have made it their standard operating procedure to sit out the start of free agency. They hadn’t given out a major, top-end contract to a free agent since 2012 when they signed Brandon Carr. Since then, the free-spending ways of Jerry Jones had given way to the frugal-mindset of Stephen Jones. So when it was reported that the Cowboys were competitive for Watkins and his $16 million per year he got from the Chiefs, it was certainly news.

2) The next reason is was shocking was that spending that kind of money on a receiver, had it actually happened, would have certainly meant the end of the road for Dez Bryant in Dallas. It was unsustainable to have two wide receivers eating up that much cap space. That was the moment when all of Stephen Jones’ tough talk about Bryant’s contract became a reality. If you didn’t believe the Cowboys were wavering on their commitment to Dez before, then after that news you had to believe it. In fact, that issue is still in flux and the draft could have a lot to do with what eventually happens between Dez and the ‘Boys.

3) But perhaps the biggest reason it was such a shock is the simplest - $48 million over three years with $30 million guaranteed for Sammy Watkins! That is the definition of overpaying. As our own RJ Ochoa has shown, Watkins and Allen Hurns have basically the same stats in the NFL, and the Cowboys just signed Hurns for $12 million over two years.

Watkins has a few things that NFL teams covet, youth and speed. There is no denying that. But here is a guy that was drafted fourth overall in 2014 and is now on his third team. He also has a hard time staying healthy. He’s only had one 1,000 yard season, and he’s never had a season with double-digit touchdowns.

What were the Cowboys thinking? Yes, Watkins’ speed can stretch a defense and there have been times when he looks like a star, but in the NFL you pay retail for production, you pay discount for potential. Watkins has been more potential than production.

So why rehash something that happened weeks ago now? Because the future of Bryant should still be very much in doubt. It’s tempting to say that there is no way the Cowboys move on from Byrant now; free agency is over, Hurns is not a replacement for Bryant and you don’t want to have to rely on a rookie from the draft. But is all that really true?

Hurns has an injury history that was a red flag for some, and most think that his skills are not a replacement for Dez. I’m not here to sell you on the idea that Hurns is every bit the receiver Dez is, but once again, when you go to production, it’s not as crazy as you may think. In a recent piece from ESPN where coaches, executives and insiders anonymously discussed each team's free agency period, this is what was said about Dallas in terms of Hurns and Bryant.

Hurns has played in 36 games over the past three seasons [it has been 38 games for Dez Bryant]. Hurns has 138 catches for 1,993 yards and 15 touchdowns over that span [it’s 150 catches for 2,035 yards and 17 scores for Bryant]. There are obvious questions about what comes next.

As RJ showed above about how Hurns and Watkins had almost identical stats for their first four seasons, we can see that Hurns and Byrant have been essentially the same receiver in production over the past three years. And the red flags of Hurns’ injury history are rendered moot when you see that he’s played almost as many games as Bryant.

Bryant vs. Hurns, 2015-2017
Player Games played Receptions Yards Touchdowns
Dez Bryant 38 150 2,035 17
Allen Hurns 36 138 1,993 15

We cheered when we saw that Hurns could essentially match Watkins’ stats at less than half the price. It’s eye-opening to see that Hurns can do almost the exact same with Bryant when looking at the last three years. Again, this isn’t to suggest that Hurns is the receiver that Bryant is, or maybe more accurately, was. They are different kinds of receivers and it’s not always easy to compare apples to apples in these situations. Plus, there is an emotional attachment to Dez that most Cowboys fans feel, he’s been a warrior for the team for a long time.

But if we’re looking at this strictly with our head instead of our hearts, it’s impossible to say that Dez is in the clear with the Cowboys. We know they still want to talk to him about his contract. They are taking their time about it which might indicate that the draft is part of their plan, perhaps to gain some leverage. If they draft a Calvin Ridley, Courtland Sutton or D.J. Moore, then where are they with Bryant? Looking at the production numbers with Hurns vs. Bryant, it’s not so easy to dismiss the idea of releasing Bryant at that point. An NFL insider from the same ESPN article cited above:

”I think they are still going to try to muscle Dez to take a pay cut,” an insider said. “I like Hurns. Health issues are a question mark with him, and really, just how the Dallas offense is being operated right now. Jason Witten and Cole Beasley are the top two targets in that offense since Dak Prescott became the quarterback. Do you really need Dez? I don’t know.”

This isn’t an article to push the idea that the Cowboys should release Dez. Far from it. But it is an article to suggest the Cowboys could still do it, and that they might be seriously considering it. If they draft a wide receiver in the first couple of rounds later this month, and Bryant is unwilling to meet any demands for a pay cut - all bets are off.