“Obviously we’ll get on point relative to this offseason, coming year, his health, how he’s doing, how he feels about his conditioning, working out, all of those kinds of things,” Jones said last week from the NFL owners meetings. “Certainly we’ll talk about our business.”
Ah, yes -- business.
The business has been seared into the minds of Cowboys fans this offseason. Bryant is set to make $12.5 million in 2018. He is set to count $16.5 million against the salary cap. Executive vice president Stephen Jones has said the Cowboys need to look at Bryant’s contract, but there have not been discussions yet about a pay cut.
Perhaps this week there will be a resolution, but Jerry Jones said he has not had a thought about not having Bryant on the Cowboys roster in 2018.
He said this after the Cowboys added Deonte Thompson and Allen Hurns in free agency. They are added to a group that, at present, has Bryant, Terrance Williams, Cole Beasley, Noah Brown, Ryan Switzer, Lance Lenoir, Brian Brown and KD Cannon. He also acknowledged the Cowboys could select a receiver in the first round of the draft at the end of the month.
So how would the Cowboys make it all work, especially with an offense that will likely be run-first with running back Ezekiel Elliott? The answer falls on coach Jason Garrett.
“We’re going to have the same number of receivers on our team and the same number of plays in the game,” Garrett said. “We still want to be a team that is balanced and attacks a lot of different ways. Every team in the league has that complement of guys. I think the more you can upgrade the talent and the competitiveness at each position, it’s going to bring out the best in everybody. I do think our style of play will be consistent with what it’s been. We want to be a physical team. We want to be able to run the ball. We want to be able to attack the defense in passing game. And we’ll continue to try to do that.”
The Cowboys kept six receivers on the 53-man roster for most of 2017 with Bryant, Williams, Beasley, Brice Butler, Brown and Switzer. Lenoir was called up from the practice squad at the end of the season.
From an numbers perspective, Hurns and Thompson give the Cowboys more receivers with real-life experience than a year ago. The Cowboys like the potential of Switzer and Brown, 2017 draft picks, and would prefer not to slow their progress.
From an economic perspective, the Cowboys’ receivers account for more than $30 million in cap space. The Cowboys gave Hurns a two-year deal that will pay him at least $5 million in 2018 through a signing bonus and base salary. Thompson received a signing bonus of $1 million with a base salary of $800,000. He can earn an extra $700,000 in incentives.
Given the run-first mentality, the amount tied up in receivers does not make for the best allocation of assets.
“We can live with that kind of allocation at receiver but we got to have production,” Jerry Jones said. “In other words it’s got to really provide not only big-play potential but it’s got to be able to keep the defenses honest so that Zeke can be the player he can be.”
But Jones also acknowledged the downside of such an allocation.
“You can do that but it’ll cost you other places, with other positions,” Jones said. “We’re not in a position to not have to allocate. And so if we did something like you just outlined, we’d have to make do but maybe uncomfortably in some other places.”
If the Cowboys cut Bryant, they can save either $8.5 million or $12.5 million against the cap, depending on the designation. They cannot cut Williams, whose $3.5 million base salary is guaranteed, because it would chew up cap space. They could trade him, but his market would be limited, especially with the recent news he is recovering from surgery for a broken foot. Since Beasley is in the final year of his deal, he could be a trade chip, but he is also a valuable piece to Dak Prescott's development.
The Cowboys’ commitment to Thompson is just the $1 million signing bonus. In the past, the Cowboys showed a willingness to walk away from free-agent signings and guaranteed money (Jasper Brinkley, Cedric Thornton) but that’s not the best way to do business.
All roads point back to Bryant, whose production has slipped the last three years although not for reasons entirely of his doing.
The Cowboys have made these types of decisions before with Terrell Owens after the 2008 season, nine months after he signed a contract extension, and DeMarcus Ware after the 2013 season after he had just one down season and the team did not have a ready-made replacement for him.
Whenever Jerry Jones speaks to Bryant, he could broach the subject of a pay cut. In recent years, the Cowboys had two key starters, right tackle Doug Free and cornerback Brandon Carr, accept pay cuts to remain with the team.
In an offseason filled with big-name NFL players getting traded, Bryant could be next. Considering Sammy Watkins is making $16 million a season and Allen Robinson is making $14 million a season and Donte Moncrief will make $9.6 million in 2018, a team could view Bryant’s $12.5 million salary as palatable for the right draft pick, especially since they would not be on the hook for any guaranteed money.
It could be an interesting week if Jones and Bryant ever get together.