Dez Bryant led all wide receivers with 16 touchdown receptions in 2014, and the Cowboys promptly rewarded their star with a five-year, $70 million contract. The deal included $40 in guaranteed money with an average annual salary of $14 Million.
At 6’2 and 220 pounds, Dez Bryant is one of the most physical receivers in the league and one of the most dangerous red zone targets. Since 2010, Bryant leads all players in touchdown receptions at 73, and his 7459 receiving yards is eighth among all wide receivers. Few players match his physicality at the position and few wideouts play with more passion than the former Oklahoma State star.
But after three subpar seasons, two of which were shortened by various injuries, the question must be asked: Are the Cowboys better off parting ways with Bryant and using his salary and cap space in other areas?
The career-ending back injury to Tony Romo, the subsequent rise of Dak Prescott as the franchise quarterback of the Cowboys, and a focus on running the ball with Ezekiel Elliott all contributed to a decrease in production for Bryant over the past two seasons. But a closer look at the underlying statistics shows a disconnect between Bryant and Prescott and a possible regression in skills for Bryant.
There were 49 players in the NFL who caught at least 50 passes in 2017, led by Miami’s Jarvis Landry, who hauled in a league-best 112 catches. Of those 49 players, Bryant posted the fourth lowest catch percentage (52.3%), just ahead of T.Y. Hilton, Mike Evans, and Alshon Jeffery. By comparison, fellow Cowboy Terrence Newman finished 12th with a catch percentage of just under 68%. When targeting Dez Bryant, Prescott’s passer rating was nearly 30 points lower than any other receiver, and nearly 45 points lower when Prescott was under pressure.
Bryant finished last season with 69 catches for 838 yards and six touchdowns. Despite receiving the 12th-most targets in the league, Bryant finished 16th in catches, 26th in yards, and 22nd in receiving touchdowns.
The elite caliber cornerbacks that Dez faced as the No.1 receiving option should be taken into consideration when comparing Bryant to the other receiving options on the team, as Dez faced stiff man-to-man coverage against some of the best corners in the NFL. Yet other elite wide receivers like Antonio Brown, Michael Thomas, and Keenan Allen did not struggle nearly as much as Bryant, as evidence of the rapport that they have with their quarterbacks and their placement as the centerpiece of their respective offenses.
As is often the case with most decisions made in the NFL, money could be the deciding and most important factor when looking at whether or not the Cowboys should move on from Bryant. For cap reasons, no team will trade for Bryant’s massive contract when they can just wait for him to be released.
If the Cowboys release Bryant, they will incur a dead cap hit of $8 million in 2018 and $4 million in 2019, with a total cap savings of $25 Million over that two-year span. The freed up cap space would be a blessing for a team searching to get more talent on the defensive side of the ball, now that the offensive line, running back, and quarterback positions appear to be locked for the new few years. According to sportstrac.com, the Cowboys rank 22nd out of 32 NFL teams in cap space, with just over $20 million in cap room heading into 2018.
Paying $25 million over the next two seasons to a wide receiver that does not appear to have a rapport with your franchise quarterback and one that does not fit as well into your offensive system seems like a bad business move for the Cowboys. There is no doubting Bryant’s talent, but that talent may be better suited for another team like the Redskins or Cardinals.
Of course, Bryant could solve this problem by agreeing to restructure his contract in a way to make his cap hit more manageable. That is not likely going to happen, as Bryant believes he is an elite receiver and wants to be paid like one.