The Dez Bryant situation is as complicated or as simple as the Dallas Cowboys want to make it.
They appear determined to make it as simple as possible — at least publicly for now.
“Everyone we’ve got under contract and have years left on their contract, I expect to be with the team [in 2018],” owner Jerry Jones said on Tuesday from the Senior Bowl.
Jones made that statement when asked specifically if Bryant would be on the team next season. And, as Jones stated, Bryant is among those players who are under contract.
Bryant still has two years and $25 million left on a five-year, $70 million contract he signed before the 2015 season. Bryant shot down the idea of a pay cut late in the season, and executive vice president Stephen Jones echoed his father’s sentiments on the matter.
Asked about approaching Bryant about a pay cut this off-season, Stephen Jones simply said: “He’s under contract.”
That’s as simplistic of a view as the organization can have. They probably should have that mindset this early in the off-season, too.
But this is bound to become a topic of discussion in the coming weeks because Bryant is not playing at a level that justifies his current price tag.
When the Cowboys handed Bryant the high-dollar deal, he was regarded among the top receivers in the game. From 2012-14, Bryant had three consecutive seasons with at least 1,200 yards and double-digit touchdowns.
Since signing the deal, Bryant has failed to reach the 1,000-yard mark and has yet to post a double-digit touchdown season in the past three seasons. Last year, Bryant didn’t have a 100-yard receiving game for just the second season in his career (2011).
Bryant finished the season leading the team in receptions (69), receiving yards (838) and touchdown receptions (six), but also ranked among the league leaders with 12 dropped passes.
The chemistry between Bryant and quarterback Dak Prescott served as a prominent storyline throughout the season for the passing game’s struggles.
“I think that’s a work in progress,” Stephen Jones said of the Prescott-Bryant connection. “It obviously hasn’t created the productivity that we need up to this point. Obviously we pay Dez a lot of money. When you get paid a lot, a lot is expected.
“At the same time, I do think that can improve and get to where we need it to be if we get an opportunity.”
Bryant’s salary, though, is why the Cowboys might have to consider other options other than him simply being “under contract.” After all, the organization is in position to part ways with him relatively easy since they’ve already paid his fully guaranteed money, $45 million.
Right now, Bryant is set to count $16.5 million against the cap each of the next two seasons. If the Cowboys cut him on the first day of the league year, March 14, they’ll save $8 million in cap space.
If they designate him as a post-June 1 cut, they’d save $12 million.
That’s where things get complicated.
Do the Cowboys want to part ways with a former first-round draft pick who is the franchise’s all-time leader in receiving touchdowns?
Jerry Jones still has affection for the way Bryant has matured and developed off the field after entering the NFL with off-field questions out of Oklahoma State. And he sees brighter days ahead on the field for the 29-year-old Bryant.
“I’m so proud of Dez and proud of where he is today with us,” Jerry Jones said. “I believe Dez has a lot of gas in the tank. I think we need to improve across the board with our receivers and I think we will. In doing so, it should be an opportunity for Dez.”
Conversely, Bryant has repeatedly stated his love of playing for the Cowboys. He likely has little desire to move on to another organization after becoming entrenched with his home-state team.
Both might have to find a middle ground to make the marriage last longer. The return on investment has to make sense for both sides.
“Dez has made a lot of great plays for us along the way,” Stephen Jones said. “At the same time, I think obviously when you look at last year, you want more for what you pay. But that’s not all on Dez.
“That’s on everybody. That’s on the team. That’s on Dak and Dez working together. That’s the coaching staff coming up with the right plays, working with Dez and Dak to be better together. We just have to continue to push in that direction.”