The Dez Bryant decision remains the elephant in the room for the Dallas Cowboys.
Will the team’s all-time leader in touchdown receptions be asked to take a pay cut, if he’s on the team at all in 2018?
Those questions have yet to be answered.
And coach Jason Garrett shed little light on the subject during an hour-long discussion with the media at the NFL owners meeting Tuesday.
And while he readily acknowledges the team’s focus on upgrading and overhauling its receiver corps so far in free agency and possibly further in the upcoming NFL Draft, Garrett said it’s more about getting better in the passing game than the Cowboys were in 2018 than a referendum on Bryant and his declining production.
Quarterback Dak Prescott needs to be better. The Cowboys remain committed to him. But it’s also about improving the players around Prescott.
“We just need to get better in our passing game,” Garrett said. “One of the best things we’ve done around here for a long time is throw the football. And we’ve been a very good running team the last few years and last year we didn’t throw the ball as effectively as we needed to as consistently as we needed to. We have a history of being a very good passing team. We want to be able to get back to that. We want to add the kind of players who allow us to do that.”
The Cowboys unsuccessfully pursued receiver Sammy Watkins during the first week of free agency. He signed with the Kansas City Chiefs.
Then the team signed Allen Hurns and Deonte Thompson.
The former would have certainly meant the end for Bryant, considering the cost it would have taken to the secure Watkins.
The latter not so much, as of now. At least, not until the Cowboys have the long-awaited talk with Bryant about his contract.
But the goal remains the same.
“You’re trying to improve your football team and you look at every viable option to do that and if it makes sense for you from a football standpoint, from a financial standpoint, and trust me, we evaluate all the top guys in free agency,” Garrett said of the Watkins interest. “We evaluate all the top guys in the draft. And if you’re able to get some of these guys on your team under the conditions that you like and you think they can help you, you go ahead and do that. But just because you have a certain philosophy about something doesn’t mean you don’t overturn all the stones and see if you can find a player that can help you.”
The Cowboys missed out on Watkins, but Garrett believes they got a potential impact player in Hurns, a former undrafted free agent out of Miami who spent the past four seasons with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Hurns was released for cap reasons and his own declining production since signing a four-year, $40.05 million extension in 2016. He caught 115 passes in his first two seasons, including 64 passes for 1,031 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2015. The past two seasons combined he has 74 receptions for 961 yards and five touchdowns. He also has missed 11 games due to injuries.
Garrett said they have known and followed Hurns since college. They believed they got a player who will help them.
“Really excited about Allen,” Garrett said. “You think about being a college free agent and going in and having the success he’s had up to this point in his career. Someone that we really liked at the outset, someone we followed. We know a lot of people who were around him in college. We know a lot of people who have been around him in the NFL. The scouting report is consistent in terms of his love of the game, the kind of teammate he is, how hard he works, all of that. Had a chance to visit with him last week when he came in and he reinforced all of that. Excited to bring him into our receiving corps and continue to create competition at that position. I think it’ll bring out the best in everybody.”
However, it still remains to be seen how this all impacts Bryant, especially with the addition of Thompson as well.
There is no question that the presence of Hurns and Thompson will have a domino effect on the Cowboys receiving corps. If not Bryant, then one or more of the other 2017 holdovers, including Terrance Williams, Cole Beasley, Ryan Switzer and Noah Brown, might have to go.
Garrett repeatedly said it’s about creating competition.
“We love Dez Bryant. Dez has been a great player for us for a long time,” Garrett said. “Any speculation about his contract or anything like that to me is irrelevant relative to the recent signings that we’ve made. We’re excited about bringing these guys in and seeing what they can do to help us offensively.
“I think we’re going to have the same number of receivers on our team and the same number of plays in the game. 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.”
The Bryant question, however, won’t go away _ given his $12.5 million base salary and $16.5 million cap hit.
Last season, Bryant led the Cowboys in receptions (69), receiving yards (838) and touchdown catches (6), but also ranked among the league leaders with a career-high 12 dropped passes.
It’s was his third consecutive season of declining playsince signing a five-year, $75 million contract extension before the 2015 season.
Injuries are part of the story for Bryant as he suffered a fractured foot in 2015, causing him to finish the season on injured reserve and undergo off-season surgery. In 2016, he missed three games with a fractured bone in his knee.
And while he didn’t miss any games in 2017, he battled through an ankle injury and knee tendinitis.
Bryant has committed to working harder this off-season and even plans to work with a receivers coach for the first time to improve his route running.
Garrett had no information on the latter, but is excited to know he working to get better.
He says he’s simply looking forward seeing Bryant join the rest of the team for the off-season program next month.
"Dez has been an outstanding player for us for a long time, a big-time player.," Garrett said. "We're not in a situation right now where we're around our players. The off-season program will start in the middle of April. We anticipate Dez and everybody else being there and getting going. Any speculation about his contract or anything like that really doesn't apply to the football part of Dez Bryant. He's been a great player, and we anticipate having great competition at the receiver position and Dez being a part of it."
If he is still on the team, that is.