FRISCO, Texas – Almost four years to the day, Dez Bryant arrived at The Star for a meeting with the Cowboys' front office, where he was informed of his release after eight seasons, three Pro Bowls and the franchise record for career touchdown catches (73).
Four years ago, Bryant's release marked a major transition at the wide receiver spot.
Four years later, the Cowboys are in transition mode again.
Amari Cooper, who stepped in as the top receiver six months after Bryant's release in 2018 -- and whose trade-deadline arrival from the Raiders helped push Dallas into the playoffs that season -- has been traded to the Browns for a fifth-round draft pick, a move that saved $16 million in salary cap space.
It's a major change to the offense's structure given Cooper's numbers in three and a half seasons with the club: 292 catches, 3,893 yards and 27 touchdowns in 56 regular-season games, along with Pro Bowl selections in 2018 and 2019.
Add super-sub Cedrick Wilson's free-agent departure to the Dolphins, and the Cowboys' 2022 receiver group has plenty to replace.
"Obviously you look at the volume of the production of both Amari and Cedrick, that's very real," head coach Mike McCarthy said. "But with that, it's about the opportunities that will present to the other players.
"It's not going to be a one-for-one type of situation. In my experiences, it's never been. And I think you can get into a limited mindset if you think that you have to think that this guy's going to replace Amari and this guy's going to replace Cedrick, because that's not the case. That won't be the approach."
Clearly, that means the Cowboys will take an all-hands-on-deck approach, relying on multiple players to make up the difference. The club also made a change at wide receivers coach, hiring longtime NFL assistant Robert Prince to fill the spot vacated by Adam Henry, who had an expiring contract.
CeeDee Lamb, fresh off his first career Pro Bowl, is the expected new No. 1 receiver. Michael Gallup moves up the depth chart, too, though it's possible he might not be quite ready for Week 1 coming off February knee surgery. Tight end Dalton Schultz, signed to the one-year, $10.9 million franchise tag, tied with Cooper for the team lead in touchdown catches last year (8).
Perhaps backup running back Tony Pollard can become a larger part of the passing game in certain situations. Perhaps veteran receiver James Washington, signed to a one-year deal in free agency, can earn a larger role than he had in four seasons with the Steelers. Backup receiver/core special teams contributor Noah Brown was re-signed before the start of free agency, and 2021 fifth-round pick Simi Fehoko will compete again for a spot after playing just seven offensive snaps last year.
"Whether it's the guys that are already here that may get a few more a game, the new guys will have to pick up the rest," McCarthy said. "But at the end of the day, it's about getting the ball distributed to your perimeter. And I feel with the process of the offseason and training camp, we'll be ready to go Week 1 and I think over the course of the year you'll probably see more flexibility and variation of where the ball goes."
Without Cooper and Wilson, and with Gallup's status for the opener uncertain, it's quite possible the Cowboys will draft a receiver in the first few rounds. The front office has been successful in that department recently. Lamb was the 17th overall pick in 2020. Gallup, a third-round pick in 2018, has a 1,000-yard season on his resume and just signed a new five-year deal reportedly worth up to $62.5 million.
"The college game is very conducive to developing receivers, so there's always going to be good (draft) depth at the receiver position," Cowboys chief operating officer Stephen Jones told reporters this week.
After Bryant's release, the Cowboys began the 2018 season with a committee approach at receiver featuring Cole Beasley and offseason additions Allen Hurns, Deonte Thompson and Tavon Austin. By midseason, sitting at 3-4, the club scrapped the plan and traded a first-round pick to the Raiders for Cooper. The offense took off, and Dallas won seven of its last eight games to clinch the NFC East.
This time around, the Cowboys clearly believe that quarterback Dak Prescott has sufficient options to replace Cooper down the field.
It starts with Lamb, who has shown big-play potential with 153 catches in his first two seasons.
"With CeeDee being more of the primary flanker in our offense, his primary opportunities will go up and it'll be close to the opportunities that Amari had," McCarthy said. "And also the dynamics of the room change. Cedrick and Amari were the two veteran presence players in our wide receiver room. They had probably the most clout and experience, both very, very intelligent football players, and definitely guys that the younger guys looked up to. So now there's a leadership opportunity for all the receivers."
A room in transition, for sure, but the Cowboys are confident that a drop-off won't take place.