FRISCO, Texas –We've had this debate over every other medium in the last week, so I figured I might as well expand it onto our website.
If you haven't been following along this week, let's begin with the interview that kick started this. With the entire NFL descending on Minneapolis for Super Bowl LII, Dan Patrick welcomed Michael Irvin onto his radio show on Monday.
While he was there, Irvin gave a pretty firm and succinct assessment of what's going on with Dez Bryant and the Dallas Cowboys:
And just like that, we were back on the debate – what exactly should the Cowboys do with their $16 million wide receiver this year?
Assuming you follow this team at all, you have to have an opinion on the issue. Bryant endured the most frustrating season of his career in 2017. The Cowboys can save $8 million on the salary cap if they release him in the spring, or $12 million if they designate him a post-June 1 cut.
They could also try to make him take a pay cut – which Bryant has said he won't do. Or they could just move forward with the status quo.
Jerry and Stephen Jones were vague when they were asked about Bryant's situation at the Senior Bowl last week, reiterating only that he is under contract for the coming year. Bryant hasn't spoken about the issue himself since December, when he elaborated on some of his frustrations from the season and said he's not interested in taking a pay cut.
Ok. I think that just about catches us up on the issue – which was probably not necessary, but whatever.
Simply stated, I agree wholeheartedly with Michael Irvin, and I've had a few days to think and argue about it.
You don't have to tell me that Dez Bryant was disappointing last season. He couldn't get on the same page with his quarterback, he dropped a staggering amount of passes and he was a non-factor in far too many games. You don't have to tell me that his salary grossly outweighs his production.
And yet, I'll gladly contend that the Dallas Cowboys are far worse in 2018 if Dez Bryant isn't on the roster. The reasons are plentiful, so I'll just start with the most obvious talking points and move outward.
For all of his flaws, Dez Bryant is still a guy that has proven capable of shouldering a No. 1 receiver's workload. He's a guy who still commands respect, given that he still draws double-coverage, as well as the attention of No. 1 cornerbacks like Josh Norman and Janoris Jenkins.
During what we can all agree was his worst season, he still reminded us of that fact. He had solid outings in wins against Washington and Kansas City and New York. He put together strong games in losses to the Rams and the Packers.
His 2016 season is an even better illustration of this point. Dez's 2016 stat line of 50 catches for 796 yards and eight touchdowns isn't exactly inspiring, but I don't think it does justice to his role in that offense. He posted 100+ yards in four games and managed 70+ in another five. He made big, game-changing plays against Chicago, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Minnesota and Detroit. He played one of the best games of his career in the playoff loss to Green Bay.
Even taking his 2017 season into account, we know Dez can be a viable – if not always top-tier – No. 1 wide receiver. The issue, most would agree, is that he's paid far too much for his production.
That's all well and good, but what exactly are the alternatives?
The Cowboys could theoretically cut Dez and save $8 million. When they're done with their roster moves such as franchise tagging DeMarcus Lawrence, deciding on David Irving's future and restructuring veteran contracts, I'd imagine that decision could leave them with anywhere from $10 million to $15 million in cap space.
They could use that cap space to invest in another receiver – but why, exactly? A top-notch free agent like Jarvis Landry or Allen Robinson would cost something like $14 million per year, which is what the Cowboys were already paying Dez. A mid-tier free agent like Marqise Lee or Sammy Watkins has never demonstrated an ability to consistently produce above the level of Terrance Williams, let alone Dez Bryant.
So in that scenario, you're shedding a huge, cap-eating contract so you can immediately take on another one. Or, you're signing a mid-tier free agent who arguably is not an improvement over what you already have.
Stephen Jones loves to say that free agency rewards average players like they're good and good players like they're great. If I'm going to overpay someone, I'd just as soon stick with my own, homegrown receiver who is familiar with this franchise and this offense.
Then of course there's another avenue, the one this front office prefers, and that's the NFL draft. There's a lot of solid young wide outs coming into the league this year, and recent history has shown that you can find some game-changers in the early rounds of the draft.
Here's the thing, though. It's certainly possible to get an immediate contribution from a rookie wide receiver, but history shows that the vast majority of receivers take a year or two to get their feet wet.
I spent time this week charting every single wide receiver that has come into the NFL since Dez Bryant was drafted, going back to 2010. That's 250 wide receivers in total.
Of those 250 wide receivers, I wanted to know how many made a sizable impact in their rookie season. I set some unofficial bench marks of 40 receptions, 600 yards and six touchdowns.
Working with those criteria, I found 37 wide receivers who met the standard. Of those 37, 12 were drafted in the first round and 10 were drafted in the second round.
I next wanted to know how many of those receivers performed as well or better than Dez Bryant's 2017 stat line of 69 catches, 838 yards and six touchdowns.
The answer was 19, and where those guys came from isn't exactly encouraging for the Cowboys.
Seven of them were superfreak, top 15 draft picks – A.J. Green, Julio Jones, Justin Blackmon, Sammy Watkins, Mike Evans, Odell Beckham and Amari Cooper.
Six of them were drafted to play with quarterbacks who have won NFL MVPs and Super Bowls – Torrey Smith, Keenan Allen, Kelvin Benjamin, Michael Thomas, Sterling Shepard and Juju Smith-Schuster.
The point being: the Cowboys possess neither a super high draft pick, nor a dynamic passing attack that promises to allow a rookie wide receiver to thrive. The odds of replacing Dez's production through the draft are not good -- at least not right away.
Now, don't mistake me. I'm all in favor of this team drafting a wide receiver. This year's crop is loaded with talent, and guys like D.J. Moore and James Gallup have caught my eye as intriguing talents. But it's a big ask for any rookie to shoulder the role of a No. 1 receiver at the outset. If you'll remember, Dez himself only started two games in his debut season.
With all of that stuff in mind, I just don't see a more appealing, realistic option than Dez Bryant himself. Maybe it's time to begin transitioning to a new wide receiver corps, but that doesn't have to be done in one offseason.
It's easy to call for wholesale changes in the wake of such a disappointing season, but I'm of the opinion that a more measured response can work. It might be time to start thinking about a future without Dez Bryant, but this team is better in 2018 with 88 playing his part.