Helman: Solving The Riddle Of Dez Bryant & The Cowboys' Wide Receivers

FRISCO, Texas –It's a question I've been asked in almost every aspect of my life these past few months.

People ask me at parties. They ask me at the grocery store and during Uber rides. They obviously ask me at work.

But things really jumped the shark last week at a college pro day, when an NFL player asked me the fateful question. Who could possibly be more informed on the behind-the-scenes workings of the NFL than a member of that elite fraternity?

And yet, he wanted to know, too – "What's going on with Dez?"

I wish I could tell y'all.

To this point in the news cycle, I can only say two things for certain. First, the story doesn't appear to be going away. Second, anyone who tells you they know what the future holds for Dez Bryant and the Cowboys' receivers is probably wrong.

Which goes back to my point. This story has taken more turns than some NASCAR races since it first surfaced in December. At the Senior Bowl in January, I wrote that it made the most sense to keep Dez Bryant for at least another season and figure out the receiver situation from there.

Fast forward a month, following the NFL Combine, and I returned from Indianapolis practically convinced that the Cowboys were ready to immediately release their All-Pro.

And that was before any honest-to-goodness football stuff happened.

Two weeks after the Combine, the Cowboys reportedly took a home run swing at Sammy Watkins before eventually being outbid by the Kansas City Chiefs. It was an uncustomary bid for a big-name, No. 1 wide receiver – a roster moved that would have almost certainly spelled the end of Bryant's time in Dallas. A few days later, they added a veteran journeyman in Deonte Thompson for a much more agreeable price.

A week or so after that, they succeeded in signing Allen Hurns.

It's honestly a fantastic signing, in my opinion. Hurns has the talent to be a dynamic receiver, and he has proven he can do it when healthy. Most importantly, he came at a bit of a bargain, signing a two-year deal worth just $12 million.

In a vacuum, I love the thought of adding Hurns to this offense. But this team obviously doesn't exist in a vacuum, and I'm not going to lie to you – it confused the hell out of me.

For the better part of two months, the Cowboys have been hinting that they want to talk to Dez Bryant about his $16.5 million cap hit. They even went as far as to pursue a big-time receiver who likely would have cost Dez his job, had they signed him.

Now, with the NFL draft approaching, they've signed a receiver in Hurns who has an eerily similar skillset to Dez. In addition to Hurns, they've added a big-bodied speedster to replace Brice Butler in Thompson.

None of that has stopped them from researching this year's draft class, as they have shown plenty of interest in highly-touted rookie receivers like Alabama's Calvin Ridley, Texas A&M's Christian Kirk, Maryland's D.J. Moore and SMU's Courtland Sutton.

It all combines to create what sounds like a heck of a crowded wide receiver room. And if that weren't enough, the word coming out of the NFL owners' meetings is that Cowboys officials have yet to talk to Bryant about his tenuous contract situation.

"We'll talk about Dez when it's time," said team executive vice president Stephen Jones last week.

If now isn't the time, or if the time didn't bypass us a long time ago – when exactly is it?

What's going on with Dez? Like I said, at this point I have no idea.

That's not going to stop me from speculating, though. It's pretty much the only option we have while we wile away the hours until the NFL draft. And with so much of the Cowboys' business tended to for the time being, it's pretty much the biggest unknown facing this team right now.

So here's what I'm going to do: in the interest of easing my own mind, I'm going to lay out the Cowboys' main cast of characters, then I'm going to outline all the ways this team can move forward in the coming months. My hope is that when it's all put down in writing, it'll make more sense.

1. Dez Bryant –To quote the Three 6 Mafia, "The Most Known Unknown." We all know the score. Bryant is an eight-year veteran and a Cowboys record holder. He's the most visible and the most expensive Dallas receiver. The Cowboys could cut him today and save roughly $8 million, or they could designate him a post-June 1 cut and potentially save as much as $12.5 million. The thought is that they'd like him to pay cut, although they're not technically under any obligation to do so.

2. Allen Hurns –The new guy on the block. Hurns has never been a No. 1 receiver, but he flashed impressive potential during his four years in Jacksonville. Hurns is playing on a team-friendly, two-year deal, but it's hard to imagine him going anywhere so soon after signing on.

3. Terrance Williams –The current state of the Cowboys' wide receiver corps probably creates problems for Williams more so than anyone else. He has been the team's No. 2 receiver for his entire career, and he doesn't have much experience in the slot. His four-year extension, which he signed in 2017, is front-loaded. Cutting him right now would actually cost the team money, and it seems doubtful the Cowboys could find a suitable trade partner. Given that Hurns actually played a lot of snaps in the slot with the Jaguars, it's conceivable that Williams could continue to play outside, with Hurns shifting inside for a solid percentage of the snaps. But it looks problematic for Williams that he now finds two receivers above him on the depth chart.

4. Cole Beasley –This presents similar problems for Beasley, who has specialized as a fantastic weapon in the slot throughout his Cowboys' career. Beasley saw his production dip last year, but he still has a year remaining on his contract and has the talent to be presumed as a starter in this offense. It's hard to imagine him playing too many snaps outside, though, which limits his versatility just a bit. It would cost the team $3.25 million to cut Beasley. It's at least theoretically possible they could trade him, but I'm not sure who would want to trade for a player with one year remaining on his deal. 

5. Ryan Switzer –Almost everything I wrote about Beasley applies here, except that Switzer doesn't have the resume – which is understandable, given that he just finished his rookie season. Strictly speaking, Switzer is a fourth-round pick. It wouldn't be hard for the Cowboys to cut him, if that's what they decided they wanted to do. But that seems silly, considering he has three years left on his deal, has already proven himself as a solid return man and has the skillset needed to play a role in the slot. But once again, it's hard to imagine how the Cowboys find snaps for all these guys.

6. Noah Brown –A similar situation to Switzer, albeit a completely different receiver. Brown was impressive enough in training camp that he earned a spot as the Cowboys' sixth receiver last year. He was good enough at blocking and special teams to earn a place on the game day roster, too. As a seventh-round pick, nothing about his contract stipulates that the Cowboys have to keep him. But it seems premature to give up on a guy who showed so much promise as a rookie.

7. Deonte Thompson– A fitting replacement for Brice Butler. Thompson is big, fast and doesn't have the gaudiest resume in the NFL – but he does have game-breaking potential, given that he averaged 16 yards per catch on just 27 receptions for Buffalo last year. The Cowboys guaranteed $1 million on Thompson's one-year deal, but that's not nearly enough money to guarantee him a place on the roster if a better option presents itself.

Throw in futures guys like Lance Lenoir and K.D. Cannon for good measure and again remind yourself that the front office is interested in this year's draft class, and it's hard to fit all the pieces of this puzzle together.

And what's more puzzling than the puzzle itself? The timeline.

As we move into April, it's easy to draw the conclusion that the Cowboys are waiting to see what happens in the draft before they decide what to do with Dez. Perhaps if they land a wide receiver at pick No. 19 or 50, they'll feel comfortable moving on.

If you're comfortable with that thought, though, shouldn't you just do it? Because the longer this drags on, the more potential it has to be messy.

Dez Bryant is entering his ninth season in the NFL, and I'd guess he knows a thing or two about the business aspect of this league. The fact that the Cowboys have expressed a desire to talk about his contract since January and still haven't done it seems like a sizable red flag. This team has been awfully non-committal about his future, and that doesn't seem like something he'll forget – even if he plays here this season.

Of course, none of that means that anything will happen. We used to speculate for months on end about what the future held for Brandon Carr, and he wound up playing every year of that five-year deal. Perhaps the Cowboys will ultimately decide that they're better a better team with Dez in 2018.

But they have already signed his potential replacement, and they're doing a lot of scouting on a potential successor. There's a lot of writing on the wall, even if we can't necessarily read it yet.

I don't know what's going to happen with Dez Bryant and the Cowboys, but the longer we wait to get that answer, the more I suspect they've made their choice.

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