FRISCO, Texas – The yellow caution flag is out. Waving it wildly.
No, this isn't NASCAR. It's the NFL. More precisely, it's the Dallas Cowboys. This has to do with free agency and salaries and cap hits. Not oil on the track.
Just the same, the Cowboys need to be careful. Yes, proceed with caution.
See, after refraining from jumping into the high-priced waters of free agency that first week, the Cowboys started toe-dipping this week, testing not only the remaining available talent pool but also the ridiculously deep money pool that was indiscriminately being drained by merely OK players. They were getting paid as if All-Pros. Like $42 million here, $45 million there, and an improbable $84 million guaranteed way over there.
So, the Cowboys began here over the past couple of days chipping away, trying to upgrade the wide receiver position, maybe the first strike to becoming more, uh Dak Friendly, though doing nothing – yet – to find what would have been his biggest bestie last year:
A backup swing tackle who did not resemble a turnstile.
So, they signed unrestricted wide receiver/kick returner Deonte Thompson to a one-year deal, giving him a $1 million signing bonus to go with his $800,000 base salary. Sort of a Brice Butler-type with return ability. That barely moved the excitement needle.
Then Friday, the Cowboys moved somewhat out of the shallow end to waist-high free agency, signing Jacksonville castoff wide receiver Allen Hurns to a two-year deal, causing bells to go off since it appears for a more substantial financial contract.
And suddenly the assumption is the Cowboys are cutting Dez Bryant since his production went down last year – as did the production of the entire Cowboys offense – and since his base salary in the second to last year of his five-year contract calls for a $12.5 million base salary.
OK, fine. Here is where I'm going yellow. Not scared, but cautious because assuming there is no Dez, here are last year's numbers for the other wide receivers the Cowboys currently have under contract not named Lance Lenoir:
Terrance Williams: 53 catches, 568 yards, 10.7-yard average, 0 TDs.
Cole Beasley: 36…314…8.7…2.
Ryan Switzer: 6…41…6.8…0.
Noah Brown: 4…33…8.3…0.
Deonte Thompson (Buff): 27…430…15.9…1. (Chi): 11…125…11.4…1.
Allen Hurns (Jax): 39…484…12.4…2.
Hmmmm. That's six guys, a grand total of six touchdowns.
Now look, I am not suggesting Dez had a great season last year. Not by any means by his previous standards. But he was not gosh-awful bad as many are suggesting. By NFL standards he was average.
Bryant's 2017 numbers read: 69 catches, 838 yards, 12.1 avg., 6 TDs.
Now it would take a two-man combination between Williams, Beasley, Thompson or Hurns to better Dez's 2017 production when it comes to total catches and yards. It would take the whole bunch to even equal his touchdown number, which, yes, equaled the second fewest of his career (six his rookie season), only the three of his nine-game 2015 season fewer, but then he only played two full games with Tony Romo at quarterback.
The number everyone seems hung up on, and maybe the Cowboys, too, is the 12.5 million Washingtons he's schedule to make this year. Too much for what he produced this past season when ignoring playing through the knee problems he was having toward the end of the season and the Cowboys' inability to protect Dak Prescott the second half of the season and the loss of any home-run/touchdown threat running the ball during Zeke's six-game suspension over Games 9-14.
To me, if your quarterback is getting battered around – Dak suffered 22 of his 32 sacks the final eight games of the season – and you only run for seven of your 18 rushing touchdowns the second half of the season – only twice as many as two in one game – then who else are defenses going to concentrate on defending?
No. 88 had a bulls-eye on him, and yes, he did have more drops than ever, but that might have been a product of pressing to do more than needed.
Now if the Cowboys higher-ups think Dez is on the downside of his career since he's turning 30 in November of his ninth NFL season, then maybe it's time to bet on younger guys, though Thompson already has turned 29. Hurns is 26, and remember only signed conservatively to a two-year deal. But look, Williams turns 29 this season, as does Beasley next month.
And who knows if the Cowboys are making a wide receiver a priority the first two days of the April draft.
All I know is, if the Cowboys are making a bet at this position, it would be that they are projecting Hurns, at 26, is on the rise and Dez is in a freefall. Chancy.
Hurns, an undrafted free agent out of the University of Miami heading into his fifth NFL season, has produced only one season even remotely close to what Dez has done: That in 2015, when he caught 64 passes for 1,031 and 10 touchdowns, averaging 16.1 a catch. That was enough incentive for the Jaguars to sign him to a four-year, $40.05 million contract in 2016 that included $20 million guaranteed.
But after missing 11 games over his past two seasons and starting eight of 10 games this past season, the Jaguars chose to get out from underneath his $7 million base salary with zero dead money penalty in favor of signing free-agent WR Donte Moncrief and keeping their own Marquise Lee and Keelan Cole – and that after not even trying to re-sign Allen Robinson.
Give you pause that that's the guy you are assuming can take the place of Dez Bryant?
Now if they are trying to shave bucks at the WR position, they likely won't say, uh, Terrance Williams, you are gone. His 2018 base of $3.5 million is guaranteed. And after paying him a $5 million signing bonus last year, his dead money would amount to $7.25 million, which doesn't make good fiscal sense.
Now Beasley is in the final year of his deal, with a $3.25 million base and a $1 million signing-bonus proration. Releasing him would cost you just $1 million in dead money, with Switzer waiting in the wings, but with little experience.
After that, maybe they go to Dez as they did Brandon Carr in 2016 when he had that $9 million base salary in the final year of his five-year deal. The Cowboys ended up reducing his base to $4.25 million and guaranteeing him $1 million of that base. They also paid him a $1.25 million roster bonus – if he made the 53-man roster, which he did. And gave him a $2.717 million restructure bonus, which ended up eating up that much in 2017 dead money.
There are ways to reduce player's base salaries without embarrassing them, and allowing them to recoup the reduction in incentives.
That's a thought.
But stuck in the back of my mind is the final eight full games of the 2016 season (counting the Green Bay playoff game) when Dez finally had fully recovered from the tibial plateau fracture that cost him nearly four full games that season. During the home stretch – not counting the final game against Philadelphia he barely played in the 13-3 season) – Dez caught 43 passes for 646 yards, 15.02 yards per catch and eight touchdowns, with a, uh, rookie, fourth-round quarterback.
And if you combined that with the training camp he had last summer, man, you thought this thing was going to explode. And even at the halfway point of 2017, Dez had 38 catches for 439 yards and four touchdowns when the Cowboys were averaging 28 points a game.
But in that final eight games when the Cowboys ended up averaging just 17 points a game, his numbers fell to 31 catches 400 yards and two touchdowns.
So, do you want to make an eight-game judgment on cutting him to recoup is $12.5 million base salary while pouring another $12.5 million of dead money into the cap? Or might you combine the last eight games of 2016 and even the modest first eight games of 2017 and say, well, in that 16-game stretch Dez caught 81 passes for 1,085 yards (13.4 a catch) and 12 touchdowns?
Tough decision, right?
That's why I'd be hesitant to drop the checkered flag on his career.