Make no mistake, there is a question that needs to be answered.
“That’s one, obviously, that we’ll be looking at,” executive vice president Stephen Jones said on 105.3 The Fan in Dallas two days after the season ended when asked about Bryant’s future.
Bryant is signed with the Cowboys through 2019. He is due base salaries of $12.5 million in 2018 and ’19 and will count $16.5 million against the salary cap in each season. If the Cowboys cut Bryant, they can save $8.5 million against the cap and be in the clear, from a cap perspective, going into 2019, or they can designate him a post-June 1 cut and save $12.5 million but have him count $4 million against the 2019 cap. At the end of last season Bryant said he would not accept a pay cut.
Just as the Tony Romo question hung over the Cowboys last offseason, the Bryant question hangs over this one.
There was no way Romo was returning to the Cowboys in 2017. He was either going to retire or play somewhere else. The hang up came on the announcement. Originally, he was set to be released in March, but it did not happen until April.
Eventually, Romo joined CBS and became Jim Nantz’s partner while passing up opportunities to continue to play.
The Bryant question is a little more difficult. The Cowboys had Dak Prescott on the roster last offseason. They don’t have a No. 1 receiver ready to replace Bryant, who had 69 catches for 838 yards and six touchdowns.
The last time the Cowboys jettisoned their No. 1 receiver came after the 2008 season when owner and general manager Jerry Jones laid out his plans via a table cloth and Sharpie to Terrell Owens, who caught 69 passes for 1,052 yards and 10 touchdowns.
The Cowboys had Roy Williams ready to assume the top receiver spot. Midway through the 2008 season, the Cowboys gave up first-, third- and sixth-round picks to the Detroit Lions for Williams and a seventh-round pick. The Cowboys also signed Williams to a $45 million contract with $27 million guaranteed.
By the fifth game of the 2009 season, Williams was out as the top receiver after Miles Austin caught 10 passes for a franchise-record 250 yards and two touchdowns in an overtime win against the Kansas City Chiefs. Austin would go on to catch 81 passes for 1,320 yards and 11 touchdowns and be named to the Pro Bowl. The Cowboys signed him an extension before the 2010 season started.
Just when you think the Cowboys need to have Bryant’s replacement on hand if they choose to part ways, remember the DeMarcus Ware question.
Ware had six sacks in 2013 and missed the first three games of his career that season. At age 31 and having moved to a 4-3 scheme, the Cowboys coaches believed Ware was a descending player. His salary-cap figure had bloated because of a number of restructures over the years.
The Cowboys chose to cut Ware even though they had nobody ready to be a No. 1 pass rusher. They also chose not to keep that year’s leader in sacks, Jason Hatcher, who had 13.
The Cowboys did not make a splashy free-agent pickup. They added Jeremy Mincey, who led the Cowboys in sacks in 2014 with six, the same amount Ware had in his worst season. The Cowboys were willing to turn the need-vs.-best-player-available theory on its axis, knowing they had to have a pass rusher in the draft. They moved up in the second round to take DeMarcus Lawrence to address their biggest need.
The Cowboys can go the same route in this draft at wide receiver if they move forward without Bryant this offseason.
Bryant has had three straight seasons in which he did not produce big numbers. In 2015, injuries and poor quarterback play were the problem. In 2016, he missed three games with a tibial plateau fracture, but his numbers came around in the second half of the season. In 2017, he did not record a 100-yard game for the first time when playing a 16-game season.
“At times this year, Dez did some good things. Other times, it wasn’t good enough,” coach Jason Garrett said. “Dez also is part of our passing game, and we’ve got to improve in those areas. So, again, you pull back and you look at it. He did do some things, made some very significant plays for us at different times to help us win ball games. But again, I don’t think in general the passing game was consistent enough week in and week out to our level.”
To answer the Bryant question, the Cowboys would have to live with the possibility he goes somewhere else and puts up 2014 numbers: 88 catches, 1,320 yards and 16 touchdowns.
It’s a risk they were willing to take on Owens and Ware.
Will they take the same risk with Bryant?