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What Are the Cowboys Waiting For?

With Dak Prescott on a rookie contract, Dallas’s Super Bowl window is wide open. But the team has dragged its feet during free agency and hasn’t made a decision on Dez Bryant. What gives?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Dallas is quiet. Too quiet. The Cowboys became the last NFL team to sign a free agent when they agreed to a two-year deal with linebacker Joe Thomas on Wednesday. Before that signing, their most notable transaction was trading for a fullback and restructuring their center’s contract. As teams around them engage in one of the most active offseasons in recent memory, the Cowboys are in an unfamiliar place: out of the spotlight.

The strangeness of Dallas’s inactivity is all the more out of character given how wide open the Cowboys’ Super Bowl window is. Underpaid quarterbacks on rookie contracts have become the most important building block in the NFL, giving teams massive flexibility to fill out a roster, and no team is poised to take advantage like the Cowboys. As Warren Sharp pointed out, Dak Prescott has the smallest cap hit over the next two years of any starting quarterback in football.

That’s Prescott, barely visible at dead last, with an average cap hit over the next two years of $770,849 despite leading the team to a 13–3 record as a rookie in 2016. Incredibly, the Cowboys’ cap hit on Prescott is between 1/16th and 1/25th of what 20 other teams are shelling out for their starting quarterbacks. When Prescott’s deal expires in 2020, he’ll cash in, but until then he’s among the best bargains in the league.

Teams with cheap quarterbacks like the Eagles, Rams, Chiefs, and Bears are making big splashes in free agency and the trade market to take advantage of their temporary roster-building advantage. Yet while the rest of the league has spent the offseason button mashing, the Cowboys are twiddling their thumbs. Part of the reason is the team has just $6.7 million in cap space, a self-inflicted wound after restructuring more than $22 million last year, but the front office could double that space by addressing the most glaring question on the roster: Dez Bryant.

What to do with Bryant has loomed over Dallas’s offseason. Earlier this decade Bryant was among the most dominant players in football, averaging 15 games, 84 catches, 1,216 yards (14.5 yards per reception), and 12 touchdowns per season from 2011 to 2014. In July 2015, Bryant signed a five-year deal with $32 million guaranteed at signing and a ceiling of $70 million. Foot and ankle injuries sapped Bryant in the first year of that contract, and he hasn’t been able to establish the same rapport with Prescott that he had with Tony Romo. Since Dak took over, Bryant hasn’t reached 70 receptions, 840 yards, or nine touchdowns in a season, leading Cowboys fans to openly wonder whether Dez is washed.

Dallas could keep Bryant this season, but the 29-year-old has the third-highest cap hit among wide receivers. If the Cowboys cut Bryant before June 1, the team would save $8 million and eat $8.5 million of dead money. If the team releases him after June 1, the team would save $12.5 million and take on just $4 million of dead cap. But releasing Bryant would leave the Cowboys without a no. 1 receiver and with no clear replacement. Dallas made an offer to Sammy Watkins, but he signed with the Chiefs. The team hosted former Jaguars receiver Allen Hurns for a visit on Wednesday, but his skill set makes him more of a slot receiver than an outside threat like Bryant. If Hurns goes elsewhere, the Cowboys’ last resort would be gambling on the thin receiving class in this year’s draft. The ideal situation for Dallas would be for Bryant to accept a pay cut and stay with the team, but Bryant is understandably not onboard with that plan.

“Probably not,” Bryant said in December about whether he’d take a paycut. “Hell nah, man. I believe in me.”

Jerry Jones has said he wants Dez on the team this year, but his son and team vice president Stephen Jones has sounded less certain. In February he said about Bryant’s situation, “We all know this is a business where everyone has to be accountable.”

Now the Cowboys are at an impasse. If the team is serious about releasing Bryant, it might as well wait until June and save $4 million more in cap space, but by then they won’t have many players to spend it on. If Bryant refuses to take a paycut, he may end up staying with Dallas after all. By delaying the decision, the Cowboys may have made one.

Whatever the Cowboys do with Bryant, it’s simply the first of many major decisions lying ahead for the franchise. Dallas still needs to address the long-term contract situations of the franchise-tagged Demarcus Lawrence and guard Zack Martin, who probably wants to be the highest-paid guard ever. The Cowboys have locked up the rest of their offensive line core with left tackle Tyron Smith and center Travis Frederick, but still have paper-thin depth behind Bryant, and that will be made worse if receiver Cole Beasley leaves in free agency next year. And even if the offense bounces back to 2016 form, the team hasn’t done anything to improve the 25th-ranked defense by DVOA last season.

Prescott is eligible for an extension after this season, and he’ll want a heck of a raise after earning roughly half of what the Cowboys will pay their punter this year. None of the holes on Dallas’s roster are gaping, but they’ll all be harder to plug after Prescott gets paid. The clock is ticking. Dallas needs to start making some noise.