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Exploring the Dez Bryant Free Agency Dilemma

Why can’t the former Cowboys star receiver find a job?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Three and a half years ago, Dez Bryant was at the center of the football universe. He hauled in what appeared to be a 31-yard catch to put the Cowboys in position to beat the Packers and advance to the NFC championship game, only the call was reversed and the catch was ruled incomplete. Dez caught it turned into a rallying cry, and a debate that persists to this day.

No matter your feelings about that controversial moment (it was a catch), what’s not up for debate is Dez’s production the rest of that season. In 2014, he caught 88 passes for 1,320 yards with 16 touchdowns, torching defenses for a unit that finished fourth in Football Outsiders’ offensive DVOA. Other than the star-studded line, virtually every other piece of that offense no longer plays for the Cowboys. Yet while some have retired and moved on to cushy broadcasting jobs (Tony Romo and Jason Witten) and others have landed sizable deals in free agency (DeMarco Murray), Bryant was unceremoniously cut by Dallas in mid-April. The receiver who once seemed like the bridge between the Cowboys’ Romo-Witten past and Dak Prescott–Ezekiel Elliott future is now sitting home in early June without a job. That’s a precipitous fall for a guy who snagged 41 touchdown passes from 2012 to 2014, but look around the league—at both the teams craving receiver help and the direction of NFL offenses in general—and Bryant’s shrinking value begins to make sense.

At the core of Bryant’s struggle to drum up interest is his diminished capacity as a playmaker. Foot surgery in 2016 sapped him of a considerable portion of the explosiveness that made him so dynamic at the height of his career. Last season, he ranked among the worst deep-ball receivers in the entire league, according to Pro Football Focus, corralling just four of his 19 targets on passes of 20 yards or more. Bryant’s main value now comes from his ability to bully smaller corners by posting them up outside the numbers or manhandling them for leverage on in-breaking routes. That style of play can be useful at times, but its limits are clearly defined—something that has become all the more obvious given the schematic and stylistic choices that have started to permeate the league at large.

The two fastest-growing coaching trees in pro football belong to Andy Reid (Doug Pederson, Matt Nagy, and more) and Kyle Shanahan (Sean McVay and recently hired Titans offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur). Take a look at the success the Eagles, Chiefs, 49ers, and Rams enjoyed offensively last season, and that spreading influence should come as no surprise. As more teams model their passing games around these offensive philosophies, receivers with Bryant’s skill set have become less appealing. For Shanahan and McVay, finding receivers who can create space and operate as a part of a collective approach in the passing game is more important than having a physically dominant target who can outmuscle diminutive cornerbacks. Scheming players open by slotting them into specific roles has proved to be more effective than forcing balls to receivers who can’t create separation but have a penchant for making contested plays.

It helps when one of those receivers who can create space is also built like Julio Jones, but it’s no coincidence that Jones recorded his lowest targets per game average (9.2) in 2016—his last season with Shanahan as his offensive coordinator—since his second season in the league. And while the Rams gave up significant capital to acquire Brandin Cooks this offseason, part of their motivation behind that deal was how well Cooks can replicate the deep-ball threat Sammy Watkins provided Los Angeles last fall. These teams haven’t necessarily devalued wide receivers; they’ve just made sure that the big-money wideouts they acquire are supercharged versions of the archetypes that make these offenses go.

The direction of receiver usage in the league doesn’t trend in Bryant’s favor, but it’s important to remember that not every team has adopted this schematic philosophy. Oakland was happy to hand Jordy Nelson a two-year, $14.2 million deal this offseason. Michael Crabtree got $13 million guaranteed from Baltimore in March. And heck, the Ravens tried to give Bryant a multiyear deal in late April. There are teams that remain willing to pay receivers who struggle to create downfield separation. It just so happens that most had their depth charts set by the time Bryant became available.

Bryant would undoubtedly love the chance to stick in the NFC East and face Dallas twice a year, but it doesn’t seem as if either Washington or New York is interested. Similar to the Brandon Marshall move last offseason, Bryant would provide Eli Manning with a big-body presence to line up across from Odell Beckham Jr. Yet Dez feels like the type of signing the previous Giants’ regime would make. Sterling Shepard likely represents a better option than Bryant, even on the outside, at this point in their respective careers. And although Washington’s two outside receivers (Paul Richardson and Josh Doctson) have combined for 132 career receptions, Richardson just inked a five-year, $40 million deal and Doctson is a first-round pick entering his third NFL season. Commitments have been made at the position.

The team that many analysts keep mentioning as a logical landing spot for Bryant is Green Bay, a destination that does seem sensible in several ways. With Nelson out of the fold, the Packers lack a clear second option on the outside, and no other quarterback in the league excels at putting throws in tight spots like Aaron Rodgers. But that also might be part of the reason the Packers shouldn’t sign Bryant. Green Bay’s high-profile move of the 2018 offseason to date was its decision to give Jimmy Graham a three-year, $30 million contract. Depending on how the Packers choose to use the tight end, it’s possible that he, Bryant, and Davante Adams could all coexist. Yet that trio would force Rodgers to lean heavily on contested catches and throws into tight quarters for what feels like the 10th season in a row. The more prudent scenario for Green Bay might involve using Graham as an outside receiver in certain sets while allowing recently signed Marcedes Lewis to hold down the traditional tight end role, all while the Packers’ younger receivers are given a chance to bring a more dynamic feel to a pass catching corps that’s long felt stagnant.

And therein lies the issue for any team considering Bryant. At this point in his career—and this point in the NFL calendar—Bryant’s price, even for a single season, likely wouldn’t make him more attractive than the alternative. He probably wouldn’t be valuable enough to most offenses to rationalize blocking younger, cheaper wideouts from getting the same opportunities. Nearly every factor of Bryant’s release and subsequent job search has stacked the deck against him, and that’s why it isn’t particularly shocking to see him without a home heading into mandatory minicamps next week. Bryant may be only a few years removed from owning status as one of the league’s best receivers, but it might require an injury or a desperate front office to get him on a roster.