Dec 29, 2013; Arlington, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant (88) can not make a catch against Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Brandon Boykin (22) in the third quarter at AT&T Stadium. The Eagles beat the Cowboys 24-22. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Cowboys New Red Zone Threats May Make Expensive Dez Bryant Expendable

This week marked the first public back-and-forth between Cowboys ownership and wide receiver Dez Bryant, who is in the final year of his rookie contract and can expect a massive pay raise as one of the NFL’s elite wideouts.

It’s a dance we’re all familiar with, and these were merely the first tentative steps: The GM praises the player effusively, saying talks are too preliminary to discuss publicly. The player extols the many virtues of the organization that drafted him, saying he’s focused on the promise of the upcoming season rather than his future payday.

Actually, Bryant offered a little bonus in this opening salvo. When a reporter asked him if he thought he deserved to be paid as an elite receiver, Bryant responded “Yeah, I deserve it.” That bold declaration spawned the ESPN.com post subhead, Bryant: “I Deserve” Extension, Raise. Nothing drives clicks like conflict. But this was hardly antagonistic. Just a direct man answering a direct question in a direct manner.

No one disputes he’s absolutely correct. No one doubts he’s sure to get it. Bryant is a feather in the cap of a much-maligned coaching staff that helped develop a raw talent with off-the-field baggage into a consistent impact player. One wonders how Bryant might have turned out if he’d grown up under the laissez-faire leadership of the previous regime.

Though he owes much to the Cowboys for helping him become a man, and consequently a Pro Bowler, he doesn’t owe them one dime of hometown discount. Football is a violent game, and players have a brief window in which to make a payday. To illustrate, Bryant has sustained injuries to his ribs, ankle, thigh, knee, groin, hip, finger, hand, foot, hamstring, back and wrist – and those are just the various maladies that made an official injury report.

There are seven NFL receivers with contract values in excess of $10 million per season, and none of them have scored more touchdowns than Bryant over the past two years. Several weeks back I penned a post suggesting 2014 could be Bryant’s swan song season as a Cowboy. A $12 million per annum price tag is prohibitive for the position, particularly for a team with so many pressing needs. To recap:

Dez Bryant is an elite NFL talent, so he’s not exactly replaceable. The Cowboys can’t hope to let him go, and find another receiver in the draft to fill his shoes. What they can do is find another receiver to replace a portion of his production, AND upgrade at safety. Or linebacker. Or guard. Or any number of positions along the defensive line. They can be somewhat weaker at the wide receiver position, but stronger overall as a team.

While I still think that’s true, a closer look at Bryant’s numbers suggests his true elite value lies in red zone production. Bryant caught 13 touchdown passes last season, and 10 of them were inside the red zone. Heck, nine of them were five yards or less. He was more drive capper than game breaker. Bryant’s touchdown production was remarkable, but nothing a strong running game couldn’t adequately replace.

In fact, Bryant’s red zone production was nearly matched by an undrafted rookie free agent tight end last year. New passing game coordinator Scott Linehan turned Joseph Fauria into a red zone beast in Detroit. The 6’7″ rookie caught seven touchdowns, the longest of which was just 23 yards, and had no drops. Fauria had few suitors during draft season, but Linehan saw a weapon in the freakishly tall, sure-handed youngster, and he schemed accordingly.

How pumped do you suppose Gavin Escobar was when he found out Linehan had joined the Dallas coaching staff? He’s a second-year player so under-used he’s practically still in the wrapper, smoldering with the potential of a 6’6″ frame and famously sticky hands.

The Cowboys are certainly better on offense with Bryant than without him, but someone is going to pay the 26-year-old $10 to $12 million per season for the next five years. If GM Jerry Jones‘ investment in the offensive line improves the running game as hoped, and Linehan can do with Escobar what he did with Fauria, it may not be the Cowboys.

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