Is Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant worth $14 to $15 million per season over the next seven years? Jason Fitzgerald at overthecap.com argues Bryant has the resume and the upside to be the league’s third $100 million receiver. It’s a meticulously researched and well-presented piece. If it’s anywhere close to accurate, it spells bad news for Dallas: As good as Bryant is, re-signing him isn’t a no-brainer.
When negotiating contracts in a salary cap league, a GM must consider both the player he’s getting as well as the players he won’t be signing because of the cap commitment he made to the player he got. Is Bryant worth whatever talent Dallas won’t be able to sign down the road? It’s not an easy question to answer, in part because of the position Bryant plays.
Arizona Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald earned a $113 million contract catching passes from Super Bowl MVP Kurt Warner. Warner retired, and Fitzgerald’s production tailed off. As good as Fitzgerald is, he didn’t make Warner’s string of successors – Derek Anderson, John Skelton, Kevin Kolb – any better. So what happens if quarterback Tony Romo’s surgically repaired back doesn’t hold up? Would a chorus of journeyman quarterbacks frustrate Bryant the same way they did Fitzgerald?
More importantly, after Warner retired the Cardinals weren’t winning games with their $113 million receiver. In the three years following Warner’s retirement, the Cardinals went 5-11, 8-8 and 5-11. Fitzgerald was still the same outstanding receiver, but without a quarterback he could no longer take over a game. What good is a dynamic receiving threat if no one can get him the ball?
Fitzgerald is a cautionary tale any smart GM must consider before paying big-time money to a receiver. So is former Cowboys receiver Laurent Robinson. Picked up as a street free agent prior to the 2011 season, Robinson had accomplished little in two years with quarterbacks Marc Bulger and Sam Bradford in St. Louis, and even less the two years before with Joey Harrington and a rookie Matt Ryan in Atlanta. Then with Romo throwing him the ball in Dallas, Robinson stunned everyone by catching 11 touchdowns and averaging over 15 yards per reception.
It was thought the five-year veteran finally “figured it out,” as the more astute TV analysts like to say. Robinson cashed in that career year with a $32 million contract in Jacksonville, and was never heard from again. The same could be said of Dallas dynasty receiver Alvin Harper. With Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman in the pocket, Harper was a high-flying touchdown machine. He signed a big free agent deal in 1995 with Tampa Bay and caught three touchdowns in two years with Trent Dilfer behind center. He was cut in 1997 and out of the league by 1998.
Dez Bryant is certainly better than Robinson and Harper, so the point isn’t to compare the three as players. The point is to examine the situation from the opposite angle: What if Romo stays healthy for another five years, like he says he will? With a quarterback who can turn a street free agent veteran like Robinson into a dynamic offensive weapon, does the team really need to spend $100 million on a receiver? Would that money be better spent improving other positions? Would the team be stronger overall, even with a weaker No. 1 receiver?
Is a huge investment in cap space smart for a position that appears to be so heavily influenced by the quality of the quarterback play?
Several perennial contenders don’t appear to believe so: New England let Randy Moss and Wes Welker walk before they got too expensive; Green Bay let Greg Jennings play out his contract; Pittsburgh didn’t come anywhere near the $12 million per year that Miami offered Mike Wallace.
The cap implications of one huge contract can impact roster decisions for years. Someone is going to pay Dez Bryant his market value. Bryant’s agent can piece together a very compelling argument that his client is worth $14 to $15 million a year. Whoever ends up paying Bryant will get one of the best receivers in the league, and miss out on signing multiple other talented players. It’s a package deal. This is the reality of a capped league, and it will make the decision to pay or part ways with Bryant a tough one.