As the Dallas Cowboys have an impact Pro Bowl wideout in the final year of his rookie contract, I’ve devoted quite a bit of space this offseason to the issues surrounding a Dez Bryant extension. The budding promise of No. 2 receiver Terrance Williams was not a part of those considerations. Then head coach Jason Garrett said this of the second-year player during Wednesday’s press conference:
"“(Williams) is very serious-minded for a young guy, and he just wants to be good. And there are times where he’s come up to me and apologized: ‘Coach, that wasn’t good enough. I’m never going to let you down like that again.’ And that’s in a practice-type setting. So he takes it very seriously, he listens to coaching, and I think the more he plays every aspect of his game will get better and better.”"
That is very deep, very thoughtful praise, suggesting Williams has the mental makeup to become a No. 1 receiver in the NFL. His potential to develop into a legitimate No. 1 threat could certainly impact how the team chooses to negotiate with Bryant. The choices are to extend Bryant before the end of the season, extend him after the season, franchise him for 2015, or let him leave as a free agent for potential compensatory draft picks.
Another home-grown No. 1 receiving option would give the organization some flexibility in considering a Dez Bryant extension. But is it plausible? In examining any obvious barriers to Williams becoming a top threat, let’s first look at how he compares physically to some of the established No. 1 receivers in the game today. All figures below courtesy Pro-Football Reference:
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While Williams is not the tallest or the biggest or the fastest among this group, he’s not the shortest or the smallest or the slowest either. In other words, when judging whether Williams is No. 1 wideout material, he does not appear to be limited by his frame or his speed. Williams fits pretty well with this group. Should he become a No. 1 receiver, he would not be a physical outlier. That’s encouraging. Now let’s look at how his first-year production in 2013 compares to Bryant’s as a rookie:
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Their rookie production is remarkably similar – around 50 receiving yards per game and about a half dozen touchdowns on the year. Bryant caught more passes per game, but Williams appears to have been the more explosive of the two, averaging nearly 17 yards per catch to Bryant’s 12.5.
The point isn’t to determine who was better as a rookie; the point is Bryant and Williams were comparable players at the same stage of their careers. Bryant wasn’t always a dominant player, but by the second half of his third season he had developed into a legitimate No. 1. Nothing we’ve seen yet suggests it’s impossible for Williams to do the same. Garrett’s Wednesday revelations about Williams’ mental makeup further suggest he could develop much faster than Bryant:
"“His development has been pretty consistent in that he goes to work every day, he works hard, he has physical ability, and he just needs to play. And then we coach him hard, and he responds to it. He’s really one of the more unique guys I’ve ever been around in that regard… The thing I keep going back to with him is demeanor: He’s locked in. It’s like he’s focused – he’s got blinders on like a thoroughbred racehorse. It’s really impressive to see. He’s really mature. He wants to be great.”"
Word is Bryant and the Cowboys are nowhere near an extension agreement. ESPN’s Jean-Jacques Taylor recently reported the Cowboys are thinking DeSean Jackson money – three years, $24 million, and about a third of it guaranteed. Bryant’s agent likely believes (very correctly, I think) that his client could command at least five years and well north of $60 million on the open market. If so, a yawning fissure of 35 to 40 percent divides the two sides and it’s unlikely anything gets done this year.
The Cowboys have some leverage with the franchise tag; they can lock Bryant up for around $12 to $13 million in 2015. For that they get a year of Bryant’s prime, and Bryant is forced to forego the security of a long-term deal; he may take less than his market value to avoid that. But Bryant has leverage in that his price tag may rise the longer the Cowboys wait, a point very astutely argued by Jason Fitzgerald at overthecap.com. And, speaking of leverage, Bryant was the undeniable stud focal point of this offense in 2012 and 2013.
But maybe he won’t be in 2014. The Cowboys have three first-round picks on the offensive line, a Pro Bowl running back also in a contract year, and an entire organization very vocally committed to running the ball.
They also have a “unique,” “focused,” “impressive,” “mature” second-year receiver with all the physical traits of a No. 1 and a single-minded drive “to be great.” That doesn’t mean he will be, but it’s one more reason to take a wait-and-see approach with Bryant before blowing up future caps to keep him.