Dallas Cowboys: Wide Receiver Market Bubble Bursts On Dez Bryant


The Dallas Cowboys have yet to sign All Pro wide receiver Dez Bryant to a long-term contract, and perhaps the reason is as simple as this: Seven of the Top 10 wide receiver contracts from a year ago have been dumped, resulting in more than $41 million in dead money.

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I wrote recently that the wide receiver market was goosed by a couple of bad franchises for all the wrong reasons, and that the Cowboys have been hesitant to wade into that dot com-like bubble to sign their star pass catcher.

Here is a chart from a post I penned a year ago showing the league’s then-Top 10 wide receiver contracts in terms of average annual earnings. Even then I was questioning whether the Stephen Jones-Jason Garrett-Will McClay Cowboys would go big to keep Bryant in Dallas:

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In just one trip around the sun, seven of those players have been released, traded, or taken a paycut. Here’s a chart showing the resulting dead money, all figures available at overthecap.com:

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Larry Fitzgerald took a paycut to stay in Arizona. His renegotiated contract will result in $9.7 million in dead money when it voids in 2017. Add that to the 2015 dead money from the rest of these high-priced ball catchers, and seven teams that went big for No. 1 receivers will gut more than $50 million in lost cap space.

It’s only going to get worse. Calvin Johnson will be 30 in September, and in each of the next three years he will count more than $20 million against the Lions’ cap. That includes base salaries of $12.5 million, $15.9 million, and $16.5 million, at least one of which is almost sure to be restructured.

Doing so will provide the Lions with short-term cap relief and push more guaranteed money off to future caps. Johnson is the best wide receiver in football, and he is dead cap space walking. We just don’t know when, or how bad it’s gonna hurt.

Bryant is elite, and apparently wants an elite contract to match. Who can blame him? But the market for wide receivers is silly (I wrote about why here). The Cowboys know that a market-value contract for Bryant will help the team in the short term, but hurt the organization eventually.

Dallas has spent the past four years during the Garrett Era repairing the franchise’s organizational culture, roster depth, and caponomics. The hard work is not nearly done, but it has begun to show dividends in the win column.

The Cowboys appear to have the beginnings of something sustainable, and now some are advocating to pay whatever it takes to keep Bryant in Dallas. That’s short-term thinking. I’m not knocking it. Maybe it’s worth it. Just understand it’s going to leave some future iteration of the Cowboys short-handed.

In November NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported the Cowboys had offered Bryant a 10-year, $114 million contract with $20 million in total guarantees. At the time, it would have been the NFL’s third-largest wide receiver contract in terms of total value, the fifth-highest in terms of average earnings per year, and the sixth-highest in terms of guaranteed money.

That’s hardly an insult. It’s clear the Cowboys would love to keep Bryant around for all his meaningful playing days. But this organization makes player personnel decisions with one eye to the future, whenever possible. Balancing today’s needs with tomorrow’s unknowns is a tricky business.

What’s not unknown about tomorrow is this: If the Cowboys give Bryant the contract he wants, it’s going to hurt. Just a question of when, and how bad.

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