Since the offseason began, Bryant’s future with the Cowboys has been debated almost daily, and Friday could be the beginning of the end of his time with the only team for which he has wanted to play.
As Jones and Bryant get set for their meeting, what are the options?
Since executive vice president Stephen Jones said in January the Cowboys need to address Bryant’s contract, this does not seem like a realistic option. But it is possible. The Cowboys have added six players in free agency, placed the franchise tag on defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence and second-round tender on David Irving with Bryant costing $16.5 million against the cap.
According to ESPN Stats & Information estimate, the Cowboys have roughly $725,000 in salary-cap space. According to the NFL Players Association, they have $1.686 million. They will gain $3 million in room on June 1 when Orlando Scandrick’s release hits the books, but that is not enough to sign their draft picks and have room to keep practice squad players, deal with injury settlements and other unexpected expenditures that crop up during the year.
In recent years, the Cowboys have had starting right tackle Doug Free and cornerback Brandon Carr accept pay cuts to remain with the team. Bryant is set to make $12.5 million this year and count $16.5 million against the cap. That $16.5 million is the second-highest cap figure among receivers.
With the deals Sammy Watkins ($16 million per season), Allen Robinson ($14 million) and Donte Moncrief ($9.6 million) received, reaching the right number would give the Cowboys cap flexibility and make Bryant happy would seem difficult but not impossible.
The Cowboys could give Bryant the chance to earn back some of the money with incentives, but that might not be the smartest decision. Stephen Jones is on record saying Bryant’s sideline outbursts have been something of a distraction. Would those go away if he knows he needs a certain amount of catches, yards or touchdowns to earn a significant amount of money?
Also, Jerry Jones does not do the contracts for the team and so far Bryant’s agent has not been broached regarding a pay cut. While Jerry Jones and Bryant might be able to work on the larger aspect of a pay cut, the details of those discussions would not involve either.
While there is an immediate benefit (creating cap space for the current year) there is a downside (adding to cap figures in future years). Considering Bryant’s age and falling production, restructuring the contract is not applicable.
Extending Bryant would also seem unwise, considering the age and falling production, but it would allow the Cowboys to guarantee the receiver some money up front and keep him at more favorable salaries in future years should he return to the 2012-14 form.
A source said Bryant’s name has come up in trade discussions this offseason. Given the number of big names that have been dealt that should not be viewed as a surprise, especially given the Cowboys’ interest in signing Watkins as a free agent.
Bryant’s declining production and $12.5 million salary would make a deal difficult, but given the money thrown at receivers less decorated than Bryant maybe a team would be willing to part with a mid-to-late pick.
All the team acquiring Bryant would be on the hook for would be his 2018 base salary. They could simply walk away from his $12.5 million base salary due in 2019 after the season.
It is possible the Cowboys could allow Bryant and his agent the chance to seek a trade, but the chances seem remote.
Jerry Jones has made difficult decisions like these before. He cut the NFL’s all-time leading rusher, Emmitt Smith. He cut the franchise leader in sacks, DeMarcus Ware. He said goodbye to Hall of Fame guard Larry Allen. He cut Terrell Owens less than a year after signing the receiver to a big extension.
This would be a difficult decision for Jones because of his relationship with Bryant. He has been a father figure to him since the Cowboys took Bryant in the first round of the 2010 draft. He has scolded him when necessary about off-field issues. He has put an arm around him when needed as well.
If the Cowboys release Bryant, they can save either $8.5 million or $12.5 million against the cap. The Cowboys could choose to take the entire cap hit this season, saving them $8.5 million in 2018, or they could designate Bryant a post-June 1 cut and save $12.5 million. The only downside to that is Bryant would count $4 million against the cap in 2019.
Teams are allowed to designate two players as post-June 1 cuts before. Scandrick was the Cowboys’ first in March.
As soon as Friday, Bryant could be the second.