NFL Nation: Dez Bryant

Jason GarrettAP Photo/Aaron M. SprecherJason Garrett enters his fourth full season as Dallas' coach searching for his first playoff appearance.
IRVING, Texas -- This is the biggest year of Jason Garrett's coaching career with the Dallas Cowboys.

That's after 2013 was the biggest. And 2012. And probably 2011, even if it was his first full year as a head coach and the offseason was shortened because of a lockout. This is Dallas, after all, where winning is a birthright, even if those fans born after Jan. 28, 1996, have never seen their team make a conference title game.

But now we mean it. This year -- 2014 -- is the biggest in Garrett’s coaching career.

Basically we mean it because there are no more options for Garrett. He is not under contract for 2015 with the Cowboys. He is in a contract year the way Dez Bryant, Bruce Carter and DeMarco Murray are.

The good news for Garrett is that the outside expectations have never been lower in his run as the Cowboys’ head coach. The offseason predictions, which are often ludicrous anyway, have the Cowboys tumbling from 8-8 to 5-11 or worse.

The bad news is that he has a defense that has a ton of questions at every level. Pick a defensive lineman and there is a question. Pick a linebacker and there is a question. Pick a defensive back not named Barry Church or Orlando Scandrick and there is a question.

On offense things look much better, provided quarterback Tony Romo is able to come back from back surgery to play at a high level. To some that might be a huge "if" considering Romo’s age (34), but the general feeling is that everything will be fine with the quarterback, who had 31 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in 15 starts in 2013. Add Bryant, Jason Witten, Murray and an offensive line that should be this franchise’s best since 2007 and you can see the offense putting up yards and points this season.

That is where Garrett has to hang his hat if he wants to be the Cowboys’ head coach or another team’s head coach in 2015. And he can’t really hang his hat in the room, because he won’t be in the room as much as he has been.

One of Garrett's themes of 2013 was that he was entering what was the biggest year of his coaching career and unable to do what he does best -- run the offense -- because Jerry Jones gave those duties to Bill Callahan. Garrett won’t be running the offense in 2014 either, but neither will Callahan. Garrett at least has his guy, Scott Linehan, running it this season. So that is a slight bonus for Garrett.

The better news for Garrett is that if he makes the playoffs, he can control his future.

Looking objectively at what he has done since taking over as the full-time coach, there have been positive signs and mistakes that have cost the Cowboys games. The general direction of the team is better than it was when he took over. Troy Aikman said this offseason that if Garrett is not back in 2015, then the next coach will benefit from the foundation Garrett put down.

There aren’t many people outside of Valley Ranch giving the Cowboys a chance to compete in the NFC East in 2014. The Cowboys went 5-1 in the division last season and had the worst defense in the league. If they are a tick better on defense this season, can’t they contend? When did the Philadelphia Eagles, New York Giants and Washington Redskins become such juggernauts?

If the Cowboys made the playoffs, would Garrett become a hot commodity again? Would teams look at the big picture of the mess he inherited, how he kept the team competitive in a retooling if not rebuilding mode and how he worked with owner and general manager Jerry Jones, and view Garrett differently than he is viewed now?

Perhaps, and that would put him in a position of leverage.

Garrett will not address his future no matter how many times he is asked. He gives the same answer about keeping his focus on being the best coach he can be each and every day. Jones has been patient with Garrett and he doesn’t mind that the coach is in a lame-duck status. Jones wants to see the Cowboys reap the rewards of working through some of Garrett’s missteps made because of inexperience in his first three seasons.

This week Jones will be sitting next to Garrett and will be asked about the coach’s long-term status. He will profess faith in Garrett, extoll what he has done in his first three seasons and talk about the potential payoff coming in 2014.

If it doesn’t come this season, then all bets are off.

That is why this year -- 2014 -- is the biggest year of Garrett’s coaching career.

Dallas Cowboys' projected roster

July, 18, 2014
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IRVING, Texas -- Examining the Dallas Cowboys' roster:

QUARTERBACKS (2)

The Kyle Orton watch is over now that the Cowboys released the veteran backup. The timing of it is a surprise, and Jason Garrett spoke optimistically all offseason about Orton’s return. Now the Cowboys turn their attention to Weeden as Romo’s backup. Weeden had a productive spring, running the first-team offense as Romo recovered from back surgery. The Cowboys haven’t kept a third quarterback since 2011, and Caleb Hanie and Dustin Vaughan will have work to do to crack the 53-man roster

RUNNING BACKS (4)


The last two spots could be up in the air. Randle, a fifth-round choice, will be pushed by free-agent pickup Ryan Williams in the preseason. Williams, a former second-round pick, was not able to stay healthy in Arizona. The Cowboys have given him a chance to win a backup job. Clutts did a nice job as a late-season pickup in 2013. He is more versatile than undrafted rookie J.C. Copeland, but I don’t think having a fullback on the 53-man roster is set in stone.

WIDE RECEIVERS (5)


I debated whether to go with a sixth, but later on you will see why I stuck with five. It is possible the Cowboys will look for a veteran in the final cuts if they feel limited by their depth because of injury, but I think they like the overall group. They will work their No. 3 receiver role on a rotation basis, but Beasley could emerge as a bigger threat on third down. There will be a lot of eyes on Williams, who takes over the No. 2 role on a full-time basis. Bryant is set for another Pro Bowl-type season.

TIGHT ENDS (3)


Witten remains near the top of the game at his position. His total catches were down last year, but his touchdowns were up. Escobar’s role figures to expand, especially as a No. 3-type receiver. Hanna has the inside track on the third spot, but I have a feeling the Cowboys will be looking for more of a traditional blocker, especially if they want to get away from the fullback spot to open up a role elsewhere.

OFFENSIVE LINE (9)

The top six are set, with Bernadeau or Leary fighting it out for the left guard position and the loser becoming the top backup on the interior. Parnell is in the final year of his deal, and if Weems develops, I wonder if the Cowboys would look for a trading partner. They have invested a lot in Parnell in time and money for him to be a backup, so it would be a risk, but perhaps one worth taking. Weems had a decent offseason. Clarke gets the nod as the No. 9 guy right now, but veteran Uche Nwaneri could work his way into the mix.

DEFENSIVE LINE (10)

I think the Cowboys will go heavy here, especially considering what happened last year and the numbers they have thrown at the position this year. Four of them are rookies -- Lawrence, Gardner, Bishop and Coleman. I believe Anthony Spencer and possibly Amobi Okoye will start the year on the physically unable to perform list, so they don’t make this 53-man roster with the idea that they join the team after the sixth game of the season. Wilson garnered the last spot over a 2013 starter, Nick Hayden, but there will be a few players in the mix for the final few spots, including Ben Bass.

LINEBACKER (7)

Carrying seven linebackers might be a little heavy, but I have special teams in mind when it comes to Will Smith. He benefits from having only two quarterbacks on the 53-man roster. The Cowboys spent the offseason telling us games are won and lost up front, so carrying an extra offensive or defensive linemen could get in this mix as well. McClain gets a spot only because of his experience. Backups of Holloman, Hitchens and Smith would be tough considering their youth, and I can see the Cowboys looking for veteran backup help around the final cut dates.

CORNERBACK (5)


Carr and Claiborne have to play exceptionally well for this defense to have a chance, and they might have to do it without much help from a consistent pass rush. Scandrick is coming off his best season, and Claiborne will have to beat him out to reclaim the starting spot. Moore can play inside and out. Mitchell showed in his limited offseason work that he can make plays. Last year’s fourth-round pick, B.W. Webb, will have to fight for a spot. Based on his offseason work, he did not make the cut for this roster.

SAFETY (5)

Church is the only player without questions. The Cowboys are projecting the other four with their biggest bet on Wilcox. He enters camp as the starter, but he could be pushed by Heath and Hamilton. Dixon will be more of a special-teams threat if he is to make the roster. Hamilton showed some playmaking in the offseason. No Matt Johnson? Not right now, especially after he couldn’t practice -- again -- for most of the offseason.

SPECIALISTS (3)


Perhaps Cody Mandell can push Jones, but Jones is the more consistent punter and has a good rapport as a holder for Bailey. Ladouceur remains one of the best long-snappers in the game. This group won’t change during the summer unless there is an injury.
IRVING, Texas – Brandon Weeden's bid to be the Dallas Cowboys’ No. 2 quarterback in 2014 got a lot easier when the club decided to release Kyle Orton.

Weeden
Barring something unforeseen, Weeden, who signed a two-year deal in the offseason, will be Tony Romo’s backup. But Weeden does not look at the move as “weight off my shoulders.”

“Given the situation Kyle has been in in previous years in Dallas, he’s been the backup quarterback, so I think if he was there it would be one more obstacle I would have to kind of hurdle,” Weeden said. “But at the same time I can’t really get wrapped up in putting all of my attention on that. I need to do what I did in the [organized team activities] and continue to play well and get better. I think hopefully things will work out that way regardless.”

The Cowboys felt confident enough to jettison Orton, who skipped the entire offseason program and minicamp, in part because of what Weeden did in the spring. With Romo recovering from back surgery and being kept out of competitive drills and Orton missing, Weeden took all of the first-team snaps.

“I think the reps I got in the OTAs were kind of irreplaceable,” Weeden said. “If I was in a situation where God forbid something happened to Tony and I’m asked to play, those are the guys I’m going to battle with, so those reps I got were invaluable. I know I won’t get many of those in [training] camp, but fortunately I had 12 practices where I was able to get out with those guys. Now it’s, ‘Let’s get to work.’ I’m ready to get to California and get things rolling.”

Orton had the same benefit last year of taking all of the offseason snaps in 2013 as Romo recovered from surgery to remove a cyst from his back. When Romo hurt his back in Week 16 against the Washington Redskins, he was able to step into the season finale against the Philadelphia Eagles and play well. He completed 30 of 46 passes for 358 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions, but a late turnover sealed the Cowboys’ loss.

“[Gavin] Escobar and [Jason] Witten are two totally different players. Dez [Bryant] and Terrance [Williams] are two totally different players,” Weeden said. “You kind of learn what certain guys’ strengths are and little nuances of what they do. That’s the thing more than anything. You kind of get a feel for what Dez likes on fades and all that stuff a certain way where Terrance might like it another way. You’ve got to learn what each guy likes. When you’re with so many new guys it takes time. You always want more time, but it’s nice to have the reps I did get there to get a head start.”
IRVING, Texas -- Jimmy Graham was unable to declare himself a wide receiver in an arbitration case, but the New Orleans Saints tight end did fairly well with his reported four-year, $40 million deal that includes $21 million guaranteed.

As the Dallas Cowboys and Dez Bryant look for ways to come to an agreement on a long-term deal so they can avoid any franchise-tag hassle next offseason, can Graham’s deal be something of a barometer for Bryant?

Graham
Bryant
Bryant
Graham argued he was a receiver because he lined up mostly off the line. It was an argument that was eventually denied by an arbiter, but there is some truth to what he was saying. Graham is not a tight end in the way Jason Witten is a tight end. But that is his position. Bryant will never be asked to put his hand on the ground to block somebody the way Graham is asked to do at least part of the time for the Saints.

But I digress. Let’s just look at the statistical comparisons of Bryant and Graham. Both players were selected in the 2010 draft. Bryant was a first-round pick, so he has an extra year on his rookie deal. Graham was a third-round pick.

In the past three seasons their numbers are fairly similar.

Bryant: 248 catches, 3,543 yards, 34 touchdowns.
Graham: 270 catches, 3,507 yards, 36 touchdowns.

Any discussions between the Cowboys and Bryant’s agent, Eugene Parker, have been kept under wraps for the most part. Most of the figures thrown around have been by the media. There are seven wide receivers with an average annual value of at least $10 million: Brandon Marshall, Calvin Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, Percy Harvin, Mike Wallace, Dwayne Bowe and Vincent Jackson.

Marshall, Johnson, Fitzgerald, Wallace, Bowe and Jackson have at least $20 million in guaranteed money in their deals, as does Andre Johnson, who is threatening a holdout from the Houston Texans' training camp.

Graham’s contract puts him in line with receivers if not with the top-paid guys like Johnson ($16.2 million), Fitzgerald ($16.1 million). Harvin ($12.9 million) and Wallace ($12 million) who cashed in during free agency. Bowe averages $11.2 million. The Washington Redskins signed DeSean Jackson to a three-year, $24 million deal that included $16 million guaranteed in the offseason.

So where does Bryant fit in? Should he get Graham’s $10 million average or play out the season and possibly get tagged (that was $12.3 million in 2014)?

There is some middle ground in which both sides can compromise, but Graham's deal could help define just where that ground is, even if he is a tight end (wink, wink).

Cowboys' biggest key to success

July, 10, 2014
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IRVING, Texas -- Since Tony Romo took over as quarterback, the success of the Dallas Cowboys has mostly centered on Romo's effectiveness.

Romo
He has played well enough in the past three seasons to throw 90 touchdown passes and get intercepted 39 times, but the Cowboys have not been able to finish better than 8-8 and have missed the playoffs. They have not qualified for the postseason since 2009.

As the Cowboys look to end the drought in 2014, Romo will remain the central part to their success, but the core of the team has changed.

While Romo and Jason Witten remain, the core of the team has become players like Dez Bryant, Tyron Smith, DeMarco Murray, Orlando Scandrick, Barry Church and Sean Lee. The Cowboys have transitioned from an older team to a younger team.

Starting next year, the Cowboys will be in much better salary-cap space. The days of the Cowboys setting the market on free agents might be over. They signed cornerback Brandon Carr to a five-year, $50 million deal in 2011 and have not received the payoff. They parted ways with DeMarcus Ware and Miles Austin this offseason. They did not attempt to re-sign Jason Hatcher. For a team that did not hesitate to pay age often, the Cowboys have turned almost frugal.

They have drafted better and smarter. Three of their past four first-round picks have been offensive linemen. Their drafting will never be perfect but it has been better. They have found more role players after a disastrous 2009 draft. They are trying to build the roster from the inside out as opposed to outside in.

For the Cowboys to make the jump from 8-8 to a consistent playoff team, they honestly need to continue down the same path. Patience has never been one of owner Jerry Jones’ strong suits, but the team has shown a willingness to change its ways.

If they continue to build smartly and avoid the costly mistakes that come about in free agency, the Cowboys could find themselves beginning to open up another window of opportunity as Romo and Witten wind down their careers.
IRVING, Texas -- Things are quiet at Valley Ranch these days. Most members of the Dallas Cowboys are on vacation, enjoying their final few weeks of downtime before training camp begins in Oxnard, California.

Everybody loves the fact it’s quiet, but things can change at any moment. Every team fears the 2 a.m. phone call, like every parent fears them.

So far, things have been quiet. But it could have been so much different had the Cowboys taken a different path in recent drafts.

Gordon
Gordon
The Cowboys wrestled with the idea of taking wide receiver Josh Gordon in the 2012 supplemental draft. They put in a midround bid for him only to be jumped by the Cleveland Browns, who took him with a second-round pick, in the selection process.

Coach Jason Garrett spoke with Baylor coach Art Briles numerous times about Gordon in the evaluation process. The Cowboys liked Gordon’s ability even if he didn’t play football in 2011 after transferring from Baylor to Utah. They felt they could help with the off-field issues that bothered Gordon and could fashion a similar plan to the one that helped Dez Bryant.

On July 5, Gordon was arrested and charged with driving while impaired after speeding down a street in Raleigh, North Carolina. He was already facing a year-long suspension for failing a drug test and is reportedly scheduled to meet with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell this month.

Manziel
The Cowboys also passed on Johnny Manziel with the 16th pick in the first round of this year’s draft. The Texas A&M quarterback seemed to be a Jerry Jones dream, but the Cowboys' owner and general manager listened to his football people and drafted guard Zack Martin.

Manziel has been in headlines ever since he won the Heisman Trophy as a redshirt freshman with the Aggies. This offseason he has been a frequent visitor to Las Vegas, and many photos have been taken and distributed of his time there.

The Browns have asked Manziel to calm down his off-field life, but Johnny Football hasn't slowed down. He has done nothing wrong other than failing to realize perception is reality when it comes to quarterbacks.

This isn't to congratulate the Cowboys for what they didn't do because they would have taken Gordon if no other team had put in a better bid and would have taken Manziel if they did not have so much money committed to Tony Romo.

But it shows you just how much luck can be involved in decisions.

The Cowboys could very well be getting the late-night calls the Browns are receiving. Every team could.

Training camp can't get here fast enough -- for every team.
IRVING, Texas – After one of the Dallas Cowboys’ final minicamp practices, Cole Beasley took up a sliver of space on the field, running in quick bursts, cutting left and right over and over again.

“Just kind of working on my feet and pumping my arms at the top of routes,” Beasley said.

[+] EnlargeCole Beasley
AP Photo/James D SmithCole Beasley has been working to become a more well-rounded route runner this offseason.
It was tedious work on a June day that Beasley hopes pays off for him in September when the Cowboys’ regular season starts. In his first two years with the Cowboys, Beasley has 54 catches for 496 yards and two touchdowns. Last year he developed into a real threat in the slot as one of Tony Romo’s favorite targets, catching 39 passes for 368 yards and two scores.

At 5-foot-8, 180 pounds, however, there are limitations to Beasley’s game that he has to overcome, which is why he spent that post-practice time working on his route running.

“Typically when you’re a smaller receiver, you have to win by more,” coach Jason Garrett said. “And so how do you do that as an outside receiver? You outrun guys. I’m thinking about a deep ball down the field. You can beat a guy by a yard or two when you’re a smaller guy and he still kind of has you covered because he’s a bigger guy and as the ball is coming in, he has an equal chance to make a play on that ball. Bigger guys outside don’t have to win by as much because they can fight for that ball when it’s up in the air. That’s how his size hurts him.

“What helps him out there is his quickness, his change of direction. He’s a very good route runner, and he’s able to kind of create the space that he needs as an outside receiver a lot like he’s able to do inside. His change of direction is really pretty unique, and he has a real good feel. He’s very quarterback-friendly when he runs his routes. We’re trying to give him opportunities in a lot of different spots. He’s most natural playing inside, but he’s certainly not a non-factor as an outside receiver.”

Beasley worked on the outside some in the offseason but most of his work was still from the slot. Wide receivers coach Derek Dooley said Beasley has expanded his route inventory. The Cowboys would like to move Dez Bryant around more in 2014. In order to do that, they need Beasley to be able to handle the outside.

“You don’t have as much space because the sideline is there,” Beasley said. “In the slot you kind of have a two-way go on a defender. You can’t just get way out or way in. Outside [the cornerback] can kind of use the sideline as his friend. You don’t want to get too close to that sideline because there’s no throw. It’s just a little different as far as releases go and stuff like that.”

By having more routes in his repertoire, Beasley will be more difficult to read.

“Even just being a slot guy you can still have more routes,” Beasley said. “To me, it’s all about opportunities. I didn’t have much opportunity to run that many different routes and they’re doing a good job of giving me more stuff just to see what I can do, what I can handle, what I can’t handle. I’ve just got to prove to them I can do the stuff. I believe I can, so it’s all a matter of showing them.”

In an offense with Bryant, Jason Witten, DeMarco Murray and Terrance Williams, Beasley could have a prominent role.

“He’s going to be a much better player than he was last year,” Dooley said, “and he was really valuable to us last year.”
Dez Bryant is not going to change.

And everybody around him better deal with it.

The Cowboys wide receiver is still rambunctious and the best player on his team. Bryant is still going to yell and scream with his teammates. He's still going to yell and scream constructive criticism at himself and the offense.

He's still going to be encouraging.

[+] EnlargeBryant
Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesDez Bryant, who is never shy about sharing his opinion, had 93 catches for 1,233 yards and 13 touchdowns last season.
If you don't like it, too bad.

Bryant was this way at Lufkin, Texas, where he grew up and played high school football. He was this way at Oklahoma State.

"Always. I've always done it," he said. "It's nothing new."

And he's not slowing down now entering his fifth season with the Cowboys.

Bryant is the veteran of a receiver group asked to push the passing game to new heights with play caller Scott Linehan.

Bryant will be in Linehan's ear or face, depending on the situation, to let him know what the deal is.

The Cowboys know if they expect to be anything worth talking about this fall, reaching the postseason is the way.

Bryant is the glue to this offense. Yes, tight end Jason Witten is an elite player at his position, but the offense relies on Bryant, who is entering a pivotal year of his career.

What to pay the man is a major question. Do you give him an average salary of $12 million? How about $14 million?

Bryant said he's not worried about his contract, and will monitor things from afar.

It seems there is always something with Bryant. He had the blowup in Detroit. There was the one-catch game in New Orleans. He walked off the field before the end of the Green Bay game.

When his 2013 season ended, though, Bryant was named to the Pro Bowl, finishing with 93 catches for 1,233 yards with 13 touchdowns and 67 plays that resulted in first downs.

Bryant says he's this misunderstood cat from Lufkin. He talks about his kids as if they were born yesterday and acts as if the Cowboys are the defending Super Bowl champs.

"I look at it as motivation not only for myself but for my teammates," Bryant said of his vocal nature. "I honestly feel like the more work I put in or anybody else puts in off of what I'm saying, it is becoming a progress. I'm going to continue to keep doing it. It's not for show. It's something that's coming straight from the heart."

Bryant is becoming more of a student of the game than ever before. Before he was just watching film, now he's going to analyze it more. He sees how defenses disguise coverages -- showing one thing and switching to something else at the last minute as way to trick Bryant and Romo.

"I'm understanding it better and better the more that I watch it," he said. "Not saying I haven't. It's just becoming a lot easier to OK, on this coverage this is what I'm going to do versus this coverage. It just makes things a little bit more easier the more that I get older and grow in this offense."

Bryant isn't a finished product. Who is at 25? But maybe Bryant's numbers at the end of 2014 will show everybody he's close to it.

"To be honest, I really don't think about it," Bryant said. "I love the game. I don't think about the numbers. Whatever happens, happens. All I know is I'm confident in the work that I put in. I know if I continue to keep working hard and get the other guys to work hard, it's always going to be a good result. It's always positive when it comes out at the end."

Mo Claiborne: I'm ready

June, 20, 2014
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IRVING, Texas -- Morris Claiborne's first two seasons have been frustrating for everybody with the Dallas Cowboys, but especially him.

Selected sixth overall in 2012, Claiborne has two interceptions in two seasons and missed six games last year with recurring hamstring injuries. With the offseason over, Claiborne believes 2014 will be different.

[+] EnlargeMorris Claiborne
AP Photo/James D SmithMorris Claiborne has been challenging Dez Bryant at every opportunity during offseason sessions.

"I'm ready," Claiborne said. "Hands down, point blank, I'm ready. I feel better than I've ever felt in a long time. I'm just anxious for you guys to start asking me something else: What about the interception you made? I'm ready for those type questions."

Expectations were raised ever since the Cowboys traded up to get him and immediately said he was the highest-graded defensive back they have had since Deion Sanders. The production on the field has not matched it. He lost his job to Orlando Scandrick last season and there is no guarantee he can win it back.

But defensive backs coach Jerome Henderson has noticed a different Claiborne.

"Competing his butt off," Henderson said. "He's embraced that he's got to play better, and he's doing a good job."

Coach Jason Garrett has noticed a different Claiborne physically. He has not added weight, but Garrett believes Claiborne is stronger. He has had to rehab from shoulder and finger surgeries this offseason.

"He's more mature physically, and I think his technique is getting better," Garrett said. "I think with that, you develop some confidence, and you need confidence in any position you play, but you certainly need it if you play corner in the NFL. You're out there by yourself a lot."

With five weeks to go before the Cowboys head to California for training camp, Claiborne has a couple of weekend trips scheduled but he plans on working out through the summer.

"I just don't want to lose nothing that I have now," he said. "We have a lot of time before we actually get to camp and all but there's things that I built right now. I felt like I put so much into this offseason and I invested so much. I don't want to lose that. I'm still going to be on my grind like it's still the (organized team activities) or we're about to report next week."

It has not been perfect, but it has been better for Claiborne. He allowed Dez Bryant to sneak in for a touchdown Wednesday but later broke up a back-shoulder throw in the end zone to Devin Street. He has found himself going against Bryant daily in practice. When they weren't matched up, he pulled a younger cornerback from the field in order to be matched up against Bryant.

"Me and him talked about it before we even started up that we want to be the best and we want to go against each other," Claiborne said. "We feel like we both compete at a high level. I get good work when I go against him and it's vice versa. When I'm not up there, he's telling me to come. We're trying to help each other so we can be the best for our team."
IRVING, Texas -- ESPN Insider Mike Sando has a piece up on the loaded 2015 class of potential free-agent wide receivers, and the Dallas Cowboys' Dez Bryant leads the list.

Bryant
Bryant
Sando had help from two NFL general managers, an offensive assistant and a defensive coordinator. If you want to read the full story, you have to be an Insider Insider, but Bryant ranked ahead of guys such as Demaryius Thomas, Michael Crabtree and Jordy Nelson.

There are six receivers in the NFL earning more than $11 million per season. Does Bryant join that list with Calvin Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, Percy Harvin, Mike Wallace, Dwayne Bowe and Vincent Jackson? Do we need to point out the new deal DeSean Jackson signed with the Washington Redskins is with $8 million annually?

Here’s what Sando wrote about Bryant:
Bryant lined up on the perimeter for 89.1 percent of his routes last season, the highest percentage for any player on this list. Versatility is great and teams certainly feature players from the slot, but being labeled as a "slot guy" isn't the best thing for a player's value in evaluators' eyes. "It's such a difference when you have outside guys that can stretch the field," a veteran assistant coach said.

Bryant, who turns 26 in November, accounted for 29.2 percent of the Cowboys' receiving yards last season. That was the highest percentage for any player on the list. He also accounted for 39.4 percent of his team's receiving touchdowns, by far the highest for any player on this list and the third highest for any wide receiver, behind Fitzgerald (41.4 percent) and Megatron (39.4).

"You'd better pay Dez Bryant," one of the GMs said. "Jerry Jones had better pay him. The antics you see, that is raw emotion, his competitive flair coming out."

Another GM expressed some concern about paying Bryant top dollar based on Bryant's overall makeup, but both GMs ranked Bryant first on their list, as did the defensive coordinator. "Teams will bid on Bryant," a third GM said, "but not all the teams will be in on that, because of his personality."


Bryant is set to make $1.78 million on the final year of his rookie contract. He doesn’t want to leave. The Cowboys don’t want him to leave. How they reach an agreement will be interesting. Bryant did not dismiss the idea of a hometown discount in this story from Tim MacMahon last month. I’ve written that the structure will matter most.

There is always the possibility of the franchise tag.

But I will ask this question: When was the last time the Cowboys lost somebody they didn’t want to keep?
One of the most interesting side stories in the NFL between now and the start of free agency next March will be how what will happen with a potentially powerful receiver class.

Michael Crabtree and the San Francisco 49ers will surely be watching closely.

There are 10 receivers who are poised to be free agents after the year that have to be considered top-flight wideouts. Crabtree is one of them.

ESPN Insider Mike Sando polled general managers Insider and coaches to put together a ranking of the top 10 potential receiver free agents. Crabtree ranked third on the list behind Dallas' Dez Bryant and Denver's Demaryius Thomas. Among the others on the list were Green Bay's Jordy Nelson at No. 4, Denver's Wes Welker at No. 7 and Atlanta's Roddy White at No. 9.

This what Sando wrote about Crabtree:
The 49ers had a hard time signing Crabtree as a rookie in part because Crabtree thought he was worth more than what players in his draft slot generally received. That difficult negotiation remains in my mind as Crabtree approaches free agency. He missed some of last season with a torn Achilles' tendon, placing greater importance on the 2014 season for setting his value. Will this be another tough negotiation? “Crabtree and Bryant are probably the two most talented guys on the list,” one of the GMs said. “Demaryius Thomas would be up there. Some people will worry about Crabtree's personality a little bit.”

This is how I would rank the top three: Thomas, Bryant, Crabtree.

Regardless, Crabtree would be highly sought after in free agency if it gets to that point. The 49ers have enough current salary cap room to potentially get a deal done with Crabtree done this year. Also, if it gets to that point, the 49ers could give Crabtree the franchise tag.

Whether Crabtree is signed this year or not, I'm sure others on this list will be signed. It will both lessen and set the market. Receivers will be in the spotlight in the NFL and Crabtree's future is a big part of the intrigue.
IRVING, Texas -- If the Dallas Cowboys are to break out of their 8-8 doldrums, they will need younger players to grow up in 2014.

Pete Prisco of CBS Sports has two candidates for breakout seasons -- Travis Frederick and Terrance Williams -- in his annual list.

Frederick
Williams
Williams
The Cowboys were one of four teams with more than one player. The San Diego Chargers had three: D.J. Fluker, Melvin Ingram, Keenan Allen. The New Orleans Saints (Kenny Vaccaro, Akiem Hicks) and Denver Broncos (Montee Ball, Sylvester Williams) also had two.

Here’s what Prisco said about Frederick and Williams:
Travis Frederick, C, Dallas Cowboys -- When the Cowboys picked him in the first round of the 2013 draft, there were snickers. But it was the right move. He showed last season as a 16-game starter that he has a chance to be a really good center. He is smart and athletic, two musts for the position these days.

Terrance Williams, WR, Dallas Cowboys -- With Miles Austin now gone, this second-year player takes over as the starter opposite Dez Bryant. That should mean a lot of single coverage and a chance for big plays. Look for his numbers to go up dramatically from his 44 catches a year ago.

Defining how Frederick breaks out is tougher than Williams just because of the nature of his position. The Cowboys were stronger up the middle in 2013 than they had been in recent years because of Frederick. He did not miss a game as a rookie and carried himself as a veteran from the first day he arrived.

(As an aside, there is a similar feeling when it comes to this year’s first-round pick, Zack Martin.)

For Williams, it can be a little easier to define because his statistics will be there for everybody to see. He caught 44 passes for 736 yards and five touchdowns as a rookie.

With Austin gone, Williams will be the starter opposite Bryant in 2014. The Cowboys have no reservations about Williams. They believe he will slide into that role without any issues. In coach parlance, they don’t believe the game is too big for him.

He will get opportunities. Bryant will be the focal point of opposing defenses.

With Bryant catching 93 passes for 1,233 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2013, Austin caught 66 passes for 943 yards and six touchdowns as the No. 2 receiver in 16 games in 2012. The Cowboys would live with those numbers from Williams.

Cowboys' quarterbacks had 375 completions last year.

Pencil in Bryant for another 90-plus catch season. Jason Witten will catch 75-80 passes. The running backs will combine for 80. Cole Beasley should figure in that 35-45 catch range. Dwayne Harris and Gavin Escobar will have more than the 18 they combined for last year. Devin Street will be in that 20-30 range if things go well as well.

There will be opportunities for Williams to show 2014 will be a breakout season.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Jordy Nelson gambled and lost -- if you can call cashing in $12.6 million a loss -- three years ago when he signed a contract extension with the Green Bay Packers.

Except he does not see it that way.

At the time, he was a 26-year-old receiver whose best season was 45 catches for 582 yards and two touchdowns.

What happened over the next three years turned the deal into a bargain for the Packers. Nelson went over 1,000 yards in both 2011 and 2013 and would have done so in 2012 had injuries not kept him out of four games.

In the last three seasons, only three other NFL receivers -- Dallas' Dez Bryant, Detroit's Calvin Johnson and Denver's Eric Decker -- have more touchdown catches than Nelson (30). He's 12th in yards (3,322) and sixth in yards per catch (16.45) among all receivers during that same stretch.

[+] EnlargeNelson
Evan Habeeb/USA TODAY SportsBefore signing his current deal, Jordy Nelson's best season was 582 receiving yards and two TDs. He has topped 1,000 yards receiving twice since, and in 2011 had 15 receiving TDs.
Under his current contract, which averages $4.2 million per season, Nelson ranks 34th in pay among all NFL receivers, which makes it look like he left money on the table the last time around.

"When I signed it, I don't think I did," Nelson said Tuesday. "I think everyone when I signed thought it was a good deal. No one would have known I'd have 1,200 yards and 15 touchdowns [in 2011]. Obviously, hindsight is 20/20 but, again, I'm not worried about that at all. I've been comfortable with my decision.

"I've talked to other guys who've given me a hard time about it and they've been in the same situation of getting re-done with a year left and like, what to do. You've just got to live with your decision, one way or the other. You sign it, you've got to be happy. If you outplay it, you've got to deal with it. If you don't sign it and you get hurt, you've got to deal with that."

Financials aside, Nelson's last contract put him in a difficult spot age-wise for his next deal. Last week, he turned 29 -- an age at which Packers general manager Ted Thompson has been known to let receivers walk away. James Jones turned 30 just weeks after the Packers let him leave in free agency this offseason, and Greg Jennings was 29 when he left the Packers for the Minnesota Vikings the previous offseason.

Nelson, however, argues his last contract put him in prime position for another big deal.

"I heard the other day, a doctor told me that 28 to 32 is the prime age for a male athlete," Nelson said. "I was actually surprised by that."

"On my end, if you do outplay it right away, you'll be right back up there in two, two-and-a-half, three years," Nelson added. "Even on the organization's side, it allows them to sign someone. ... Maybe they don't quite have a full grasp of what they're going to be like so we'll give him three years and maybe we can figure out more about him. Yeah, I think it was great on both sides, and I look forward to talking to them again."

Nelson said Tuesday he believes those talks will heat up soon.

However, the Packers might be more inclined to do a deal with fellow receiver Randall Cobb first. Cobb, who is entering the final year of his rookie contract, is just 23 years old.

For his part, Nelson is doing everything he can to stay young. He says he weighed in Tuesday at 210 pounds -- seven pounds below his listed playing weight. But he insisted that has nothing to do with him being in a contract year.

"They know everything about me," Nelson said. "They know we don't want to leave, so I'm not worried about saying it. You just want to make sure you get it done."
IRVING, Texas -- Since joining the Dallas Cowboys as a free agent, Brandon Weeden is sure he has started to annoy Tony Romo -- in a good way -- with all the questions he is asking.

Romo
Weeden
"But I'm just trying to get a feel for what he thinks, why he does certain things," Weeden said. "He's an extremely successful quarterback and a very smart guy. I'd be crazy not to take everything I can from him."

But Weeden also realizes he can't take everything from Romo and implement it into his own game. They play the same position but they play it differently.

"He's done it for so long that he's found what works for him, whether it's footwork or types of throws or reads or whatever it may be," Weeden said. "He's got a feel for what he's good at. I just pick and choose what IU think may work for me. One thing about me, I'm going to be an aggressive thrower. I'm going to stretch the field vertically and I'm going to throw the ball aggressively. Sometimes I may get myself in trouble but I think being smart aggressive vs. being dumb aggressive is two different things.

"I've watched every game of his last year and I think what he does in the pocket, moving around the pocket, those things you really can't teach them, so I'm not sitting back there trying to do those spin moves and crazy stuff he does. But he's one of the best. Him and Ben Roethlisberger are the best I've ever seen at extending plays. That's not really my skill set. That's something I'm not going to take from him."

Weeden is getting to work with the first team during the organized team activities because Romo is recovering from back surgery and Kyle Orton is absent. He views this as an audition to show the coaches he can be the backup if needed.

Orton's status remains unsolved, but the club anticipates he will take part in the June 17-19 mandatory minicamp.

"That was one of things I talked to coach Garrett about when I came in before I signed," Weeden said. "I said, ‘I want an opportunity to come in and compete and get some reps and show that I can play.' He assured me that I was going to. So coming in Day 1, I think it's kind of what I expected. I think it's my job now to take advantage of each rep, especially going with the ones. I'm out there with guys who are perennial Pro Bowlers like Jason Witten and Dez (Bryant) and all these guys who are just the best at what they do. It's made it nice. It's been a good transition. Tony has been helping me a lot. It's been good for the first four days."
IRVING, Texas -- The Dallas Cowboys have held preliminary discussions about a new contract for wide receiver Dez Bryant. The team does a good job of finalizing new contracts prior to the start of the season with several of their players.

Bryant
Bryant
But over the past two seasons, the Cowboys franchised defensive end/outside linebacker Anthony Spencer after there was a failure to reach a long-term deal.

The Cowboys might have a similar situation with Bryant and could franchise him. The franchise tag for wide receivers in 2014 was $12.3 million.

"We have to see," Bryant said Monday when asked about getting franchised. "I know you’re going to hate this answer, but me and my agent (Eugene Parker) have to sit down and talk about that kind of stuff, and the rest of it should really take care of itself."

Bryant isn't thinking about his contract during the organized team activities, which entered the second week on Monday. Bryant's agent has a solid relationship with Cowboys' officials regarding new contracts for players.

Team officials don't seemed worried about getting a deal done.

"The thing about it is when it comes to football, I let that kind of stuff take care of itself," Bryant said. "I love this game and I always have. As long as I keep doing what I'm doing, that stuff will handle itself."

What to pay Bryant is an interesting topic. Calvin Johnson leads wide receivers with an average salary of $16.2 million, followed by Larry Fitzgerald's $16.1 million. Percy Harvin ($12.9 million), Mike Wallace ($12 million) and Dwayne Bowe ($11.2 million) are other top receivers with huge average salaries.

"Truthfully, to be honest, I’m not just talking, I really do let that stuff take care of itself, because I care about this game," Bryant said. "I’m not going to be out here, sitting out and doing all that crazy stuff. I’m just going to play football. If it’s deserved, it will come.

"You know, if that was to happen (a deal done before the season), that would be great. I’m still going to go out there and perform at a high level, because that’s how I work. I’m going to let it take care of itself."

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