Last year the Buffalo Bills flirted with free agent wide receiver Jeremy Maclin before signing veteran Anquan Boldin, who subsequently retired quicker than the paint in the end zone at St. John Fisher College could dry, as the team needed to bolster their wide receiver corps following the NFL draft. This year is no different, as general manager Brandon Beane noted that the Bills wanted to improve their group of pass catchers. One player that is constantly brought up as a potential fit is former Dallas Cowboys pass-catcher Dez Bryant.
NFL fans and executives alike develop feelings of temptation and desire each spring when the crop of freshly new unrestricted free agents hit the open market. If a team has ample salary cap space and a need, NFL free agency is often perceived as the avenue to fill that hole.
In free agency, megadeals are tossed around to the top available players from the class – typically young, budding stars coming off of their rookie contract. This offseason we saw Sammy Watkins and Allen Robinson receive contracts averaging $16 million and $14 million per year. These two wide receivers are entering the prime of their career with the future looking bright, justifying the thought process behind those seemingly hefty price tags.
But, for teams that weren’t lucky, or bold, enough to acquire a marquee free agent (yes, we’re looking at our Buffalo Bills), aging veterans, players with baggage or replacement-level talent is typically what’s available – especially with wide receivers.
Desperation can set in, especially at the wide receiver position where everyone is a “name” considering the fact that skill position players are commonly known thanks to fantasy football. And, after all, when the beer goggles are on after desperation sets in and the bar is closing, that prospect that didn’t do much to catch your eye at 9 p.m. somehow seems to look much more attractive at 3 a.m. Maybe age or looks aren’t quite as important to you as they were during that first round of cocktails you bought?
Signing wide receivers close to, or over the age of 30-years old is akin to “cougar hunting” in the NFL. So, let’s take a look at some available cougars that moonlight as pass-catchers on Sundays.
And, finally, is Dez Bryant a cougar that’s worth paying and bringing home? Let’s explore.
RECENT WR FREE AGENT CONTRACTS/PERFORMANCE
Let’s look at some of the contracts recently given out to FA wide receivers. The contracts below are sorted highest to lowest using Average Annual Value (AAV) per spotrac.com
Considering Bryant’s age, production and reputation through his career, he likely fits somewhere in the Crabtree/Nelson range, giving him an APY (Average Per Year) of $7 million.
Now let’s look at a more methodical ranking system to help figure out where he’d slot. Based on Pro Football Focus’ 2017 Player Grades Dez Bryant was the #47 ranked WR last year.
Surprisingly, the only free agent wide receiver in the 2018 offseason with a higher grade in 2017 was Sammy Watkins. Obviously, Dez isn’t the dominant fantasy monster he was just a few seasons ago, but he still performed at a respectable level last year compared to his peers within the free agent crop of wideouts. So from a pure performance standard, one could make a case for Bryant being the second-highest paid receiver in 2018.
I’m sure his agent would use the chart above to justify Bryant getting at least as much per year as Jordy Nelson ($7.1 mil AAV) who is three years older (32) than Dez (29-years old).
Considering Dez has been relatively healthy and available for most of his career (a trait valued by the Bills’ front office we’ve dubbed ‘McBeane’) and considering his performance is still on par with the top 2018 WR free agents it is fairly obvious that the main driver behind Dez Bryant still being a free agent is his reputation as a diva and problem child in the locker room.
With that being said.. Will the Bills consider signing a polarizing personality like Bryant?
THE “MCBEANE WILL NOT TAKE PLAYERS WITH CHARACTER ISSUES” MYTH
There is a generally acccepted narrative that Sean McDermott and Brandon Beane will only tolerate “high character” guys. Sammy Watkins developed a reputation as a player who wasn’t tough enough to play through injury and someone who wasn’t buying into the program. As a result, he was promptly shipped off to the Rams.
Marcell Dareus had multiple run-ins with the law and being late to the team bus for a Baltimore preseason game sealed his fate. Mr. Big Stuff was traded away as soon as McBeane could find another team that would take him.
So obviously McBeane would not want someone like Dez Bryant on their team…Right?
According to ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler, Buffalo attempted to make a trade for a troubled yet talented receiver with the surname Bryant last season. In this case, his name was Martavis, not Dez. If true, it disproves that theory and shows that the front office may be more lenient with some discretions than we were led to believe when it comes to adding talent to the roster.
To use a “Platoon” analogy ..the Bills seem to be more in the Barnes camp (realists) than camp Elias (idealists).
WHAT IS A REASONABLE BILLS BID FOR DEZ?
Based on Bryant’s age and production, this situation seems very similar to the Maclin one from last offseason. The Bills are arguably in a worse situation now at WR than they were last year when they pursued Maclin. 2017 draft pick Zay Jones was underwhelming in his rookie year and his bizarre offseason run-in with the law makes his reliability even more questionable.
Kelvin Benjamin flashed a few glimpses of his talent last year but a balky knee is a cause for future concern. Buffalo also did very little to address the wide receiver position in the 2018 draft adding two late-round flyers on Ray-Ray McCloud and Austin Proehl – who are far from locks to make the final 53-man roster unless they prove that they can excel on special teams.
Clearly the Bills need outside veteran help at WR if they want to field a competitive team this year or at the very least have reasonable depth in case of inevitable injury.
So what are the main factors to determine what they could offer Dez?
- CAP SPACE – According to an excellent article by WGR’s Sal Cappacio when all is said and done with paying the draft class and other factors the Bills should have approximately $14 million available to spend on free agents this summer. Brandon Beane also said he wants to keep a nest egg aside for training camp or in-season emergencies. So let’s just say they would like to keep $5 mil as a rainy day fund. That leaves $9 mil to spend.
- MARKETPLACE – Dez has already reportedly been offered a contract by the Ravens and he rejected it. It is likely that Dez is hoping for several things.. #1) to sign with a legit Super Bowl contender or #2) a major training camp injury to a WR causing a team on the cusp to overpay for his services. Clearly the Bills do not meet criteria #1 and hopefully, they won’t meet criteria #2.
- AGE – At age 29 Bryant is likely in line for one last long-term deal before retirement. That deal is probably not imminent as it is more likely that teams will want to offer him a 1 year “prove it” deal to test the waters with him before committing long term.
Factoring in all of these considerations I think if the Bills want to go “cougar hunting” they should offer Dez no more than one-year “prove it” deal with the hope that the market doesn’t heat up for him now that the NFL draft is in the rearview mirror.
ALTERNATIVE TO DEZ
Closing time is approaching and the ladies you hit on at 9 P.M. have all gone home with other suitors. You are now in the middle of cougar country and you need to pick wisely before closing time. Are you willing to talk to that girl that rejected you last year ..who is now back at the bar available because the guy she chose over you last time dumped her? Can you humble yourself to go back to that well again?
If so, that cougar would be Jeremy Maclin.
Yes.. we know..even if we extrapolate Maclin’s 2017 numbers out to 16 games they still don’t match up to Dez. That being said these numbers still outpace the Bills’ 2017 leading receiver Charles Clay’s 558 yds and 2 TDs.
Like Dez, Maclin is 29-years old and several years removed from his peak years. Per PFF he was the #52 ranked WR last year. only five slots lower than Dez. Unlike Dez, he doesn’t have the perception of being a head case. He signed with the Ravens for $6 million last year..so an offer somewhere in that range by the Bills should do the trick.
By foregoing signing any of the prime wide receiver talents coming off their rookie contracts and subsequently foregoing taking any highly touted receivers in the 2018 draft the Bills find themselves stuck between a bar stool and a cougar den.