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If the market doesn’t come after you, sometimes you go after the market. In Dez Bryant’s case, grudgingly. And poorly.
That’s what is happening now. After face-palming serious overtures from the Cleveland Browns for weeks, Bryant made his way to the franchise last Thursday. He seemed genuinely interested in playing for head coach Hue Jackson when the visit was ultimately broadcast on HBO’s “Hard Knocks.”
Fast-forward to this week, and Bryant is waving the New England Patriots pom-poms on social media, saying quarterback Tom Brady “has always been my favorite player” and gushing over the strategic mind of coach Bill Belichick, which he called “1 in a million.”
This is what happens when the preseason clock is ticking toward zero and options may have already settled at that number. You consider the Browns, who sources say were trying for “weeks” to get Bryant to visit before he finally caved. And you make less-than-subtle overtures toward New England, which has a wide receiver depth chart that looks like a major problem through at least the first four weeks of the regular season.
Bryant likely won’t like it framed this way, but the truth is he’s desperate. After turning down a solid contract offer from the Baltimore Ravens in May – presumably in hopes of something (or someone) better – the Browns appear to be the only thing standing between him and his couch for the start of the regular season. You can bet Browns general manager John Dorsey is enjoying that reality, too, after being frustrated that Bryant was slow-rolling the team on a visit in late July.
Todd Haley is critical in Dez Bryant decision
Are the Browns still an option? A league source who spoke with Yahoo Sports on Wednesday night said, yes, the door remains open with a caveat. After having Bryant drag his feet on a visit, the Browns are now inclined to take their time, too. Cleveland wants to review Bryant’s fit – in the locker room, financially, on the receiver depth chart with Josh Gordon back in the mix, and most especially his personality fit with offensive coordinator Todd Haley, who has a history of hammering on the mental toughness and effort of his wide receivers. This is a big reason Corey Coleman isn’t on the roster anymore, and it’s a major looming factor in the Bryant consideration.
If Haley isn’t on board, a signing is not happening.
Another thing is clear, too: If Bryant gets a contract offer in Cleveland, it’s going to be a one-year deal with limited exposure for the team. And even in his current state in the unemployment wilderness, Bryant might need to get more desperate to take a deal slanted entirely in the Browns’ favor.
That might explain why Bryant left Cleveland’s facility without a contract last week and is now openly professing his Patriots affection. The market is still not coming to Bryant, no matter how much he seems to want it.
Why is the market cold for Bryant?
How he arrived at this point isn’t a state secret. The Dallas Cowboys have been somewhat careful to not carpet-bomb him since his departure (even after a social media meltdown over a misquoting of Cowboys CEO Stephen Jones), largely because team owner Jerry Jones still has a great deal of respect for Bryant – even after listening to a personnel department and coaching staff convince him Bryant was a detriment for what the franchise was trying to build.
But it’s also not that difficult to get someone in the organization who will give a scathing review of Bryant off the record, either. The criticisms usually come in two forms: through complaints about his performance grades since the 2015 foot injury, which apparently went off a cliff; and his inconsistency as a “program” guy, which the coaching staff and some elements of the locker room felt waned significantly in 2017.
These opinions didn’t stop at the walls of the practice facility, either. Coaches talk. Personnel men talk. Players talk. And the book on Bryant was out after his release. Bryant is only 29 years old, but in NFL personnel circles, the opinion about him sounds a lot like what you heard about Terrell Owens or Chad Johnson in the final phases of their careers. The on-field production is waning and the “what if” questions have become a huge part of the evaluation.
What if he’s not getting fed enough opportunities? What if he doesn’t get along with the coordinator? What if he doesn’t buy into the program? What if he’s not the right example for the young guys?
One of the most interesting conversations of my training camp tour this summer was when I came across a non-Cowboys evaluator who had spent a lot of time parsing through Bryant’s film. According to this evaluator, Bryant had spent his career essentially making his living on four routes: back-shoulder throws, slants, digs and some variation of a fade or corner route in an attempt to win 50-50 opportunities. This was the scouting report on him and it rarely deviated, the evaluator said.
Bryant wasn’t a precise route-runner to begin with, and as of late he wasn’t winning with his meat and potatoes. This means that at 29 (and 30 by November), Bryant was going to need to drill down on a litany of things to compensate for what he was losing. That or relearn how to play certain aspects of his position.
“That’s why he’s not signed,” the evaluator said. “Because he’s not going to suddenly start running all these other routes and doing all the little things you have to do to be a great player.”
To be fair to Bryant, there have been some signs that he’s making an effort to be that kind of player. He hired well-known personal wide receivers coach David Robinson this spring to help him tweak aspects of his training and also open up more of his skills to parts of the route tree that haven’t been a large section of his repertoire. Whether he has made great progress is hard to know. You can’t show off new skills if you can’t get a team to sign you.
All of which turns this offseason back to a bad bit of calculus on the part of Bryant’s camp. In hindsight, passing on the Ravens’ opportunity appears to have been a mistake. And slow-playing the Browns as camp opened clearly created some reticence or hard feelings on the part of the franchise. Now Gordon has returned and there is a lack of urgency to get something done – or maybe anything at all.
Maybe Bryant won’t admit it, but things are getting desperate. The Browns went 1-31 the past two seasons and don’t seem to be in a hurry to sign Bryant after he slow-played them. Now he’s seemingly reaching toward the Patriots on social media, possibly pursuing one of the most structured, disciplined and detail-oriented franchises in the league. Something is out of whack in that equation.
But this is what happens when a player misplays his market and it vanishes. He’s left chasing. The preseason clock is close to zero. And Bryant’s options, if any exist, are going with it.
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