Free agency began on March 14. Thirty days later, the Cowboys made receiver Dez Bryant a free agent.
From the player’s perspective, it’s always better to become a free agent sooner than later. Always. Teams spend money on, and fill needs with, players who are available when the market opens.
So who’s the blame for the fact that Dez became a free agent on April 13? The short answer: Both sides. For the longer answer, keep going.
The Cowboys surely knew what they were going to do with Dez long before they did it. And they knew that April 13 was the last day to make the move before assuming the risk of Dez dropping a dumbbell on his fifth metatarsal during the first day of the offseason program, which opens for the Cowboys on Monday, April 16.
So why not cut him earlier? Having Dez on the roster likely made it easier to sign Allen Hurns. Putting it another way, if Dez had been cut before Hurns had signed, Hurns would have had more leverage in his negotiations with the Cowboys.
But Hurns agreed to terms on March 23. That’s the point where the Cowboys could have made their move. They nevertheless waited until the last possible day before the launch of the offseason program to do it.
Yes, the Cowboys could have waited even longer. Once Dez is in the building and on the field, however, the risk that they’d be stuck with his $12.5 million salary (and his $16.5 million cap number) in the event of a serious injury would have become real, and increasingly significant during OTAs and, eventually, training camp and the preseason. They nevertheless waited as long as they could until cutting him loose without incurring injury risk, necessarily making it harder for him to find the right landing spot — and to get maximum compensation for his services in 2018.
From Bryant’s perspective, two specific things could have been done to ensure a more timely release. When he signed his contract three years ago, Bryant (via his agent) could have insisted on a term that, for example, would have made his 2018 salary fully guaranteed on the third day of the league year. (Another possibility would have been shifting part of the $12.5 million to a significant roster bonus due shortly after March 14.) This would have forced the Cowboys to make (or, more accurately, to implement) their decision sooner than later. (It’s possible that Bryant sought a term like this when negotiating his contract, and that the Cowboys declined to provide it.)
Bryant also could have privately and/or publicly agitated for his release. On the eve of his better-never-than-late meeting with owner Jerry Jones, Bryant began to unload some of his frustrations on Twitter. If Bryant had launched an effort to cajole the team into making its move in mid-March, maybe the Cowboys would have made the move sooner.
Yes, a scorched-earth effort by Bryant to get his release would have potentially caused prospective employers to shy away. There’s a way to do it, however, that would have made the point without overmaking the point. And other teams would have realized that Dez was simply doing what he had to do to get to the market while there was still a market to get to.
The end result is that the Cowboys did on April 13 what they likely would have done on March 14, and now Dez will have to try to find a new team after the money has stopped flowing and most of the seats have been taken. Wherever it goes from here, the process would have been much easier if the Cowboys had released Dez sooner.