The market for three-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Dez Bryant hasn’t been especially hot this summer. The former Cowboy turned down a potential multi-year deal with the Baltimore Ravens, then languished as his search for the right opportunity — as well as his preference for a one-year contract and declining returns on the field — limited his options for a new team in 2018.
But there’s one team that’s still publicly interested — even if it’s not a high-profile destination. The Cleveland Browns, 1-31 in their last two seasons, are interested in bringing the veteran wideout to bolster a roster that’s added two useful quarterbacks this offseason but just one high-profile target for them to throw to.
The Browns and Bryant have been flirting for a while
At the start of training camp, Cleveland general manager John Dorsey reporters that team executives have discussed potentially signing Bryant for 2018. From the Browns’ official website:
“I have had a chance to be around Dez, I have known Dez. I had a chance – when he was down in Lufkin, Texas – I was actually at his workout and had a chance to meet him. I know the kind of person that he is and what makes him. He is a very talented player,” Dorsey said. “Now, we will see what comes to fruition the next couple of days, but we talk about it. You have to talk about these things. I have talked about a lot of things. There have been a whole list of players that we have talked about as a staff.”
The talk only intensified from there:
Sources: The #Browns and FA WR Dez Bryant have mutual interest and the team is working on scheduling a visit with him. Monday would be a logistical day, if not sooner. This could be a match.— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) July 27, 2018
A couple weeks passed, and all was quiet on the Bryant front. But then a couple things changed: The Browns traded Corey Coleman to Buffalo, rookie receiver Antonio Callaway was cited for marijuana possession, and the first week of the preseason arrived.
Then the Browns said they wanted to bring in receivers to work out — including Bryant. That hit a snag:
#Browns Dorsey says he’d have Dez Bryant in next week “if he returns a phone call. He won’t return any phone calls”..other receivers coming in next week— Mary Kay Cabot (@MaryKayCabot) August 9, 2018
Until later that night, when Bryant — who was live-tweeting the Browns’ game against the Giants — said he would visit Cleveland (and maybe other teams):
Starting my visits next week...I’m coming to the Land to see you Mr Dorsey— Dez Bryant (@DezBryant) August 10, 2018
A visit was eventually set up for a week later and was chronicled on an episode of Hard Knocks.
Although no deal was done then, the courtship continues:
Earlier on @nflnetwork I reported that the @Browns still have interest in @DezBryant and that talks are ongoing. The Browns believe he has not fallen off as a player and want to add as many weapons as possible. The return of Josh Gordon has no impact on their interest in Dez.— Michael Silver (@MikeSilver) August 23, 2018
Bryant also claimed on Instagram that he had a contract offer from the Browns.
It’s a pairing that looks like an awkward fit on the surface; a receiver with fading star power going from one of the league’s most storied franchises to the one all other franchises look at when they want to feel better about themselves. Bryant may not have listed the Browns in his top five destinations once it became clear he was headed for free agency this summer, but Cleveland could give him the boost he’s looking for in a potential win/win for both sides.
The Browns need receiving help
Cleveland’s spent mightily after bringing Jarvis Landry to Ohio, trading for and then handing him a five-year, $75.5 million contract in hopes he can resurrect the Browns’ offense from the slot. That gives the team a high-usage target who can thrive with the low-yardage, high-percentage throws Tyrod Taylor and a rookie Baker Mayfield will toss his way. That’s good!
The two wide receivers directly behind him, however, are major question marks. Josh Gordon is an All-Pro talent when he can stay on the field, but he hasn’t played more than five games in a season since 2013 thanks to a litany of drug suspensions. He recently returned to the team after taking time away to proactively deal with his substance abuse issues, a move that deserves praise and understanding, but has also drawn skepticism from a fan base that’s known nothing but pain since 1965.
The next big name on the Browns’ depth chart was Coleman. Coleman was the 15th pick of the 2016 NFL Draft, but injuries limited him to just 19 games and 56 receptions over two years. His most memorable play as a Brown may be the drop that helped seal his team’s 0-16 season last fall, and then Cleveland traded him away for a 2020 seventh-round pick.
Now the rest of the roster stands to look something like this come Week 1;
Ricardo Louis (nope, he’s out for the year after neck surgery), Rashard Higgins, Jeff Janis, and rookies Antonio Callaway (fourth round) and Damion Ratley (sixth). There’s a lot of room there for an upgrade, but few veteran talents still unsigned to fill it. Bryant may be the best bet of a group that includes players like Jeremy Maclin and Harry Douglas.
The Browns need targets because this year’s crop of quarterbacks may be the least depressing the club has had since being rebooted in 1999. Taylor gives the team a turnover-averse veteran with playoff experience behind center. He’ll have the chance to mentor Mayfield, who brings a big-play resume to the pros and will need veteran targets to help unlock his potential. That’s a role Bryant played in 2016 when he teamed up with then-rookie Dak Prescott for 50 catches, 796 yards, and eight touchdowns in 13 games for the NFC’s top seed.
Taylor is on board with bringing Bryant to Ohio:
Dez is a great player. The wide receiver room has a ton of talent. He’d only add to that.
Cleveland may be the only place where Bryant can get the contract he wants
Bryant wants a one-year deal that will allow him the opportunity to showcase his skills, prove he hasn’t aged out of his game, and set him up for one last big money long-term contract in 2019. The Browns have the financial flexibility and rebuilding philosophy to make that work. Cleveland has approximately $59 million in cap space, more than enough to work a one-year, $8 million — or potentially more — deal for Bryant under the limit.
Even if the Browns’ current best-case scenario comes to fruition — and it won’t, because this remains the Browns — there’s still a big role for Bryant. If Gordon returns to the field for a full season at All-Pro form and Landry is as impressive on the field as he’s been on Hard Knocks, the Browns will still lack a big, physical talent who can make hay in the end zone.
That’s where Bryant’s future lies as the athleticism that made him an All-Pro wanes in the late stages of his career. At his best, the 6’2, 220-pound receiver is a bully who uses his body to shield the ball from defenders. He’d give Taylor a stronger red zone threat than any target he’d ever had in Buffalo except for Sammy Watkins. He’d give Mayfield an important safety blanket in the end zone and on third down. While there would be a dropoff from Prescott to QB BROWNS, it wouldn’t necessarily be a steep one.
We’ve seen a player thrive in Cleveland as a wide receiver despite questions about his career before. Terrelle Pryor went from dual-threat quarterback to 1,000-yard receiver in his first full season with the club. While he didn’t get the long-term contract he’d sought in 2017 or 2018 — he’s since signed a pair of one year deals with Washington and New York, respectively — he proved he could be an effective target while healthy.
Bryant would have the advantage of working with a healthier quarterback situation while building from the kind of establishing WR foundation Pryor never had. It may not lead to the big guaranteed-money, long-term contract he’ll be seeking at age 30 next fall — but it’s entirely possible nothing will. So why not make the best of a bad situation and work out a deal with the team that combines short-term need, plenty of cap space, and a suddenly not-awful quarterback situation?
You know, other than the fact that it’s with the Browns.