Dez Bryant is gone. The Cowboys released the big wide receiver, one of the most talented and most divisive players in team history, Friday morning. It was an abrupt end to a tumultuous, co-dependent relationship, one that seemingly had to happen but stings nonetheless for Bryant, the team and their fans.
On Twitter on Friday, Bryant made it clear that he's taking the decision personally, hinting that he'd like to sign with one of the Cowboys' NFC East-division rivals so he could play against his old team twice in 2018. Given Bryant's eight seasons in Dallas, it's no surprise the breakup is proving to be a messy one, but for the Cowboys to move on and find the "new direction" owner Jerry Jones said the team was looking for, they need to refocus their passing game.
Since the Cowboys picked Bryant in the first round of the 2010 draft, it's been his show. Now the Cowboys have to find a new star.
Here are the most likely scenarios for replacing Bryant in 2018.
1. The Cowboys bide their time and use Allen Hurns as like-for-like replacement for Bryant at split end.
If the Cowboys determine that they don't like any of the receivers at the top of the draft, there's a decent chance they could cobble together a competent passing game from the parts they have sitting around now.
The Cowboys signed Jaguars ex Allen Hurns on March 26. When healthy — he's missed significant portions of the last two seasons with hamstring and ankle injuries — Hurns is a tall, productive wide receiver capable of taking over the majority of Bryant's red-zone targets. During his four seasons in the NFL, he's yet to show the type of ball skills that made Bryant so special, but he could excel given the chance to play with a better quarterback than Blake Bortles.
2. The Rico show.
It could be that the Cowboys' best chance of replacing Bryant's prodigious red-zone presence comes from a guy who has yet to play a down in (regular season) NFL football after not playing a down of college or high school football either.
For two years, Rico Gathers has teased Cowboys fans with his unmatched physical gifts. In 2016, Gathers stayed on the practice squad all year because he simply hadn't learned enough about football to get any game action. Last year, after catching seven passes for 106 yards and two touchdowns during limited preseason action, the 6-foot-6, 285-pound tight end suffered a concussion during practice and was eventually placed on injured reserve, ruining his season.
Gathers, a former basketball star at Baylor, isn't going to replace Bryant's total production, but he could be a tremendous weapon for the Cowboys inside the 20, even if he's yet to pick up the nuances of blocking or route running. Often, Bryant's best plays came when Tony Romo or Dak Prescott threw the ball up for grabs in the end zone and let him go get it. Gathers has the raw skills to be even better than his former teammate in jump-ball situations if he can get on the field.
3. Calvin Ridley.
Calvin Ridley is the best wide receiver in the 2018 draft. He's not perfect, though, which means he could still be on the board when the Cowboys go on the clock with the 19th overall pick. Ridley is fast, runs terrific routes and showed quick feet getting off the line of scrimmage and away from defensive backs during his time at the University of Alabama.
Positives aside, he's only 6 feet tall and has none of the leaping ability that frequently allowed Bryant to move the chains and get in the end zone. Ridley is a speed merchant, better suited for the flanker spot occupied by Terrance Williams for the Cowboys than for Bryant's spot at split end.
Ridley is so fast and looks so ready to be a game-breaking NFL player out of the box, however, that the Cowboys should pick him if he's still available, even if they have to change Williams' role in the offense. In combination with Prescott's ability to scramble and throw on the run, Ridley's ability to change directions on a dime and get open could be special.
4. Draft a poor man's Bryant.
If the Cowboys don't draft Ridley, they're still more likely than not to take another wide receiver in the first couple of rounds — either with their second-round pick or by moving into the bottom part of the first round via trade. There are a couple of players with similar physical profiles to Bryant worth keeping an eye on.
Southern Methodist University's Courtland Sutton, should the Cowboys find a way to draft him without overpaying, has the strength and size to fill Bryant's role in the Cowboys system and could develop into a Pro Bowl player if he learns how to leverage his height and leaping ability into red-zone production. Like Bryant, Sutton isn't fast for an NFL wide receiver, but his upside could prove hard for the Cowboys to pass up.
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Maryland's DJ Moore isn't as big as Sutton or Bryant, at just over 6 feet tall, but he showed a tremendous ability to catch passes in high-traffic situations despite playing on a terrible college team. He has the physical strength to successfully fight for catches and then shield the ball from defensive backs, and he is a better route runner than Bryant.
Bryant's presence in both the Cowboys locker room and the Dallas sports scene is going to be missed. His personality and fierce devotion to the Cowboys remained apparent throughout his time in DFW, even when his antics sometimes drew the ire of less tolerant fans and observers. There's no reason to think, though, that the Cowboys can't make up for his production, given the subpar numbers he's put up since breaking his foot early in the 2015 season.