Maybe your first thought when Antonio Brown publicly advocated for the Steelers to sign erstwhile Dallas Cowboy Dez Bryant was “Hey, this is a really bad idea!” This is a valid concern. The Steelers already boast an armada of high-upside, young, and—Brown notwithstanding—inexpensive wide receivers. Throwing Bryant, 29, into the mix could really toss a wrench into the development of JuJu Smith-Schuster or James Washington. Also, even if the Steelers were interested in signing Bryant, they don’t currently seem to possess the wherewithal to make it happen. Pittsburgh has about $5 million in cap space at the moment, but Bryant has already turned down at least one multiyear offer that would’ve paid him somewhere in the ballpark of $7-8 million annually. It’s flatly impractical to hand a bunch of money to a player they don’t even need. But, like, the Steelers totally should sign Dez Bryant, practicality be damned.
Here are some things that are true:
- Ben Roethlisberger is a better professional quarterback than Dak Prescott, and the margin between them really isn’t particularly close.
- Even if we discount the quarterbacking acumen of Roethlisberger and Prescott, Dallas doesn’t rely on Prescott to the same extent that Pittsburgh relies on Roethlisberger.
- Despite a bevy of lower-body injuries and being ghosted by Prescott et al. in the passing attack, Bryant still managed a respectable four catches and 56 yards per game in his last 29 starts. Extrapolated (or condensed, technically) to a 16-game campaign, Bryant would’ve finished with somewhere in the neighborhood of 65 catches for 900 yards and seven touchdowns. That’s not terrible production from someone who was essentially an afterthought in their offensive system.
Now here are a few things that probably are true:
- A healthy Dez Bryant is probably better than a healthy Smith-Schuster; to infer otherwise is ludicrous. It wasn’t long ago that Bryant was a consensus top-5 receiver in the league, and he was easily viewed as its top red-zone weapon.
- Aside from Brown and, to a lesser extent, Smith-Schuster, the Steelers don’t have anything resembling an established receiver among their ranks.
Now we consider some things that may or may not be true:
- Bryant, by reportedly turning down Baltimore’s multiyear offer, might be looking for a one-year prove-it kind of deal that allows him to test the free-agency waters again in 2019. Perhaps Bryant, much like Golden State Warriors center Demarcus Cousins, would be willing to take a laughably deflated bargain contract to play in a high-powered offensive system that might accentuate his strengths and, just possibly, lead to a championship.
- The Steelers could be willing to dump some veteran contracts from surplus positions. Moving on from the likes of Landry Jones, Justin Hunter, or Coty Sensabaugh, for instance, could allow the Steelers to clear some cap room without tangibly impacting the strength of the roster.
Speculating, let’s say Bryant and the Steelers are mutually intrigued by Brown’s sales pitch. Let’s also say the Steelers clear — I don’t know — enough cap space to sign Bryant to a one-year, $7 million mercenary contract. Now let’s say Bryant accepts that offer and joins the Steelers as a secondary receiver, but possibly as a tertiary receiver. And, critically, let’s say Brown and Bryant remain on amiable terms all season, never once kicking up a fuss over target shares or usage rate. Pittsburgh’s offense, featuring Ben Roethlisberger, multifarious running back Le’Veon Bell, a top-tier offensive line, and a receiving corps with Brown, Smith-Schuster, and something resembling the 2014 version of Dez Bryant would be the best, most volcanic outfit in the NFL — a turbocharged group of playmakers capable of masking whatever deficiencies haunt the defense. Sure, Dez would almost certainly skip town and cash-in elsewhere in 2019, but we already know Bell is likely headed down the same path; so, in other words, if you’re gonna go all-in, you better go all the way in.
I’m cognizant of the many hurdles. Dez could demand significantly more than $6 million or $7 million or whatever (I think it’s only a matter of time before he signs somewhere—if his endgame is to make lots of money in 2019, he won’t make a very strong argument by taking the year off). If the Steelers did sign him, he might never fully acclimate himself to the system or, more probably, he might become unsettled and whiny during the inevitable weeks in which the vast majority of Roethlisberger’s targets are being directed elsewhere. The same is applicable to Brown or Smith-Schuster (though the latter has never once expressed even an ounce of displeasure with, well, anything).
But, I think if the Steelers have the opportunity to sign a former All-Pro, even one a few years removed from their last successful campaign, they ought to consider it if it’ll push them closer to contention.