Bell: Cowboys face delicate balance with Dez Bryant, franchise tag

Barring turbo-charged negotiations over the weekend that result in a long-term contract, Dez Bryant is destined to be designated by Monday’s deadline as a franchise player by the Dallas Cowboys.

Congratulations, Dez.

Your team believes that you’re so valuable that it will keep you off the free agent market by guaranteeing a one-year contract paying the wide receiver tag price of roughly $13 million.

It’s a nice raise for Bryant, who averaged $2.362 million on his original, five-year NFL contract.

But there’s still the issue of a deal that locks in Bryant for the long haul.

Cowboys COO Stephen Jones reiterated to USA TODAY Sports this week that signing Bryant to a long-term contract remains the end game. A person with knowledge of the matter, who did not want to speak publicly because of the private nature of the situation, said the pace of the talks have intensified within the past week, but nothing is imminent, yet Jones added that he would not rule out striking a deal before Monday.

Jones did not indicate the stalemate was related in any way to a report from Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio of an off-the-field issue involving Bryant.

If the two sides can’t reach a deal, the tag may include a raise but there’s surely a catch.

It’s the potential for more drama.

Striking a long-term deal would allow the team to better execute its plan to keep DeMarco Murray in the fold rather than losing the NFL rushing champ as a free agent.

But the Cowboys should be similarly inspired to resolve Bryant’s status because of chemistry.

If Bryant’s contractual limbo lingers, will he become disgruntled to the point where it becomes akin to a storm cloud hovering over the offseason? That wouldn’t be ideal after the positive momentum produced during last season’s push to the playoffs.

That’s part of the risk in this particular case attached to the franchise tag.

Will he sign the tender or not?

If not, will he show up for offseason workouts, minicamps and OTAs?

Offseason turbulence due to contract situations is part of the NFL landscape.

The New Orleans Saints dealt with two high-profile cases recent years. Last offseason, the rhythm was seemingly disrupted by tight end Jimmy Graham’s absence as he fought for the right to be tagged as a wide receiver instead of a tight end, which had a lower figure. It was an argument he lost. In 2012, quarterback Drew Brees missed the offseason before landing a $100 million deal after he was tagged by the Saints.

The Cowboys know Bryant – who recently questioned the team’s loyalty in a tweet — as well as anyone. He’s combustible, but also a player who has earned tremendous respect from teammates in the locker room because of his commitment to improve.

After off-the-field incidents early in his career, the Cowboys dedicated extensive off-the-field support to Bryant, 26, and his progressive maturity was an accompanying theme during his all-pro season in 2014.

The Cowboys, Jones said, thought they were close to completing a long-term deal with Bryant early last season. But the talks broke down, and Bryant switched agents, signing with Tom Condon as the chief negotiator after parting with Eugene Parker.

This scenario has been in the tea leaves for months, so it will be no surprise if Bryant is among a select group of maybe a half-dozen players – possibly New York Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Justin Houston and Denver Broncos receiver Demaryius Thomas -– to receive the tag.

Sometimes, the threat of a deadline can ignite a deal.

But now it is presented with seemingly more risk, after the Cowboys finally fielded a team around centerpiece quarterback Tony Romo that emerged as a legitimate Super Bowl contender.

Now is not the time to break that up, or even disrupt the vibe, if that can be helped.

The tag has fueled considerable grumbling from players over the years. In Bryant’s case, a $13 million tender – while short of the millions more in guaranteed cash that would come with a long-term deal — is not an insult.

As Stephen Jones put it, “It’s business.”

During the latter part of the season, when asked whether he was feeling angst about the contract status of Bryant and Murray, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones told USA TODAY Sports, “If we weren’t getting production, that would be the real angst.”

Jerry Jones saw it as a good problem to have.

This case undoubtedly reflects why NFL teams feel they need a tool like the franchise tag, but the business of the Cowboys will likely go a lot smoother if the ultimate goal can be achieved without it.