Free agent Dez Bryant isn’t just trying out for the Ravens this week, according to his personal wide receivers coach. The former Dallas Cowboys star has already imagined how good life would be in their offense.
“When I talked to him, he’s actually excited about playing with Lamar Jackson and having the opportunity,” Dallas-based specialist David Robinson said in an interview Monday night, almost 12 hours after reports emerged that Bryant was prepared to work out for Ravens officials in Baltimore.
Bryant is healthy — he last appeared in an NFL game three years ago, his return delayed by an Achilles tendon injury — and his interest is genuine, Robinson said. There are seemingly no concerns with his fit in the Ravens’ run-heavy offense. Bryant has mentioned to Robinson how coordinator Greg Roman leans on his heavier personnel — “a lot of two-tight-end sets, sometimes three” — and he feels it’s advantageous for receivers like him.
“He’s thriving and licking his chops for the opportunity to play with a team like the Ravens, who run the ball so well, because that does strengthen his game,” Robinson said. “He’s an intermediate-route runner, 50-50 jump-ball guy. So he’s going to get those type of matchups — slant routes, outs, fades. He’s going to get the matchups that he really wants — and how he made a living in Dallas — being in the Ravens offense. So he’s excited and feels that basically that’s the best fit for him.”
Bryant arrived in Maryland on Monday, according to Robinson, and his tryout is tentatively scheduled for Wednesday, the third of 17 practice days allotted to the Ravens before roster cuts are due. With the NFL lifting its ban on tryouts last week, the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers have also reached out to Bryant, Robinson said, “but I didn’t hear him as excited [as he was] about the Ravens’ call, when he got that Ravens call.”
In Baltimore, Bryant would bring a veteran presence and burnished resume to a speedy Ravens receiving corps that lacks proven playmakers. Coach John Harbaugh declined to comment on the Ravens’ reported interest in him Monday, saying just as little as he has about the team’s ties to free-agent wide receiver Antonio Brown.
But unlike with Brown, the Ravens have long been interested in Bryant, a three-time Pro Bowl selection. They were in position to possibly take him in the first round of the 2010 draft before a tempting trade offer from the Denver Broncos convinced them to give up the No. 25 overall pick. (The Cowboys ultimately traded up to No. 24, where they took Bryant.)
In 2018, after being released by the Cowboys, Bryant turned down a multiyear offer from the Ravens, preferring a more lucrative one-year deal. He ultimately waited until November to sign, joining the New Orleans Saints on a one-year deal worth up to a reported $1.75 million. Just two days after signing, however, Bryant suffered a season-ending Achilles tendon injury during practice.
Bryant, who has worked with Robinson since 2018, missed all of last season while rehabilitating. Robinson said Bryant expected free-agent interest to pick up earlier this offseason, but the coronavirus pandemic forced him to wait out the NFL’s lockdown.
“It hasn’t been easy for him, because a lot of teams would hit him up, show interest, and when all this COVID stuff hit, he was ready to go here in the spring and had quite a few talks with some teams,” Robinson said. “They had to hold everybody off from coming in, bringing everybody in.”
Robinson said he has no doubts about Bryant’s physical fitness. After weighing as much as 237 pounds, he has slimmed down to about 220, his listed playing weight with Dallas. His explosiveness has returned, too: Robinson said that during a recent visit to a local gym’s basketball court, the 6-foot-2 Bryant was “going down and jamming, full court, dunking.”
And he wasn’t barely getting it in, either. “He’s getting up there — like, elbow over the rim. And he’s excited by it. Like, ‘David, did you see that?‘”
Robinson was careful to say that the Bryant who turns 32 in November will be a different receiver than the one who set a Cowboys record for career touchdown receptions (73) and posted three straight 1,200-yard seasons from 2012 to 2014.
Bryant thrived early in his career with his combination of size, speed and strength. Now he’s come to rely more on his route-running ability. Robinson said that when he assembled a collection of Dallas-area defensive backs for Bryant to face after he’d been cleared to practice one-on-one, it was an unfair fight. Only JaCorey Shepherd, a former Philadelphia Eagles draft pick who last made an NFL roster in 2017, presented any kind of challenge.
“He’s a legitimate No. 3 receiver,” Robinson said of Bryant, who combined for 1,634 receiving yards in 2016 and 2017 after a disappointing 2015. “He could come in and be somebody’s No. 3 receiver right now. With time, him getting in shape in a few weeks, getting acclimated to the system and things like that, he easily could slide in and be a No. 2 receiver. I think he’s a lot more Larry Fitzgerald-y in his career, like in the slot ... using him closer toward the goal line. That’s where he would be most effective right now, on the 40[-yard line] and in.”
Robinson said Bryant, whose sideline antics and off-field behavior made him a punching bag for criticism in Dallas, has shown maturity in how he’s approached his new opportunity. Bryant “would rather be a No. 3 receiver, a No. 2 or No. 3 receiver,” according to Bryant. He’s also eager to embrace a mentor’s role with young receivers, Robinson said. (In Baltimore, 27-year-old Willie Snead IV is the team’s oldest player at the position.)
Robinson still catches glimpses of vintage Bryant, whether it’s him chirping back at trash-talking cornerbacks or flipping his hips to make acrobatic sideline catches. But he hopes teams like the Ravens see Bryant as he sees him: a passionate, talented receiver. A loyal, high-energy teammate. Someone who “just wants to be back out there and show that he can still be the Dez Bryant of old.”