FRISCO, Texas (AP) — Dez Bryant rattled off names of teammates who have been on the Dallas roster longer than the star receiver, correctly stopping at four.
The guy who once rejected tradition by refusing to carry veteran receiver Roy Williams’ pads when he was a rookie seven years ago is now 28 and the oldest player at his position for the Cowboys. And well aware of it.
“I want to lead by example,” Bryant said earlier in the offseason program that wrapped up Thursday. “I don’t want to run my mouth.”
He still has the occasional Twitter spat, and isn’t one to back down from verbal challenges. But he’s no longer the precocious newcomer who talked back to Williams and started his career with a couple of bizarre off-field issues, sounding more like a dean these days instead.
“I think that it’s just things that naturally happen over time,” said Bryant, two years into a $70 million, five-year contract that made him one of the highest-paid NFL receivers. “You just start putting things in perspective. I know for me is all I want to do is be better.”
Bryant moved into the top five in tenure in part because of the departure of Tony Romo, the quarterback he credits for helping him through the rocky start to a career that included lawsuits for unpaid jewelry bills and a sagging-pants episode with police at a Dallas mall. Bryant’s bond was instant with Dak Prescott when last year’s NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year replaced an injured Romo and ended up taking the 10-year starter’s job with by far the best debut for a quarterback in franchise history.
Years later, Bryant reflected on his sparring with Williams by saying he didn’t believe in what he considered meaningless rookie rituals. He’s showing it too, instead creating a bond going into his ninth season with the most celebrated newcomer at receiver, Ryan Switzer.
“He’s one of the most well-respected teammates,” coach Jason Garrett said. “The guys just really, really gravitate toward him. And I think it goes to that, his love for the game, his love for this team, and how hard he works at it.”
Bryant had a career-high and NFL-leading 16 touchdowns receiving as an All-Pro in 2014, the only season the Cowboys have won a playoff game since he arrived as a late first-round pick in 2010.
Injuries led to career lows across the board a year later, and he missed another three games in 2016 with a knee injury that he feared was serious, causing him to raise questions by staying away from the facility for a day because he didn’t want to know how bad it was.
Bryant also missed two straight offseasons, the first in 2015 when he wanted a long-term contract and last year when he was recovering from injuries.
“The first thing is he was here,” receiver coach Derek Dooley said after the final offseason practice. “He hasn’t had an offseason since 2014. This is his first time to get out here and develop a level of consistency. And I think he’s benefited from it.”
The only offensive player with more tenure is 15th-year tight end Jason Witten, another mentor to Bryant in his younger days. The others are cornerback Orlando Scandrick (11th season) and long snapper L.P. Ladouceur (14th).
Bryant never really imagined such a list being so short, and now he’s coming off a strong second half of last season that helped Dallas to the top seed in the NFC at 13-3 before a divisional playoff loss to Green Bay.
“Guys around here want it to be contagious,” Bryant said. “We’ve got a lot of great building blocks from last year. It’s nothing to sit on. It’s how can we move forward and get better? How can we take that next step?”
Now, there are a lot of teammates looking to Bryant for the answers.