Who gets paid first, Smith or Bryant?

IRVING, Texas -- There is no way the Dallas Cowboys will let Tyron Smith and Dez Bryant see free agency.

The Cowboys will exercise the fifth-year option on Smith’s contract by May 2, guaranteeing he will be with the Cowboys in 2015. The Cowboys could also use the franchise tag on Bryant in 2015 if they are unable to reach an agreement on a long-term deal.

Ask yourself this question: Who is the last guy the Cowboys wanted to sign to a long-term deal and couldn’t? I can’t think of one.

But for this exercise, let’s ask another question: Who would you pay first?

To me the answer is Smith, and it’s not a knock on Bryant.

Smith is young. He doesn’t turn 24 until December. He could very well have two cracks at the big-money apple in his career. He played in his first Pro Bowl in January. He had his best season and has quickly become one of the best left tackles in the NFL.

Have I mentioned he’s young? The Cleveland Browns signed Joe Thomas to a seven-year deal worth $84 million a few years ago with more than $40 million guaranteed. Thomas was a Pro Bowler in his first four seasons before the new deal, and a two-time All-Pro. So Smith doesn’t quite have those credentials, but have I mentioned he’s young?

Left tackle is a more crucial spot than wide receiver, even for a receiver as good as Bryant. We see teams get by without receivers as dominant as Bryant, but you don’t see very many get by with a substandard left tackle. When a team has a left tackle, they keep him.

Smith might want a shorter-term deal than what the Cowboys want to pay. My guess is the team would like the seven-year structure just to help with the salary cap down the road. Smith might want to go shorter so he’s not yet 30 by the time he hits the market for a second time.

As for Bryant, he has answered all of the critics on and off the field. He appears to have put his troubles behind him, although Jerry Jones said at the Owners’ Meetings that Bryant must keep his guard up. There has to be a little concern about Bryant’s back, which has cost him mostly practice time the past two seasons, but Jones is not worried about the long-term effects.

The structure of Bryant’s deal will be important. Do the Cowboys try to give him higher base salaries in his guarantees rather than an overloaded signing bonus? They did it with Terrell Owens in his first contract after what Owens went through with the Philadelphia Eagles. A similar structure would seem to work for Bryant as well.

Bryant is a force in the red zone, but he can score from anywhere on the field. He has developed his all-around game, but there is more work to do. He is the veteran of the receiver room now with Miles Austin gone, so the younger receivers will be paying attention to him.

The bottom line is Smith and Bryant will be Cowboys for as long as the Cowboys want them, but if you’re picking a guy to pay first, Smith is the answer.