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Dez Bryant set up for big payday

IRVING, Texas -- It was a preseason game, the third of five glorified scrimmages before the Dallas Cowboys open the season against the New York Giants. But the first-quarter pass Tony Romo threw against the Arizona Cardinals last week should've told you everything about why Dez Bryant will soon be one of the NFL's highest-paid players.

On first down from the Dallas 7, Romo threw a back-shoulder fade to Bryant, who was covered as well as a receiver can be covered by Patrick Peterson, widely considered one of the NFL's best cornerbacks. Bryant, leaping high, snagged the ball with two hands and gripped it tightly as he fell to the ground for a 25-yard gain.

The throw was great. So was the catch. But the trust factor between quarterback and receiver was the most impressive aspect of the play. It was similar to a pass Romo threw in training camp when Brandon Carr blanketed Bryant, who somehow came down with a ball wedged between his hand and the side of his helmet.

The guy who ran too many imprecise and poor routes during the first half of last season has now forged a rapport with Romo. Only tight end Jason Witten, Romo's BFF, is trusted more. Romo knows he can throw Bryant the ball no matter the coverage and regardless of who's covering him, and the receiver is either going to catch it or prevent the defensive back from intercepting it.

We know that's not the case with every receiver on the roster.

What we've seen since the middle of last season is the evolution of Bryant from immature man to fringe superstar. If he puts a full season together similar to the last eight games of last season, then he'll rise to superstar level.

Bryant has gone through a drama-free offseason for the first time since he joined the Cowboys as the 24th pick in 2010. He continued the momentum from the offseason by joining DeMarcus Ware as the best players in training camp.

Sean Lee, a second-round pick in Bryant's class, made his bid to end his career with the Cowboys after he signed a six-year deal Monday worth as much as $51 million. He's guaranteed $16.1 million. Bryant, who grew up in Lufkin, about 175 miles southeast of Dallas, wants to end his career in Dallas too. That said, don't be shocked when Bryant's guaranteed money just about surpasses the entire worth of Lee's deal.

That's not a knock on Lee, but a prediction based on what Bryant has positioned himself to do this season. Besides, all you have to do is study how much the game's best receivers earn and do the math. It ain't complicated.

Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald has a deal that averages $16.1 million. Detroit's Calvin Johnson has a deal that averages $15.6 million, and Houston's Andre Johnson averages $14.4 million on his deal Those are the game's three best receivers.

Mike Wallace, an unrestricted free agent, signed a five-year, $60 million deal with the Miami Dolphins in the offseason. He caught 64 passes for 836 and eight touchdowns last season. Bryant caught 93 passes for 1,382 yards and 12 touchdowns last season.

Bryant's contract doesn't expire until the end of the 2014, so there's no rush to sign him to an extension, except that it's always better to set the market than react to it.

The Cowboys and Bryant's agent, Eugene Parker, have had discussions about an extension so preliminary that they haven't even discussed parameters in detail. The reality is each side has acknowledged they'll need to get together sooner rather than later to start brokering a deal.

The biggest question about Bryant's extension will revolve around his signing bonus. A year ago, there was every reason to believe Bryant would get a contract with large yearly salaries and a modest signing bonus, if that. It's the same type of deal the Cowboys gave Terrell Owens when they signed him in 2006, because it protects the team from a salary-cap disaster if it releases the player prior to his contract ending.

If Bryant continues to be responsible on and off the field and put up huge numbers, then he'll be positioned to negotiate the highest-possible signing bonus.

Bryant's troubled past seems behind him. Only time will tell.

Skeptics remain, waiting anxiously for his next screwup, which is OK. Hey, it's up to Bryant to prove them wrong.

One year doesn't represent true change, but it represents hundreds of steps in the right direction, encouraging to a fan base longingly waiting to fully embrace the Cowboys' next superstar.