With Super Bowl in sights, Saints see Dez Bryant as risk worth taking

METAIRIE, La. -- Of course it feels like a risk, signing Dez Bryant in the middle of a seven-game win streak.

That whole "don't upset the apple cart" idea.

But the New Orleans Saints are obviously going into this deal with eyes wide open -- and they're obviously willing to pull out all the stops while they feel this season's Super Bowl is within their grasp.

They did the same thing last month when they traded for cornerback Eli Apple, despite some of Apple's past chemistry concerns with the New York Giants.

And though backup quarterback Teddy Bridgewater wasn't any type of character concern, the Saints were also aggressive when they traded for him late in the preseason to make sure they are filling roster holes that could potentially derail them.

Clearly, the Saints feel confident enough that their well-established locker room and leadership under head coach Sean Payton, quarterback Drew Brees and others can be a good fit for Bryant -- and that a Super Bowl run should offer him plenty of motivation to be at his best for three months.

When the Dallas Cowboys released Bryant in April, executive vice president Stephen Jones admitted that Bryant's "fiery" personality and emotional outbursts on the sideline could be a "distraction." And the Cowboys hinted that having a guy like Bryant in young quarterback Dak Prescott's ear might have added pressure on Prescott while he was still developing.

But this is a different situation. The Saints don't need to worry about Bryant putting any pressure on Brees, who is having one of the best seasons of his 18-year career. And they definitely don't need Bryant to be a No. 1 receiver for them since Michael Thomas has that role on lock, with a staggering 70 catches for 880 yards and five touchdowns through the first eight games of the season.

Also, if Bryant, who just turned 30 on Sunday, doesn't react well to playing a supporting role, this three-month contract is one the Saints could easily walk away from.

But there is no reason to think Bryant should have any problems -- since he also is going into this deal with eyes wide open. He knows he won't be a No. 1 in New Orleans. And since he reportedly turned down at least one opportunity this offseason with the Baltimore Ravens, he has apparently been looking for a situation such as this.

Bryant was never really considered a bad guy in Dallas, just an emotional or sometimes volatile one who lacked focus at times. And his former quarterback, Tony Romo, strongly vouched for Bryant this offseason, telling ESPN Cowboys reporter Todd Archer, "Dez is a good teammate and I think sometimes that might get lost in the way that the emotional aspect of things [are viewed]. If I was talking to any of the GMs or coaches, I would tell them he's not going to hurt the locker room in any possible way."

Dallas running back Ezekiel Elliott gave a similar endorsement Wednesday, saying, "Ever since I got here, Dez was nothing but a help for me. Right when I got here, he took me under his wing. You're getting a very passionate football player. You're getting a very passionate individual. I think sometimes that's looked at the wrong way. ... I think he's going to be a good veteran for that team."

There is also the awkward connection with Bryant and Saints assistant general manager Jeff Ireland, who infamously asked Bryant if his mother was a prostitute in a pre-draft visit in 2010 and later apologized for it. But clearly that didn't inhibit this deal from getting done.

The biggest question mark of all with Bryant is whether he has anything left in the tank after his production started to dwindle in recent years while he battled some injuries.

There is a reason that no other teams have rolled the dice on him before now: There is no guarantee he will be a difference-maker. The 6-foot-2, 220-pounder caught just 69 passes for 838 yards and six touchdowns in a full 16-game season in 2017.

But again, the Saints don't need a game-changer. They would settle for halfway-decent production at the wide receiver position at this point.

Although the Saints (7-1) are red-hot right now following a huge 45-35 victory against the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday, and they are the second-highest-scoring team in the NFL at 34.9 points per game, the receiver position has become an under-the-radar problem for them.

Thomas is the team's only wide receiver with more than 12 catches, since veteran Ted Ginn Jr. went on injured reserve with a knee injury last month, promising rookie Tre'Quan Smith is still developing and fourth-year pro Cameron Meredith hasn't panned out as hoped.

The main reason the Saints are rolling the dice with Bryant is because their offseason gamble with Meredith, a restricted free agent, hasn't paid off. Although Meredith is healthy now following a major knee injury that wiped out his 2017 season with the Chicago Bears, his role has diminished to the point where he hasn't even been targeted in the past three games.

It's unclear where, exactly, the Saints will use Bryant. Their biggest need is in the slot -- where Meredith was supposed to be more of an asset. But up until last season, Bryant had taken 90 percent of his career snaps on the outside.

Bryant spent more time in the slot last season -- which is a natural transition for an older receiver as his speed starts to diminish a bit. But it's possible the Saints could move Thomas into the slot more often, with Bryant on the outside, since Thomas has proved to be effective all over the field.

It's also unclear whether Bryant could potentially play Sunday at the Cincinnati Bengals, since he won't practice with the Saints until Thursday at the earliest and still needs to get himself into game shape and up to speed with a new playbook. Bryant has been training to stay in shape, but he has not been with a team since the Cowboys released him in April.

But if Bryant can show even glimpses of his old self -- if he can display that uncanny ability to win contested catches like he did so often in his prime with the Cowboys (three consecutive seasons with at least 12 touchdowns and 1,200 yards from 2012-14) -- then he can be an asset even in a smaller role.

And he would definitely be worth the risk.