Short of Prescott leading the Cowboys to their first Super Bowl since the 1995 season, the quarterback and team are looking at the likelihood of another franchise-tag stare-down in March 2021.
If Prescott delivered the Cowboys a championship, the Cowboys would gladly pay the megadeal Prescott is seeking. But if Prescott has another statistical season like he had in 2019 and gets the Cowboys to the playoffs in coach Mike McCarthy's first season, the tag is the likeliest route barring a significant change in either side's feelings. And, if Prescott has another statistical season like he had in 2019 but the Cowboys miss the playoffs for the third time in his five years as the starter, the Cowboys might think differently and opt to start over with a new quarterback.
A second franchise tag on Prescott would cost the Cowboys $37.68 million in 2021, regardless of what happens to the league's salary cap because of the coronavirus pandemic next season.
If the salary cap stays flat because of a lack of revenues for the NFL in the 2020 season, then the Cowboys could be in a challenging situation. The 2020 cap is $198.4 million. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the 2021 cap is projected to be $212 million based on normal circumstances, which would allow the Cowboys to have $36.2 million in room.
But if the cap does not increase, the Cowboys would be down to roughly $22 million in room if they don't carry over any unused space from 2020. It's easy to see that Prescott's $37.68 million tag would not fit under that cap amount and Dallas would have to get creative in its accounting.
That creativity could lead the Cowboys to release players but will definitely lead to the restructuring of a number of contracts that would eat into the team's cap room in future years. That is a mechanism the Cowboys have been routinely criticized for by capologists, who seem to ignore how much other teams do add to future cap figures by restructuring.
It is possible the Cowboys could restructure the contract of All-Pro guard Zack Martin this year, which would open up roughly $8 million in space with at least some of that carrying over to 2021, and do the same again next year. It is conceivable the Cowboys could look to do the same with defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, who is set to make $16.9 million in 2020.
The five-year, $100 million deal Amari Cooper signed in March was designed for it to be restructured in 2021 provided the wide receiver produced big-time numbers. He is set to make $20 million and count $22 million against the cap. A restructured deal could create $12 million in room.
There are risks involved in all of that restructuring.
Would the Cowboys want to increase Elliott's future cap numbers knowing a running back's shelf life could be shortened at any time? Tyron Smith has missed three games in each of the past four seasons because of injury, so adding voidable years to his contract to lower cap figures could be tricky. Collins would be a prime candidate, but he has had some back issues to think about. Jaylon Smith needs a bounce-back season in 2020 to see his $7.2 million base salary in 2021 become fully guaranteed by the fifth year. If he doesn't, then the Cowboys could designate him as a post-June 1 cut before the fifth day of the 2021 league year and gain $7 million in room.
What should be noted is that had Prescott signed the five-year deal the Cowboys offered, they would have restructured a high base salary to create room in 2021 anyway, which is another reason the Cowboys wanted a five-year option, so they could prorate a reworked deal over the final four years.
Restructuring Prescott's contract or having to restructure a number of players' deals would not be an optimal situation if the 2021 cap does not increase appreciably, but it is not an impossible situation. It will add even more pressure on the scouting department to get the 2021 NFL draft right so the Cowboys can replace high-priced talent in a year or two, or fill in the gaps when players leave for bigger prices elsewhere in free agency, like cornerback Byron Jones' departure for the Miami Dolphins.
The dominoes of Prescott and the Cowboys not getting a long-term deal done are just beginning to fall.