FRISCO, Texas -- Quarterback news will dominate the NFL landscape this offseason.
Will the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Tom Brady continue to play and for which team? Will the Green Bay Packers' Aaron Rodgers continue to play and for which team? Will Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens finally come to terms on a long-term agreement? Which quarterbacks will go early in the NFL draft?
And then there’s the Dallas Cowboys and Dak Prescott.
This too will be a headline because it’s the Cowboys and Prescott.
Prescott is signed through 2024. He is set to make $31 million in 2023, which is fully guaranteed, and will count $49.13 million against the salary cap. Only Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson ($54.9 million) has a larger cap figure this upcoming season.
There are three paths the Cowboys can take:
The Cowboys will need to create room just to get under the 2023 salary cap, which could be created by releasing or adjusting the contracts of RB Ezekiel Elliott, OT Tyron Smith and potentially some others. But in order to be a buyer in free agency or even keep their own younger core players -- like WR CeeDee Lamb, CB Trevon Diggs, RB Tony Pollard, S Donovan Wilson, LB Leighton Vander Esch and OT Terence Steele -- they will need significant cap room.
The easiest way to do that would be to extend Prescott’s contract. They would add four to five years to the deal, pay him a huge signing bonus and knock down his 2023 base salary, allowing them to do whatever they would want. Technically, instead of extending Prescott, they could restructure his contract again and free up about $22 million in room but be left with a ton of dead money in 2025 after his contract expires.
Prescott stood strong in contract negotiations before, waiting two seasons before his big payday that included a $66 million signing bonus. In 2019, the Cowboys thought they were close to a deal that would have paid Prescott an average of about $32 million a year, in the same neighborhood as Jared Goff and Carson Wentz at the time. In 2020, they paid him $31 million on the franchise tag.
He suffered a fractured and dislocated right ankle five games into the 2020 season, and yet the Cowboys signed him to a four-year, $160 million deal anyway.
Would Prescott be more willing to accept a team-friendly deal now that he has cashed in? Now that quarterback contracts will be pushing $50 million per year, would he want to be paid in that stratosphere?
There is also this to consider: Since the Cowboys’ last Super Bowl appearance in 1995, no quarterback has taken his team to an NFC Championship Game or Super Bowl for the first time after a seven-year run as the starter with that team, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The last to make his first NFC title-game appearance in his seventh season in that scenario was Phil Simms in 1986, although that does not include the 1982 season that he missed with a knee injury.
The Cowboys can simply play it out and chip away at the edges of their roster for improvement. They can continue to sign players to one-year deals and hope they succeed the way S Jayron Kearse, S Malik Hooker, DE Dante Fowler Jr. and others have succeeded.
The Cowboys have been one of the better drafting teams of late through the work of VP of player personnel Will McClay and his staff.
Look at the 2022 draft. First-round OT Tyler Smith was a huge bonus after some snickered at the Cowboys. Second-round DE Sam Williams showed the ability to rush the passer. TE Jake Ferguson, a fourth-round pick, could be the starter in 2023 with Dalton Schultz unlikely to return. CB DaRon Bland, a fifth-round pick, led the Cowboys in interceptions. LB Damone Clark went from likely needing a redshirt season because of neck surgery to showing promise.
Questions remain about third-round receiver Jalen Tolbert and fourth-round tackle Matt Waletzko, who is coming off shoulder surgery.
In 2024, there is no guaranteed money left in Prescott’s contract. If the Cowboys choose to stand pat, they will have to make a decision on whether to keep him by the fifth day of that league year with a $5 million roster bonus that is due. He is scheduled to make a $29 million base salary.
And that leads to this route:
Draft a quarterback
The Cowboys would have to at least consider taking a quarterback in this draft. It would make more sense to have a potential starter in place for 2024 if the Cowboys don’t go deeper in the playoffs in 2023 in Prescott’s eighth season as the starter.
This doesn’t mean selecting a Brock Purdy with the final pick of the draft either. Had the San Francisco 49ers known what they had in Purdy, they would not have waited to get him with the last pick of the seventh round; just as the Cowboys would not have waited until the fourth round, No. 135 overall, to draft Prescott in 2016 had they known how good he would be.
At some point, the Cowboys have to at least consider the option of finding Prescott’s successor, potentially this April. That doesn’t mean trading way up in the first round to take a Bryce Young or C.J. Stroud, but it doesn’t mean waiting until the seventh round to draft a Ben DiNucci either.
In 2020, the Green Bay Packers drafted Jordan Love at No. 26 overall, where the Cowboys are slated to select this year, because they were unsure of Rodgers’ future. Rodgers responded with back-to-back MVP seasons, and the Packers had home-field advantage both of those years before ultimately losing in the NFC Championship Game both times. If something similar were to happen with Prescott, the Cowboys would be ecstatic.
Having a quarterback on a rookie contract is a boon to a team. The Cowboys were able to acquire WR Amari Cooper in 2018 because Prescott was on his rookie deal. The Philadelphia Eagles were able to acquire WR A.J. Brown because QB Jalen Hurts is on his rookie deal.
It is much easier to spread the salary-cap allocation around with a cheaper quarterback, provided that quarterback plays as well as Prescott did and Hurts has. The contracts Lamb, Diggs and edge rusher/linebacker Micah Parsons are going to sign will be astronomical.
Which path will the Cowboys take?
Their answer awaits.