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Dak Prescott’s Cowboys future: New contract or test free agency?

Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott is looking at the NFL’s first $60 million-per-year deal, but will he get that contract from Dallas? Photo by Joe Nicholson/USA TODAY Sports

In the real world, patience is a virtue. In Jerry World, patience is expensive. For the second straight contract cycle, team owner Jerry Jones and the Dallas Cowboys find themselves in an inexplicable game of contract chicken with quarterback Dak Prescott. The mistakes made leading up to his four-year, $160 million deal in 2021 have left the franchise in an intensely vulnerable position as the season approaches. With Prescott’s price only rising, the Cowboys run a serious risk of losing him for nothing in 2025.

Would that be a bad thing? What are Dallas’ options if it does move on from Prescott? Are the Cowboys doomed to fail if they re-sign him? I’ll answer those questions and a bunch more in a deep dive into the signal-caller’s future.

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To understand what happens next, though, you have to understand how the Cowboys got here in the first place. They handed Prescott more leverage than any other player in football when they stalled on his last deal. They’re in an even more perilous position this time around.

Jump to a topic:
The road that led to this impasse
The no-trade, no-tag clause
The inexplicable quote from Jerry Jones
Can the Cowboys afford their core?
How does Dak compare to other QBs?
What does Lamar have to do with this?
What could Prescott’s deal look like?
Who could Dallas target if he walks?
Should the Cowboys actually move on?

How Prescott and the Cowboys got here
Let’s go all the way back to spring 2019. Coming off a 10-6 season and the team’s first playoff victory in four years, the Cowboys were riding high. After they started the 2018 season 3-5, their trade for Amari Cooper seemed to kick-start the offense. They won seven of their final eight games to claim the NFC East. Their official Twitter account bragged about trading their first-round pick for Cooper when it came up on draft day. To the extent the vibes are ever good in Dallas, things felt like they were heading in the right direction.

Prescott, who had struggled early in his third season, was eligible for an extension. One of the league’s biggest bargains during a rookie deal in which he made less than $700,000 per season, he had played the best football of his career after the Cooper trade. Across eight starts in the second half of 2018, he completed nearly 72% of his passes, averaged 7.7 yards per attempt and threw 12 touchdown passes against three picks.

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With one year left to go on his rookie deal and no fifth-year option available, the Cowboys found themselves in the window in which virtually every team will sign their quarterback. When they’ve landed on a passer they like, most organizations will ink him to a long-term extension before he enters his fourth season, allowing them to spread a significant signing bonus over the longest window possible. For quarterbacks who don’t have a fifth-year option, such as Prescott with the Cowboys and Russell Wilson with the Seahawks, there’s really no choice but to do the extension between Years 3 and 4. Teams are almost always loathe to have their starting quarterback enter the final year of their deal in a lame-duck situation without an extension.

The Cowboys didn’t seem to feel the same way. With Prescott reportedly asking for more than $30 million per season, the two sides didn’t come to an agreement over the summer. They locked up offensive lineman La’el Collins and linebacker Jaylon Smith, but there was no deal for Prescott, arguably the team’s most important player.

The 2019 season didn’t go as well. The Cowboys fell to 8-8, but it wasn’t because of Prescott, who threw 30 touchdown passes and averaged a career-high 8.2 yards per attempt. With his rookie contract now complete, they had no choice but to franchise-tag him, guaranteeing him a minimum of $31.4 million for 2020. This allowed Dallas to retain Prescott’s rights while negotiating a long-term extension.

That deal didn’t get done. The Cowboys reportedly offered Prescott a contract averaging just under $35 million per season with more than $110 million in “guarantees,” some of which would have been for injury. (Injury guarantees aren’t guarantees. That’s an article for another day.) Along the way, team executive vice president Stephen Jones started talking about how teams are less likely to win a Super Bowl when their quarterback takes up a significant percentage of their salary cap.

The 2020 season was a disaster. Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan couldn’t get his unit to stop the run. The Cowboys ranked 28th in scoring defense. New coach Mike McCarthy promised he could get the most out of Prescott, but after five games, Prescott’s season was over, as he suffered a gruesome ankle injury in a game against the Giants. Prescott had averaged more than 370 passing yards per game before the injury, taking over as the focal point of the offense from a diminishing Ezekiel Elliott. The Cowboys went 4-7 and averaged just over 21 points per game after Prescott went down, cycling through Andy Dalton, Garrett Gilbert and Ben DiNucci at quarterback.

After failing to come to terms with Prescott on a deal before the 2019 and 2020 seasons and seeing him suffer a serious ankle injury, on one level it makes no sense that Dallas would come to terms with him on an even bigger contract than the deals they had offered in previous years. And yet, that’s exactly what happened. The team gave Prescott a second franchise tag for $37.7 million to retain his rights for 2021, then signed him to a four-year, $160 million deal.

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Greeny to McAfee: I wouldn’t be surprised if Dak, Cowboys don’t get deal doneMike Greenberg explains to Pat McAfee why Dak Prescott should play out the season and become an unrestricted free agent.
The Cowboys didn’t suddenly find an extra $20 million stuffed in the Jones’ couch cushions or learn something new about Prescott in 2020. What changed had nothing to do with him on the field and everything to do with the leverage he held off the field. Once they offered him a second franchise tag, they were one signature away from running the risk of losing him for nothing in free agency the following year. While teams can give a player three franchise tags, a third tag would have cost them a whopping $54.3 million, a figure which wouldn’t have been sustainable on a stagnant salary cap at the time.

Instead of signing Prescott to a friendlier deal when they had the chance, the Cowboys weren’t able to come to terms with him and paid the price. With him holding all of the leverage in their negotiations by virtue of being one season from unrestricted free agency, they were forced to both pay Prescott more than they had been willing in prior years while coming off a serious injury and make serious concessions in the process. The biggest of those concessions has left Dallas in a bind this offseason.

The no-trade, no-tag clause
In addition to paying Prescott $40 million per season and guaranteeing him $126 million over his new deal, the Cowboys were forced to give up the safety card that had kept him around: the franchise tag. Prescott’s representation negotiated both no-trade and no-tag clauses as part of his extension, ensuring he would be in a favorable position to negotiate new terms at the end of his deal. The only quarterback in the league who ended up with a more player-friendly contract is Deshaun Watson, who in 2022 got the entirety of his $230 million deal guaranteed with language to avoid missing out on that money as a product of the suspension he would receive shortly thereafter.

As a result, the Cowboys now find themselves in the same position they were in after the 2020 season: one year away from losing Prescott to unrestricted free agency. They can’t trade him without his permission and wouldn’t be able to prevent him from hitting the open market next offseason. Prescott, again, enjoys the most leverage of any player in the league.

The time to sign Prescott to an extension without being as vulnerable to his leverage would have been last offseason, when he was coming off a 15-interception season and was still two years away from unrestricted free agency. Dallas instead spent money elsewhere on its roster, attempting to build the best possible team while wide receiver CeeDee Lamb and edge rusher Micah Parsons were still on their rookie deals. It traded for cornerback Stephon Gilmore and wideout Brandin Cooks, adding two veterans on significant contracts to the roster. The franchise decided against extending Lamb or Prescott during the summer of 2023, leaving it open to the risk of paying more in the summer of 2024.

The owner’s eye-opening quote
Now, there are two sides to every negotiation. It’s entirely possible Prescott’s camp simply didn’t want to sign extensions until the last possible moment and didn’t encourage the Cowboys to make a competitive offer as a result. Lamb might have been willing to wait on his own deal last offseason, when he was in the fourth year of his rookie deal and had his fifth-year option for 2024 guaranteed. Parsons wasn’t even eligible for an extension last year, as he only just finished his third pro season.

At the same time, have you listened to Jerry Jones? He gave an inexplicable quote to reporters when discussing his team’s various contract negotiations this spring. “We’d like to see more leaves fall. We’d like to see more action,” he told reporters in April. “I want to see some more cards played.”

The quote seems to suggest the Cowboys see patience as an appropriate path to take on their negotiations with Prescott (and with his star receiver). How has that gone for them since mid-April? Not well. Justin Jefferson reset the wide receiver market at $35 million per year, jumping at least $5 million from the prior high of Tyreek Hill’s deal (and without anywhere near as much in the way of fake cash at the end). Lamb, who had a league-high 135 catches last season, will be asking for more than Jefferson. At least Dallas can franchise tag him in 2025 if it isn’t able to get a deal done.

The top of the market at quarterback in mid-April was at $55 million per year, which was what Joe Burrow landed in his deal with the Bengals in September. Since Jones’ comments, guess where the market has gone? Jared Goff inked a four-year, $212 million deal with the Lions that averaged $53.5 million per year with favorable, player-friendly cash flows. Trevor Lawrence then signed a five-year, $275 million deal with the Jaguars, matching Burrow’s contract despite possessing a much less impressive résumé.

You can argue Prescott was always going to be in position to top the market either way, but the deals signed since Jones’ comments have only strengthened Prescott’s position. The price for star players is always going up and has been for the entirety of Jones’ time as an owner. He and the Cowboys are smart enough to know that, regardless of what they say publicly. Failing to get their QB’s deal done before the final offseason in advance of free agency cost them in 2021.

It’s hurting Dallas again in 2024. The uncertainty and massive amount of money due to Prescott, Lamb and Parsons on their new deals have caused the Cowboys to essentially sit out free agency this offseason. They let offensive linemen Tyron Smith and Tyler Biadasz, edge rusher Dorance Armstrong and running back Tony Pollard sign elsewhere. They didn’t re-sign Gilmore, and they cut Michael Gallup without adding a veteran replacement. Their only two additions in free agency — in a year in which Jones says the team is “all-in” — have been Elliott and linebacker Eric Kendricks, veterans on the backside of their careers. Dallas’ roster is worse in 2024 than it was in 2023, and it will likely be worse in 2025 than it was in 2024, with or without Prescott on the roster.

Can the Cowboys even afford to keep their big three?
It’s a fair question. Prescott, Lamb and Parsons were making just over $47 million per year combined on their most recent deals, with most of that coming from Prescott, who was taking home $40 million. Lamb has already picked up a significant raise by virtue of reaching his fifth-year option, which will pay him nearly $18 million this season, but there’s a lot more to come.

There are round numbers each of these players should aim for on their new deals. Prescott could become the NFL’s first $60 million player. Lamb should try and match Jefferson’s $35 million average. And Parsons, arguably the most dynamic pass-rusher in football, should top Nick Bosa’s $34 million average and challenge to become the league’s most expensive non-quarterback.

If we plug in $35 million per season for both Lamb and Parsons, the Cowboys would need to pay the three of them a combined $130 million per season on their next deals to keep them around. A decade ago, the salary cap for an entire team was $133 million. We’re talking about a staggering sum of money.

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Orlovsky: ‘Micah Parsons shouldn’t step on the field without a new contract’Dan Orlovsky firmly believes Micah Parsons deserves a new contract, saying the Cowboys can’t make the playoffs without him.
Can the Cowboys build a Super Bowl-caliber team around those three cornerstones? I’m not sure. Even if we assume the salary cap rises another 10% to $281 million in 2025, they would be looking at three players whose individual average salaries amount to more than 12% of the cap apiece. While Dallas will structure deals to keep the cap hits respectable, the average salaries of the three combined would be than 46% of the 2025 cap.

Is that even a feasible roster construction? Spotrac has salary data versus the cap running back through 2013, and since then, there are only two teams that had three players making more than 10% of the cap. Neither had a successful season. The 2022 Raiders had Derek Carr, Davante Adams and Maxx Crosby combining to make 44.2% of their cap, while that same season, the Rams had Matthew Stafford, Aaron Donald and Cooper Kupp at 47.2% of their cap. Neither team posted a winning record.

While this might be an extreme example, the idea of having a top-heavy roster isn’t new for the Cowboys. Over the past 25 years, they have been the most extreme example of a team willing to pay top dollar for a few (often homegrown) stars to serve as the core of their roster, even if it means having less depth than most other teams. They typically executed that philosophy by handing out long contracts and repeatedly restructuring bonuses to create short-term cap space at the expense of eventual dead cap when that player leaves. It ended up costing them edge rusher DeMarcus Ware for cap purposes — the future Hall of Famer was released in 2014 — and limited their ability to build around Prescott when he was on a bargain-basement deal, given that they were stuck paying out millions in dead money for Tony Romo’s deal after the long-time quarterback starter was released in 2017.

With quarterback contracts rising faster than the cap, we’re about to enter an era in which teams are comfortable committing more than 40% of their cap to their signal-caller and the two other best players on their roster. Paying their big three $130 million per year won’t be easy for the Cowboys; it will force them to be excellent drafters without much leeway for failure, though finding talent in the draft has been Dallas’ biggest strength over the past two decades. I don’t believe the Cowboys should abandon signing their big three because it’ll take up too much cap space.

What’s the case for the Cowboys to part ways with Prescott?
This could be a whole other article. It was in 2020, in fact, when I compared Prescott to contemporaries Carson Wentz and Jared Goff, who were building blocks for the teams that had drafted and extended them. (A lot can change in four years.)

Prescott had consistently ranked as a quarterback in the bottom half of the top 10 at that point, and not much has changed since. While his 2022 season was struck by interception variance, he has been among the league’s best quarterbacks. From 2021 to 2023, he ranked fifth in QBR, trailing Brock Purdy, Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen and Justin Herbert. He ranks eighth in yards per dropback and fourth in expected points added (EPA) per dropback over that stretch. And while Elliott and the running game was the core of the offense early in Prescott’s career, the Cowboys have moved toward a more pass-happy attack over the past three seasons. There’s more weight on Prescott’s shoulders than ever before.

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On the other hand, there’s the lack of playoff success. Prescott is 2-5 as a starter in the postseason, a figure that likely undersells his actual performance. Two of his best starts were in losses, including a game in which he went 24-of-38 for 302 yards and three touchdowns against the Packers in 2016. He led a pair of fourth-quarter drives to tie the game up twice, only for the defense to allow Aaron Rodgers to march back down the field and score both times. Prescott’s 305-yard, four-touchdown game in a win over the Bucs in the 2022 postseason was one of the best playoff performances in recent history per QBR, although it was followed by a disappointing loss to the 49ers the following week.

Leaving aside the most fervently playoff-pilled observers, Prescott has clearly established himself over more than 4,000 NFL pass attempts. He’s a very good quarterback who will occasionally have stretches in which he produces either elite or mediocre football. He finished second in the MVP voting last season, although he didn’t earn a single first-place vote from the 50 electors. If your bar for success is the Super Bowl, Prescott is a failure. If your bar is more realistic, he’s a well-above-average quarterback, and at age 30, he should still be in his prime throughout this next deal.

How often do quarterbacks at that level in their prime make it to the open market? Almost never. The quarterbacks who have hit unrestricted free agency over the past 15 years and earned significant multiyear deals mostly have different circumstances to what we could witness with Prescott. There were future Hall of Famers on the tail ends of their careers in Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. On the other end, there were backups who were earmarked for larger roles in Teddy Bridgewater, Nick Foles, Mike Glennon and Brock Osweiler. (You could go further into the past for stars coming off serious injuries, including Drew Brees and Daunte Culpepper.)

The only exceptions in the middle are Jimmy Garoppolo, whose ill-fated foray with the Raiders lasted one year, Derek Carr and Kirk Cousins, who might be the closest comp for Prescott in a number of ways. Cousins’ numbers have exceeded his reputation, but he hasn’t made the sort of playoff run Commanders and Vikings fans would have hoped to see. Like Prescott, Cousins failed to convince his team he was worthy of a significant extension as his rookie deal expired. Unlike the Cowboys, though, Washington never recognized it

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