Huge contracts for quarterback Dak Prescott (left), running back Ezekiel Elliiott (right) and receiver Amari Cooper may hinder the Cowboys' ability to build a playoff contender. Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Pricey extensions for offensive stars could handcuff Cowboys

The Cowboys are in the final stages of one the lengthiest roster-building projects in recent memory. A continuity-establishing saga that has entered the Deflategate realm for both duration and saturation will end if/when quarterback Dak Prescott signs an extension by the July 15 deadline.

Although center Travis Frederick’s retirement was not in the Cowboys’ blueprint, they are on the cusp of finishing their expensive extension binge to retain the nucleus they spent years assembling. While the Cowboys should be praised for acquiring this glut of extension-eligible talents, the next phase will be challenging. This Cowboys nucleus might be the franchise's best since its 1990s Super Bowl-winning core. But did Dallas do this right?

The Cowboys made this stretch possible by executing a bizarre quarterback baton pass from an undrafted free agent to a fourth-round pick. For originality and degree of difficulty, Tony Romo-to-Prescott beats Joe Montana-to-Steve Young and Brett Favre-to-Aaron Rodgers. Regardless, the Cowboys will enter the expensive years of their draft-develop-extend odyssey having accomplished little to justify the payment plan.

Blessed with Prescott’s rookie contract, the Cowboys still extended their NFC Championship Game drought to 24 years. Only seven teams' streaks without a conference championship berth beat that. If the Cowboys could not snap that skid with one of this era’s biggest roster-constructing gifts, is breaking through when their stars have top-market contracts realistic?

The Cowboys will likely backload Prescott’s contract to create a lower 2020 cap hit. They structured the deals of receiver Amari Cooper and running back Ezekiel Elliott this way. That points Dallas toward gearing up for a 2020 run, but this years-long build opened roster holes.

Retaining Elliott and Cooper cost the Cowboys Byron Jones and Robert Quinn, creating issues at cornerback and defensive end. Frederick’s retirement strips the Cowboys of one of this century’s best centers. Dallas made stopgap signings -– defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Dontari Poe and safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix -– but a season clearly vital on the franchise’s timeline features key voids.

One of the best cornerbacks to hit free agency in years, Jones operated as a top-tier boundary defender for two seasons. The Cowboys essentially chose Elliott over Jones. Considering the downfalls of Todd Gurley, David Johnson and Le’Veon Bell -– the other backs in this recently formed tax bracket –- the Cowboys’ decision to make Elliott the league's highest-paid back may soon cause trouble. The All-Pro's prime may be a year-to-year proposition; his 1,358 touches through 56 games are the third most ever

Quinn rebounded in Dallas. His 11.5 sacks were his most in six years; his 22 quarterback hits were his most in five. Dallas was correct not to match Chicago’s $30 million guaranteed offer for a soon-to-be 30-year-old defender, but DeMarcus Lawrence is again without a reliable sidekick. McCoy and Poe technically qualify as interior support, but each is on the back end of his respective prime or past it.

Dallas’ decisions place a premium on this draft. While the Cowboys have nailed many recent first-round picks –- Dez Bryant (2010), Tyron Smith (2011), Frederick (2013), Zack Martin (2014), Jones (2015), Elliott (2016), Leighton Vander Esch (2018) -– they encounter higher stakes this year. If they cannot find a corner capable of starting as a rookie, going cheap at this position will prove costly at a bad time. Lawrence helps their cause at end, but the Cowboys have significant deficiencies at the two most valuable defensive positions.

Modern-CBA Super Bowl routes are well-paved by now. The standout-quarterback avenue still works best. When said passer is on a rookie contract, it’s an NFL cheat code -– as the Chiefs most recently showed. Teams paying the new $30M-per-year rate are still figuring how to forge a Super Bowl run. There’s the less sustainable “dominant defense conquers all” method the 2015 Broncos used. The Patriots’ “Tom Brady-on-a-discount plus whatever Bill Belichick conjures” path stands alone. 

The 2011 Giants and 2012 Ravens fall into the smaller “other” category. These Cowboys are closer to the Mike Zimmer-era Vikings -- who also completed a years-long extension blueprint -- than any of these groups.

Although Prescott posted top-five QBR rankings in 2016, ’17 and ’19, the financial limitations attached to his next contract will require even better play. The Cowboys going 8-8 with a mostly healthy offense last season does not point to Prescott’s statistical leap vaulting him onto the tier of passers capable of carrying less complete rosters. 

The Cowboys now have Cooper, who despite elite route-running ability is 0-for-5 in 1,200-yard seasons, attached to the second-most lucrative receiver contract and either spot starter Joe Looney or a post-injury-redshirt Connor McGovern replacing Frederick. During Frederick’s 2018 absence, a similar-looking Cowboys offensive line ranked 28th in Football Outsiders’ adjusted sack rate metric. Prescott dropped to 19th in QBR that year.

If new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan’s unit cannot rebound from the Cowboys’ 19th-place DVOA finish, the team’s Super Bowl path basically closes. Brady's Buccaneers joining an already-deep NFC contender contingent will not help matters.

For the Cowboys to make a $35M-plus-per-year contract for a quarterback with a debatable ceiling work, they need to be perhaps unrealistically strong nearly everywhere else. Before the draft, Dallas can only be categorized as dominant in the run game and maybe at linebacker. These are not facets 2020 teams should aspire to feature as their best. Dallas’ best chance with this crew may have already occurred, when it took a preposterous Rodgers throw to vex the 13-3 Cowboys in the 2016 divisional round. 

This Cowboys core should have achieved more by now. Handing out these extensions over the past two offseasons to lock down a team that's gone 27-21 since 2017 should make owner-GM Jerry Jones uneasy. He has given new head coach Mike McCarthy a tougher job than Jason Garrett had. The Cowboys’ quest to become the rare group to peak after payments came due is an interesting assignment. Dallas has critical work to do to be ready for this transition.

Sam Robinson is a Kansas City, Mo.-based writer who mostly writes about the NFL. He has covered sports for nearly 10 years. Boxing, the Royals and Pandora stations featuring female rock protagonists are some of his go-tos. Occasionally interesting tweets @SRobinson25.


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