Yardbarker NFL writers Michael Nania, Chris Mueller and Sam Robinson weigh in on one of the biggest topics of the offseason: what the Cowboys should do with Dak Prescott.
Trade him: He'd bring a boatload of picks
CHRIS MUELLER: Prescott is set to get paid, but Jerry Jones, never shy about making bold moves, would be well served to go where only one team has gone with a quarterback with this pedigree: He should trade him. The Broncos’ 2009 deal with Chicago, the one that sent Jay Cutler to the Bears, can be the model. Trading Prescott would load the Cowboys up with premium draft picks, and they wouldn’t be out of options at quarterback -– not with a uniquely qualified crop of free agents set to hit the market in March.
Prescott is very good, sometimes excellent. But is he good enough that Dallas should lock him up to a long-term deal? Not when Spotrac suggests that such a deal should be in the neighborhood of $33 million annually. Prescott's 38-24 career record is gaudy, and 2019 was his best season yet (career-high 4,902 yards passing and 30 TD passes), but he wasn’t a steady performer.
The league average passer rating for 2019 was 90.4, but Prescott posted a number below that in six of 16 starts. The Cowboys lost all six. In another start, his passer rating was 91.8. Dallas lost that game, too. Prescott’s play ran the gamut from average to poor in a three-game losing streak that put Dallas’ season in peril, and he played one of his worst games of the season in a Week 16 loss to Philadelphia. A win in that game, of course, would have clinched the NFC East for the Cowboys.
Moreover, the Cowboys have surrounded Prescott with a supporting cast that would make most of his fellow quarterbacks blush: RB Ezekiel Elliott, WR Amari Cooper, an elite offensive line and a defense that has ranked no worse than 13th in points allowed and 14th in yards allowed in Prescott’s tenure. That’s the kind of team you can build when your quarterback is on a rookie contract. Big money for Prescott would mean bigger responsibility, and there’s nothing in his body of work to suggest that he can carry a team consistently.
When the Broncos traded Cutler and a fifth-rounder to the Bears, they received a first- and third-rounder in the 2009 draft, a 2010 first-rounder and QB Kyle Orton. Prescott, who must sign his franchise tender before he can be traded, would fetch at least two first-rounders, plus other high draft picks. He does have control of the situation, insofar as the Cowboys can’t urge him to sign the tender and then ship him to a non-contender, but there should be no shortage of interest in his services. The Colts and Buccaneers have $86 million and $84 million in cap space, respectively, and therefore can easily offer Prescott a long-term deal. Put them at the top of the trade partner list.
Who could Dallas get to replace Prescott? What QB is available who has a track record of making big things happen with a talented supporting cast and wouldn't be overwhelmed by the pressure of playing in Dallas?
Anyone hear about that Brady guy?
Franchise tag? That's a failure
SAM ROBINSON: No middle ground exists here. The Cowboys are on the verge of a mess of their own making. They know Prescott’s value and do not need to use the franchise tag to further assess it next season. Prescott’s extension eligibility began Dec. 31, 2018, yet here the sides sit. If the Cowboys are forced to apply the approximately $32.5 million exclusive franchise tag -– which prevents other teams from negotiating with a player -– to their four-year starting quarterback, the organizational blueprint that involved several 2019 extensions for key starters suddenly looks faulty.
This complex situation places Amari Cooper as potential collateral damage. The Cowboys not re-signing Prescott by the March 10 deadline to apply tags creates a legitimate chance Dallas' top receiver departs. Although final-CBA-year rules would allow the Cowboys to use both their franchise and transition tags instead of the usual either/or setup, the lesser-used transition tag -– approximately a $15.8M figure for wide receivers this year -– would probably prompt an onerous offer sheet from another team hoping to poach Cooper. Were the Cowboys to refuse to match said offer, they would lose the four-time Pro Bowler without receiving the two first-round picks the non-exclusive franchise tag provides in such a scenario. Considering the impact the 25-year-old wideout has made since the Cowboys sent the Raiders a first-round pick for him, it would be a bizarre development if he were allowed to test the market.
Dallas’ No. 1 cornerback, Byron Jones, is already a near-lock to depart, residing behind Prescott and Cooper in the team’s priority pecking order. Losing Jones and Cooper in one offseason would be a rare exodus of prime talent. A Prescott extension and Cooper franchise tag in the next three weeks are the easiest ways to avoid this.
Only one quarterback has played a season on the franchise tag over the past 14 seasons, and the Kirk Cousins-Redskins situation is not one the Cowboys should emulate. Only a few quarterbacks -– Matt Cassel in 2009, Peyton Manning and Michael Vick in 2011, Drew Brees in 2012 and Cousins in 2016 and ‘17 –- have been tagged in that span. All but Cousins signed extensions months later. Cousins bolted Washington after years of failed negotiations created a contentious relationship.
Quarterback tags also interfere with offseason business. Even if Prescott is extended later this offseason, an exclusive franchise tag would take up nearly half of Dallas’ available cap space when free agency opens. The Eagles and Rams established the blueprint for the 2016 quarterback class. Carson Wentz’s four-year, $128 million pact with the Eagles and Jared Goff’s four-year, $134M re-up with the Rams contained $107M and $110M in total guarantees, respectively -– the NFL’s top two figures. Prescott is not demonstrably better than either, but the former fourth-round pick has proven more willing to wait for the right deal. The Cowboys letting the negotiation move into Month 14 increases Prescott’s leverage.
The Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes extension will change the market, and a new CBA –- with the subsequent monstrous new TV deals potentially generating bigger cap spikes over the life of it –- will give Team Dak a clearer picture of the NFL’s next financial landscape. Even if it requires the Russell Wilson $35M-per-year rate to end this standoff, that would be preferable to the alternative of Prescott playing on the tag this season and his price rising considerably thanks to the prospect of a 2021 tag (at 120% of his 2020 salary) costing Dallas upwards of $39M.
None of this is good for the Cowboys, who are set to overpay an upper-middle-class passer. Such is life on the modern quarterback market. But to avoid a chain reaction hijacking their chances of returning to the Super Bowl contender tier, the Cowboys must extend Prescott before the tag window closes in March.
Sign him: He has produced since Day 1
MICHAEL NANIA: Opening up a hole at quarterback at a time like this would be extremely imprudent, so if I were Jerry Jones, I'd sign Prescott ASAP. Finding a franchise quarterback in this league is difficult. Of the 68 quarterbacks drafted from 2010-15, only one is a surefire lock to start in 2020 for the team that drafted him: Russell Wilson of the Seahawks. As for free agency, the Cowboys probably would have to go with a cheap option due to the many lucrative deals they will be handing out to other players on their roster. Do they really want a chase a championship with a cheap journeyman, reclamation project or one of the free-agent QBs at the tail end of his career?
Prescott has produced at a high level for the Cowboys from Day 1. Among the 28 quarterbacks with at least 1,000 pass attempts since 2016, Prescott ranks ninth in yards per attempt (7.6) and 10th in passer rating (97.0). Since 2000, only two quarterbacks have posted a better passer rating versus league average over their first four seasons than Prescott (minimum 50 starts): Ben Roethlisberger and Russell Wilson. Most importantly, the Cowboys' offense has thrived under his stewardship. Dallas has ranked third, 10th, 24th and second in offensive DVOA over Prescott's four seasons at the helm (average rank 9.8, seventh best over span). As a team, the Cowboys own the sixth-best point differential (+265), seventh-best record (40-24) and ninth-best scoring average (24.2) since 2016.
Is Prescott's supporting cast responsible for much of that? Of course. The Cowboys have made life easier for Prescott with an elite offensive line, a workhorse running back and a solid collection of pass-catching weapons. In 2019, Dallas provided Prescott with the league's third-most efficient run game (by DVOA) as well as Pro Football Focus' fourth-ranked offensive line and fifth-ranked receiving corps. Prescott gets as much support as any other quarterback in the NFL, and that is the argument against giving him a massive extension. I
But the Cowboys would not be paying Prescott to be the best quarterback in the league or to even be elite. They would be paying for certainty. We know they can score a ton of points and win a ton of games with Prescott. The bottom line: When you a find an above-average quarterback who has proven multiple times he can lead an elite offense and team, you keep him.
-- Michael Nania
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