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Zeke is a bigger priority than Dak and Amari for the Cowboys, some NFL execs say - wrongly

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Some front office types display very poor understanding of the situation in Dallas.

NFL: NFC Wild Card-Seattle Seahawks at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

I have tried to get out of the “dueling article” business. What I am referring to is when someone writes an article concerning the Dallas Cowboys that seems so wrong, that I feel compelled to do a response pointing out the vacuity of their points. Those are not really productive, and can lead to some hard feelings. So it has been a while. But just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.

This time, the topic is the priority list for Dallas to get contract extensions done with the big three, Dak Prescott, Amari Cooper, and Ezekiel Elliott. The article that demanded my attention was from the Saturday morning news links, so I’m blaming Cole Patterson for including it. The title of the piece: Execs Say Ezekiel Elliott Must Be Top Priority for Dallas over Prescott, Cooper.

The assertion is that three (anonymous) NFL execs were asked how they thought the Cowboys should approach the situation, and all said Elliott was the most important one to get done. After reading it, I do wish they had been willing to go on the record, because their conclusions seem remarkably ill-informed. The author didn’t do much better, jumping to a patently false conclusion with his introductory paragraph.

The question was a simple one: Of the three Cowboys stars in quarterback Dak Prescott, running back Ezekiel Elliott and receiver Amari Cooper, which one do you prioritize paying, since it’s difficult (virtually impossible) to pay all three top-dollar?

I’m not the only one who is very frustrated by that kind of assertion. Just recently, Patrik “No C” Walker put up an excellent post at 247 Sports detailing the myths about the cap situation for the Cowboys. It is worth reading, especially if you get into similar arguments about the subject. Here is his basic conclusion (out of respect for the quality of his work, I will not repeat his calculations so he can get some well-deserved clicks).

In dissecting the current and future cap numbers, the roster and subsequent attrition +/- additions, willing team-friendly deals from veterans (ex: Jason Witten, Sean Lee, etc.), how the Cowboys conduct spring business and market values on respective players — it’s as laughable as it is odd to still hear the PTSD-style narrative of “cap hell” as it relates to Dallas.

It is absolutely possible for the team to pay all three of the top targets in extensions, and more players besides. That casual conclusion that it is “virtually impossible” repeats a very lazy meme that will not die. And Walker is far from the only one to explain, in varying amounts of detail, just how false the meme is. The staff at DallasCowboys.com, Mike Fisher, K.D. Drummond, and our own DannyPhantom have all done good work on the topic. (Here’s the link for Danny’s latest.) Chalk the opposite conclusions reached in the article in question up to lazy reporting and a lack of understanding of the cap. That does not make it any less maddening.

The offending article also leaves out a salient point. There is a need to get Prescott and Cooper done this year, because it is the last on their current contracts. The team naturally exercised the fifth-year option for Elliott, so he is under contract for 2020. It ahs been reported that the team does not intend to work out an extension with him until next offseason, and that Elliott and his agent are OK with that. Zeke certainly has given no hints that he would do something like hold out this year. The recent experience of Le’Veon Bell may be part of that, but more likely getting first-round money on his rookie deal is the real factor. In any case, from the perspective of timing, the priority for the team is clearly on Prescott and Cooper. Rushing to do Elliott now would not be smart management.

The unnamed executives also said some things about Prescott and Cooper that are highly questionable. To his credit, the author makes clear that these are not opinions he necessarily shares. Taking them one at a time:

Prescott is good, and talented, but he won’t ever be great (their view, not mine).

Based, you have to wonder, on what? The bad stretch he had from the beatdown he took against the Atlanta Falcons in 2017 until the arrival of Cooper last year seems to stand out for those execs. It is also likely that they are still influenced by the pre-draft view of Prescott. After all, none of them were involved in getting him, so maybe it is sour grapes.

But Prescott was markedly better once Cooper arrived, and he has claimed that he made a significant leap with his processing and vision at about the same time. There is of course no assurance that he will become one of the elites. Neither is there any real way to state just what his ceiling is after only three years in the league.

Cooper is good, and talented, but it’s still easier to find receivers with his capabilities in the draft, and they’d be cheaper (their view, not mine).

That is completely unsupported by the recent history of wide receivers taken in the draft. It is the exact opposite of the conclusions the Dallas staff came to in deciding to trade for Cooper. Given how well that move worked out, logic would suggest that the Cowboys have a better handle on this than the critics.

There is also a belief expressed about the relative value of the three to the Dallas offense.

It is Elliott who makes Prescott and Cooper, not the other way around.

Again, this is somewhat surprising because of how teams value quarterbacks, but the general belief of these executives—and this is key—is that Elliott is the only one of the Dallas trio who can truly consistently create his own offense, and do so in a spectacular way.

This opens the door to the entire discussion of the real value of running backs in the league. Elliott is seen in the article as a transformational player who is impossible to replace.

Yet last season, we saw ample evidence that Elliott could not always create his own offense. Scott Linehan lost his job to a large degree because of how often he would put Elliott in a difficult situation behind a compromised offensive line, in a formation and personnel package that announced to the defense that a run was coming. It failed too many times.

While there is still a lot of disagreement with the concept, the idea being put forth lately is that running backs offer less return on investment than quarterbacks and top receivers. That is independent of the relative ability of the backs. You simply cannot get as much expected payoff handing the ball off as you can throwing it. Elliott is clearly a highly valuable weapon in the right situation, but that does not mean that the success of the passing game is reliant on him. Part of the hope generated by Kellen Moore as Linehan’s replacement is that he will do exactly the opposite, use the threat of the pass to open up the running game.

While Cooper is more of a valid argument when trying to compare priorities, it is not a comparison that holds up when you try to look at the quarterback. If you have a true franchise quarterback - and the Cowboys have made it clear that they deem Prescott to be exactly that - you pay him first. Always. And you pay the going market rate. Forget arguments about just how dominant a given player is. The Cowboys may still build their scheme around the run, but nothing works if the quarterback is not right. Prescott is the one player of the three they have to get signed, and waiting until after this season just makes him more expensive.

That article that spurred this one was riddled with fallacies of logic and fact. Most significantly, it brings into question the abilities of team executives across the league. If even a small sample size can make such ludicrous claims, it is no wonder some teams seem permanently mired in mediocrity.

The Cowboys have their priorities straight. If outsiders can’t see it, it doesn’t matter. Hopefully, Dallas will prove just how wrong those bad takes are.