Dak Prescott enters the new season as the top ranked free agent in the league and for good reason. During his last two years, which consists of just 21 games due to his injury-shortened 2020 season, Prescott has helped the Cowboys offense rack up 9,344 total yards. That’s tops in the league during that time window.
Four's are wild! In the games he's played over the past two seasons, Dak Prescott has led this Cowboys offense to a league-best 444 yards per game. pic.twitter.com/2NHCJcZVMO— Dan Rogers (@DannyPhantom24) January 23, 2021
In a league where having a good quarterback is so vital to the success of your team, the Cowboys have been extremely fortunate to see this 2016 fourth-round draft pick turn out to be as good as he is. And with so many teams struggling to find their quarterback, it only further emphasizes the importance of Prescott to this organization. That is why many fans are befuddled by the front office’s inability to get Dak signed to a long-term deal.
As more time passes, more frustration grows as it becomes more and more clear that Prescott is, without question, this team’s quarterback. Even Jerry Jones himself has come out and said, “I don’t know how you could have any more leverage,” which brings up the $40 million dollar question - why hasn’t Prescott been re-signed?
While we have debated this issue to ad nauseam, the one thing that is clear in this hold up is that this is all about the money. Dak and his agent want to get the most money they can, and the Joneses want to save as much money as they can to keep a larger piece of the pie available so they can afford enough good players to bring home a Super Bowl title. However, the longer this thing drags out, the more money it costs the Cowboys as the cost for Prescott’s services continues to go up.
On the surface, it just seems like a complete mishandling of the cap to not get his deal done already, but is that really the case? Is there a scenario we’re all missing where the front office is more on top of this than we realize?
In this article, we are going to throw a few things on the table, and then again ask that same question. There is definitely a method to their madness, but we just can’t figure out what it is. Today, we’re going to give it our best go. Let’s begin.
The rolling cap window
One thing we shouldn’t lose sight of is that the most important element of a player’s cost is the percentage of the cap they use up. So while we see new players become the highest paid player at their respective positions all the time, this is attributed to the ever-growing salary cap. And yes, COVID has thrown a wrench into things, and we’ll get to that later, but it’s important to understand that from year to year there’s a pretty linear relationship between a player’s cost relative the salary cap that season. That is why contracts are deliberately structured in a way that increases their base salary as they progress through the contract.
For example, Matthew Stafford became the highest paid quarterback four years ago at $27 million per season. There are now 11 quarterbacks who make an average annual salary higher than Stafford. One of those quarterbacks is Russell Wilson, who became the highest paid quarterback a couple years ago at $35 million annually. He has since been passed by two other quarterbacks - Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson. And while all those bigger values are great for commanding headlines, it should be noted that both Wilson and Stafford’s 2021 cap hits are 18% of their team’s total cap.
If you look around the league at most quarterbacks with second contracts, you’ll find similar figures (Wentz = 18%, Goff = 19%). There may be some variances from year to year depending on how the contract was structured that will skew those percentages a bit, but in reality, that’s the going rate of a franchise quarterback. When Aaron Rodgers signed his five-year, $110 million deal way back in 2013 for an average of just $22 million a year, the cap back then was just $123 million. $22 million divided by $123 million equates to 17.8% of the total salary cap.
So, if we’re to chime in on whether or not a quarterback is “too expensive” or a “bargain” the first order of business to question what percentage of the cap are they taking up? While we’re inclined to say Jerry’s delay in getting Prescott signed is going to end up costing the Cowboys more money, we must ask ourselves, is it really? It certainly may seem that way on the surface, but the rolling window of the salary cap may say otherwise.
Playing through the contract is what matters
If a team can see the value of a player early and sign them to an extension sooner versus later, great. However, those decisions come with huge risks/rewards. When those risks pay off handsomely (Tyron Smith), we applaud the organization. When they don’t, we criticize them. And while we would like to Cowboys front office to get everything right, that’s just unrealistic.
While those preemptive signings can provide a team savings, the goal of every long-term second contract is get good production throughout the duration of the contract. For example, let’s say a quarterback, we’ll call him Arson Pence, signed a contract extension despite still having two years remaining on his rookie deal. His team, we’ll call them the Beagles, thought they were clever by getting ahead of the game and extending him early. Fast forward to now when that original rookie deal would finally be up, the Beagles have recently benched him in favor of another quarterback, despite Pence still having four years left on his extension. The Beagles are now faced with either riding out their $128 million investment or absorbing a $60 million dead money hit should they move away from him. That is a very bad position to be in.
On the other hand, if a team waits it out long enough to find themselves a proven talent who performs year in and year out, then they stand a much better chance to get full value of that second contract. So, while saving a few million here and there is nice, not having to eat a lucrative dead money hit is even nicer.
No harm in waiting
If we concede that a rolling cap window offsets a player’s rising “cost” and that securing a “sure thing” is monumental, then what harm has the Cowboys front office done in waiting? Conversely, look what they’ve gained. They’ve seen what he can do with good pieces around him. They’ve seen what he can do with an up-and-coming offensive coordinator in Kellen Moore. We can all sit on our couches and say “well, we’ve known for a long time that Dak’s the real deal,” but if the Cowboys organization needed to see certain growth before they invested a huge amount of money in him, we shouldn’t have a problem with that.
Prescott did regress during his sophomore season, and this league has seen far too many one-hit wonders fizzle out after defenses figure out their strengths. But since then, Dak has gotten better each year. This is not to say the Cowboys organization has had any real doubt about Prescott’s ability, but they also know that are afforded the luxury of letting things play out.
Finally, it’s worth mentioning what the timing of when Dak actually signs his new deal could benefit the Cowboys. The front office was well away of the looming cap situation brought upon by COVID and the absence of revenue from the 2020 season. Having a discounted cap hit that comes from the first year of a new contract will be extremely helpful in trying to navigate around the financial constraints of the upcoming season.
Additionally, when the new TV deals are negotiated next year, it is presumed that we’ll see a significant jump in the salary cap. The longer the Cowboys can have Prescott signed after the sudden spike in cap space, the longer Prescott’s new salary will take up a smaller percentage of the team’s salary cap. This is one of the reasons contract talks stalled out as they couldn’t agree on the length. The front office wanted a longer deal, whereas Prescott and his agent wanted to a year less to get back on the bigger market at a younger age.
The Cowboys firmly believe in Prescott as their quarterback for the future, so any anger stemming from the notion that they’ll end up losing him should be swept under the rug for now. And while it’s easy to villainize the front office for not signing Prescott yet, they’re thinking about the team as a whole. Dak and his agent are perfectly in their right to acquire as much money as they can, but it’s not their place to worry about what’s best for the team. This delay, while frustrating for us fans, still has a chance to result in more money for Prescott as well as ultimately giving the Cowboys more cap space to work with down the stretch.