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Cowboys quarterback roster review: Dallas has decisions to make beyond Dak Prescott’s contract

While all the chatter right now is about Dak Prescott’s contract, the next two spots on the QB depth chart may be where real change occurs.

Washington Commanders v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

While still in its infancy, the 2024 offseason began for the Dallas Cowboys sometime during the first half of their one-and-done playoff loss to the Green Bay Packers. We were already thinking about coaching changes, free agency, and the draft by halftime. So, why wait to start digging into our position previews?

We begin at quarterback, where all three of Dak Prescott, Cooper Rush, and Trey Lance could be in for some significant changes. While Prescott will still have his job next season, what lies beyond is up in the air entering the final year of his current deal. Meanwhile, Rush may not even get a chance to compete for the backup role if he becomes a salary cap casualty.

QBs Under Contract for 2024

  • Dak Prescott - $59.5 million cap hit
  • Cooper Rush - $2.9 million cap hit
  • Trey Lance - $5.3 million cap hit

Again, barring an absolute stunner of a trade, Prescott will be back as the starting quarterback next year. How Dallas manages his contract, with an almost untenable $59.5 million cap hit currently scheduled for 2024, will tell us everything about their feelings regarding his long-term future. They can mortgage the future to create more flexibility now, but that means extending their commitment to Prescott as the one to lead them to a championship.

Even if the Cowboys are ready to explore other options at quarterback, they’ll have to wait a year to move on from Prescott and still field a competitive team. Making Prescott a June 1st cut this spring would still leave $25 million in dead money on this year’s cap and defer $36 million to 2025. That’s a huge burden to carry, plus you don’t have a clear replacement or the resources to find one quickly. The decision to keep Mike McCarthy around suggests they’re not looking to rebuild just yet, so dumping Prescott would be inconsistent with that move.

A victim of Prescott’s contract may be his backup. While Cooper Rush’s $2.9 million cap hit isn’t bad for a veteran QB2, it’s now bumping up against the salary surge in Trey Lance’s deal. Dallas picked up Lance’s rookie deal when they traded for him last year, and the fourth year of that contract jumps Lance’s cap hit from $940k in 2023 to $5.3 million if he’s on the 2024 roster.

While the Cowboys did give up a fourth-round pick to acquire Lance from the 49ers, that doesn’t necessarily guarantee he will make the 2024 roster. While we didn’t get to see the former third-overall pick in action last year, Dallas had him for a full season of practices, meetings, and other observational opportunities. If they didn’t like what they saw, they could cut Lance with just a little over $1 million in dead money and avoid a $4.3 million roster bonus.

If Lance returns, it’s hard to see Dallas then also keeping Rush at his current cap figure. They can get $2.25 million in cap relief if Rush is released or traded. Keeping him and Lance would mean having over $8 million of your cap tied up in backup quarterbacks alone; not practical given other issues.

Given Rush’s tenure in Dallas and rumored future in coaching, perhaps they work out a pay cut that allows him to stick around as QB3 and remain part of the room. But if the Cowboys are going to hang on to Lance at over $5 million a year, it has to come with a move up the depth chart to not look utterly foolish.

If Rush does get released, QB3 will likely go to some Day 3 draft pick or a veteran journeyman on a minimal contract. Dallas already has the present and future accounted for with Prescott and Lance, at least theoretically, so throwing another body at the position right now wouldn’t make much sense.

But, What If...

Before we go, let’s just play around with the idea that Dak Prescott gets released or traded this offseason. Keep in mind that he has a no-trade clause in his contract, so Prescott would have to approve of whatever deal Dallas tried to make. Again, we don’t think either of these things are actually happening, but what might the Cowboys do if they did?

If there’s one thing that 2023 taught us, it’s that some veteran quarterbacks can be competitive while offering massive cap savings. Joe Flacco emerged like the Undertaker out of a coffin and helped lead the Cleveland Browns to the playoffs. He only cost them $2.5 million this year. Baker Mayfield, another scrap heap signing, helped get Tampa Bay to the second round of the playoffs at just $4 million for the year.

What if Mike McCarthy could convince the Jones boys that he could win with a guy like that? If there is a thought of eating Prescott’s dead money now and moving on, maybe signing a guy like Ryan Tannehill or Gardner Minshew helps them feel more comfortable about not totally throwing in the towel. Or for that matter, what about just handing the keys to Trey Lance for a year?

Again, we’re not saying any of this will or even should happen. But you can at least see how there’s a backdrop for Dallas to make a drastic change at quarterback, based on what other teams accomplished with bargain-priced passers in 2023. The likelihood may be one out of a million, but that means there’s still a chance.

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