While the main focus of our attention is on the search for a new defensive coordinator to replace Dan Quinn, now head coach of the Washington Commanders, we never quit looking for signposts about what the Dallas Cowboys are going to do in a very uncertain year. Mike McCarthy is now a lame duck head coach, and many of the current assistants also are in the last year of their contracts, which could lead to a large exodus on the defensive side, many perhaps to follow Quinn to Washington. There are also the somewhat unspecific comments by owner and general manager Jerry Jones about being “all in” for this year to muddy the picture.
In a conversation with our managing editor Dave Halprin, he mentioned one thing that might tell us more than anything else about what the team is up to: How they handle Dak Prescott’s contract. It made a ton of sense to me. Here’s why.
As with so many decisions the team makes, this starts with the salary cap. According to Over the Cap, they are currently about $20 million in the hole as the start of the league year approaches. Prescott’s contract can be manipulated to create more cap space than any other, although his will not be the only one they have to work on. They are going to need space as they have several of their own free agents to consider re-signing, such as Tyron Smith. But there are two things they can do with Prescott. The one most commonly addressed is to extend him. Like McCarthy, Prescott is in the final year of his current deal, with a huge cap hit for this season. The most commonly discussed thing is to extend him. That would generate over $26 million in space. It is a logical step to take with the franchise quarterback.
There is a big assumption there, however, and you all know the old saying about those. That is the commitment of the management to Prescott as the QB to help this team break through the playoff barrier that has instead repeatedly broken them. Just like with McCarthy, there is a valid question as to whether he is the one to do it. In many of the critical losses during the past few seasons, Prescott has frankly flopped. He is an outstanding human being, as evidenced by being a recipient of the Walter Payton Man of the Year award. But the evidence is lacking that he is able to bring consistently high level play to the field when the team needs it the most. Extending him with what will be a huge new per year salary ties the team to him for more years.
They don’t have to go that route. They can also do one more restructure that will increase his dead money hit for a few years, but that has not been a deterrent in the past. That will still net nearly $22 million in space and leave them much more flexibility. It would put Prescott in a position to prove he is the quarterback they need.
That comes with a couple of obvious questions. If they do not extend him, he will be a free agent after this year. The NFL is a quarterback hungry league, with many teams far from satisfied with their current options. Prescott’s issues might not deter some of those from making big offers. There have been many cases of QBs who had their struggles with one team, but found success with a change of scenery and coaching. The most recent example is Jared Goff, who led the Detroit Lions to the NFC championship - an achievement that has eluded Dallas for decades, and is thought to be the make or break for McCarthy this year. It may be for Prescott as well.
If that is the case, it will demand even more from Prescott this year, because the price tag should be huge given the market for quarterbacks of any talent at all. A willingness to move on is implied if the choice is to restructure rather than extend.
That is the second big question. What is the plan for replacing Prescott if needed? This is where Dave dropped a thought that is likely to set a few people off. This may be exactly why they acquired Trey Lance.
I’ll give some of you a moment to regain your composure.
Consider this: Why did they spend draft capital to trade for Lance? He was cheap last year as a backup, but in 2024, he has a $5.3 million salary and cap hit. That is pricey for a very unproven backup. It is also the final year of Lance’s contract. This is his one chance to prove himself. Remember, he was not brought in until late in camp last year, so the team has not had much of an evaluation of him. This will be his first real offseason with the Cowboys.
But they still must have thought there was something there to make the move. It was a bit mystifying at the time. Still, Dallas’ track record in talent evaluation earns them credibility if they think there is real potential with him. And as mentioned, coaches often think they can get more out of players than their previous staffs could. While Lance’s status as a former number three overall pick is one of the things the team values, there seems to be more behind this.
A lot obviously depends on Lance’s performance in training camp and especially the three preseason games, where Lance will get his most intense evaluation. If he does well, the idea of him being the alternative to Prescott after the 2024 season starts to seem more tangible.
All this is going to be driven by what they do with Prescott. Going with a restructure would keep those options open. And they could still extend Prescott later in the season if he is agreeable. Extending Prescott rather than restructuring would tip their hand as wanting to stick with the veteran for the foreseeable future.
In one sense, an extension would provide some clarity for the Cowboys. A restructure comes with more uncertainty, but hints at a major shakeup at the quarterback position as well as the coaching staff if 2024 goes poorly. Given that anything short of getting to the conference round of the playoffs will be another major disappointment, that may be far more likely than many thought.