The Dallas Cowboys' 2020 season has gone from bad to worse and now teeters on the brink of disaster. The Cowboys now sit at 2-6 in a terrible NFC East and have dropped a head-to-head matchup with two division rivals in the past two weeks, falling 23-9 to Philadelphia in Week 8 after suffering a 25-3 demoralizing loss to the Washington Football Team in Week 7. As you might expect, Dallas' offense has fallen off a cliff with the injury to star quarterback Dak Prescott, who was on a record-setting pace this season in his efforts to drag the Dallas defense along for the ride this season.
But without Prescott, Dallas' defensive woes have been further exposed and a punchless offense, which has also been shredded by offensive line injuries, has no answer. The Cowboys have scored 22 points in three weeks and turned the ball over seven times in that stretch.
The 2021 offseason is going to mark significant change for the Cowboys. After the team hired veteran head coach Mike McCarthy to enter the picture and infuse some urgency into a talented roster, the expectation for the Cowboys was to win. This season. They've done everything but, and owner Jerry Jones is well known for his bold approach to running the team; so don't be surprised if Jones flushes the current infrastructure and attacks a rebuild with gusto and the expectation that Dallas, with bold changes, could be a year away from being back to contender status.
But should that materialize, how deep should the Cowboys' rebuild run? Should it fall all the way to the quarterback position, where Dallas sports a 27-year-old franchise passer in Prescott? Some of that is going to depend on where the Cowboys' 2021 NFL Draft selection falls in the first round. And should a change transpire, it isn't likely to be any damnation of Prescott but rather a necessary domino after watching the Cowboys hastily spend money to pay everyone but Prescott over the course of the past 18 months. The end result is a salary cap hell that currently features Dallas sporting more scheduled cap liabilities ($175.5M) than the expected salary cap ceiling in 2021 amid the league's revenue losses due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. And remember: Prescott was under contract this season thanks to the franchise tag; that $175.5M figure comes before Prescott is hit with a second year on the franchise tag.
If the Cowboys wanted to tag Prescott again, it would come at a cost of approximately $37.7M in 2021—for a team already over the projected cap! Even after you project the carry-over cap from 2020 (the team restructured DeMarcus Lawrence's contract in September to create nearly $12M in cap space to help bolster the team's ability to rollover leftover cap into the 2021 offseason), money is a problem; even if they can finagle the 2021 cap to fit Prescott amid the rest of the pieces.
And that is why the Cowboys must entertain the possibility of moving on from Prescott. Because if the Cowboys coveted Prescott to the degree in which they should, they'd have already committed long-term to the quarterback and made sure they'd found a way to lock in a contract extension. They haven't, all while paying the likes of running back Ezekiel Elliott, linebacker Jaylon Smith, defensive end Lawrence, offensive tackle La'el Collins, and wide receiver Amari Cooper. Some of those deals, such as Smith's and Elliott's, look to be major mistakes in spending already. They're costly signings and underperforming thus far in 2020.
You know what is cost friendly? Rookie quarterback contracts. The Miami Dolphins are on the books for just $5.5M in cap for No. 5 overall pick Tua Tagovailoa this season. Cincinnati is on the hook for $6.5M for No. 1 overall pick Joe Burrow this season: a cool $31M less than what Dallas is looking at paying Prescott for 2021 (and, unless they magically find the common ground they were missing all this past offseason in negotiations, only 2021).
But making this decision in the name of money and money alone is also a bad way to do business. The Cowboys must find the right quarterback to exchange for Prescott. If the Cowboys play their hand right, they can segue to another talented passer, return a massive load of picks for Prescott from another quarterback-hungry team, endure another painful year of living through some bad extensions before trading those costly assets away, and by 2022 this Cowboys team could be back in the saddle and ready to compete with a deeper, more well-rounded and younger roster. But without the right quarterback in striking distance, Dallas would be more wise to covet Prescott over their other assets and tear down the roster as necessary to build around him, instead.
Which quarterbacks eligible for the 2021 NFL Draft would be the right ones to make such a move?
Dak Prescott vs. Trevor Lawrence
Uh, yeah. If the Cowboys somehow navigate past the Jets and secure the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, they should absolutely pull the trigger on Lawrence and begin a re-tool and reload using the picks that they could get in return for Prescott in a tag-and-trade scenario. This is the easiest decision they'll make all offseason, should it come to life: five years of Lawrence on a rookie contract versus a second year of franchise tagging Prescott and a gaggle of draft picks. The issue? The Jets might not win a game this season, making this scenario an impossible one to wrap your head around with the Cowboys sitting at 2-6.
Dak Prescott vs. Justin Fields
This is where things get interesting. Fields can offer some of the same talents as Prescott from a physical tools perspective and isn't likely to command the No. 1 overall pick. And depending on where the rest of the draft order falls, Dallas may sniff him with a top-3 pick or so. Personally? I think you can run your offense very similarly with Fields as the Cowboys have had success attacking with Prescott—and Fields is younger, less expensive, and arguably more accurate as a quarterback. That adds up to a potential lateral move at quarterback but with peripheral benefits to the salary cap and the rest of the roster given the trade value of Prescott.
A player of Prescott's caliber being available in a tag-and-trade scenario feels fairly unprecedented in recent history, especially when you consider he was on pace to throw for more than 6,000 yards this season through four and a half games. There was plenty of time for that trajectory to plateau, but given that Dallas still owns the NFL's worst scoring defense through eight games, Prescott was inevitably going to have the sling the ball around and threaten the single-season passing yardage record.
Seriously, when was the last time a quarterback with production like Prescott's got dealt? Carson Palmer to the Raiders in 2011? Jay Cutler to the Bears in 2009? Dallas' availability of Prescott if they agree that Fields is a parallel move would break the scale for trade compensation, especially from competitive football teams looking to transition away from older quarterbacks.
Dak Prescott vs. The Rest Of The 2021 QB Class
Zach Wilson is having a hell of a college season. Trey Lance is a super toolsy prospect. Kyle Trask is having a terrific 2020 campaign. I'm not exchanging Prescott for any of the best of the rest, however. You know what you have in Prescott. He's a stud. You better be damn well certain you're getting a high-end starting caliber player to replace him if you're going to move him.
There are too many questions with the rest of the class to justify a re-tool sans Prescott in Dallas; which means the Cowboys are likely looking at the prospect of finding their way into the position to draft Fields or bust if they're going to commit to a quarterback change and attack a re-tool instead of a full-on rebuild.