Every soap opera of an NFL offseason has a star, and this year, the star-crossed lovers of Dak Prescott and the Dallas Cowboys took center stage. Far apart on negotiations for the entire summer, Jerry Jones and the Prescott camp consumed headlines even up to the start of the season.
And when the season began? Prescott was the only good thing about a Cowboys team many anticipated would compete in the NFC. The young secondary took no steps forward; the linebackers continue to regress; a surge of veterans on the defensive line bore no fruit save for Aldon Smith—Everson Griffen has already been passed off for a conditional Day 3 selection. The offensive line is unrecognizable to the casual viewer, decimated by injuries; big-money running back Ezekiel Elliott contributes more fumbles than he does receptions; and the wide receivers… well, they’re still really good.
But the Cowboys went 2-3 through five games, Prescott’s talent their sole buoy on a tempestuous roster with a rudderless captain at the helm. Then Prescott got hurt: a gut-wrenching ankle injury against the New York Giants that all but removed the Cowboys from even NFC East contention, as backup quarterback Andy Dalton and now third-stringer Ben DiNucci cannot replicate Prescott’s saving grace.
When Prescott was hurt, the offseason’s refrain rang once again: what would happen with Dak Prescott contract negotiations? Only secured on the franchise tag through the end of the 2020 season, Prescott would cost $37.7M on another franchise tag in 2021—an imposing figure for the cap-strapped Cowboys, who still have the option of securing Prescott on a long-term deal to keep his 2021 figure down. That conversation was already muddied before Prescott’s injury; afterward, Cowboys owner and acting general manager Jerry Jones insisted that Prescott’s value hasn’t changed and that they were still bullish on signing Prescott to a long-term contract.
Of course, Jones was bullish on that massive deal before last offseason as well. So go the best-laid plans of mice and men.
Prescott’s injury, and his subsequent return to health potentially affecting the Cowboys’ confidence in his long-term projection, is one thing. The Cowboys playing dreadful football is another. ESPN’s FPI currently considers Dallas as more likely to land inside the top five of the 2021 NFL Draft order (52.3%) than to land outside of it; they have the Cowboys as the third-worst team in the NFL, behind only the New York Jets and Jacksonville Jaguars. Of course, the Cowboys have as many wins as anyone else in the NFC East—but beyond their four remaining divisional games, they play the Steelers, Vikings, Ravens, Bengals, and 49ers. Their contests against the Football Team (Week 12 on Thursday Night Football) and the Giants (Week 17 in New York) could be deciding games in the race for a top-five selection.
When you have a top-five pick, one of two things will happen: you’ll either get calls about trading back with a team who needs a quarterback… or you’ll pick a quarterback yourself.
The idea that the Cowboys could select a quarterback seems ludicrous now because the reality of their potential top-five selection has only just dawned—they’re still licking the fresh wounds of their 25-3 trouncing at the hands of Washington, and still faintly glimmering with hope of a win over the division-leading Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday Night Football this week.
Not one month ago, Prescott looked like a player deserving of the Deshaun Watson contract; no team would willingly let that player walk. But once you’re holding on to that precious top-five selection, the landscape shifts. It, much like the $37M in cap space you’ve yet to give over to Prescott, is currently in your grasp—you’ve suffered through and survived the dreadful season that produced this gleaming silver lining. You don’t get one of these often; you don’t expect to have another one any time soon.
Let’s put a name to that pick; make it even more real. That is the Justin Fields pick. Justin Fields. The consensus five-star recruit, the two-year Ohio State starter, back-to-back Big Ten champion (we’re dreaming here, stick with me), undefeated in conference play, Heisman finalist in two consecutive seasons, the college player most reminiscent of Cam Newton since Cam Newton. When you picked Prescott in the fourth round, you weren’t expecting a franchise-changer—and because you didn’t pay him last year, you clearly aren’t 100% sold that he is one. But Fields? The only reason Fields is available is because he happens to be in the same class as Trevor Lawrence, but he could be just as good as Lawrence, just as dangerous. He is a franchise-changer for sure—and he’s much cheaper than Prescott is.
The allure is undeniable. When we get down to brass tacks, is there substance behind the shine?
There is no denying that the decision to draft instead of extending would relieve some stress on the Cowboys’ books. Projected at $27M under the 2021 cap figure without a Prescott contract signed, franchising the quarterback would force the Cowboys to generate at least $10M in space before making any other acquisitions. That’s not difficult to do, but it would require doubling down on a restructure for one of their veteran contracts, like Amari Cooper, Tyron Smith, Jaylon Smith, or Ezekiel Elliott. Given their current team construction, and those particular individual performances, the Cowboys may look to avoid that avenue altogether. Meanwhile, with a COVID-affected 2021 cap ceiling and a new CBA intermingling to concoct the rookie wage scale, a top-five pick at quarterback would likely cost only slightly more than Tua Tagovailoa’s four-year, $30M contract—that’s a $5.5M cap hit in Year 1.
The on-field caliber of quarterbacking would, at best, be a small downgrade. If the Cowboys landed a rookie playing at the caliber that Justin Herbert and Joe Burrow are currently hitting in their rookie seasons, they’d be getting Tier 2 or 3 quarterback play—Prescott was a Tier 1 player last season, and unless his mobility is hampered by his ankle injury, there is no reason to believe he would stop playing as a Tier 1 quarterback in the future. This is where the Cowboys’ internal perception of their stage of team-building comes into play.
Dallas clearly thought they were a competing team this year and made strategic decisions accordingly; will they think they’re a competing team again next year? If not, then getting younger and cheaper at quarterback could be to their long-term advantage, even if there is a substantial dropoff in play. As with all personnel decisions, this comes down to degrees of confidence. Everyone in the NFL is positive that Prescott is at least good, even if there is debate as to how good. Any draft pick—Lawrence, Fields, Trey Lance, anyone—could be better than Prescott over the next five years, but is more likely to be worse. That’s the nature of drafting college players: everything is a gamble.
The factors affecting this decision are numerous and hazy, with many too far in the future to appropriately calibrate our instruments to their impact. Will Prescott come back fully healthy? Will a new year change the tune for either side in the contract negotiations, creating more wiggle room for a middle ground? Will the coaching staff currently in Dallas even remain through this season? With one turnover often comes another in the NFL, and Lincoln Rile—I mean, the Cowboys’ new head coach could want a rookie quarterback to mold.
But with every game the Cowboys lose—and they’re going to lose most of them—the chance of them drafting a quarterback grows. The analogy to examine here is the 2011 Indianapolis Colts, who saw their franchise quarterback Peyton Manning miss the entire season after neck surgery. (Initially franchise-tagged, Manning would sign a long-term deal with the Colts after his surgery, before the 2011 season kicked off.) Those Colts went 2-14, fired their general manager team of Bill and Chris Polian, fired head coach Jim Caldwell, and cut Manning before his contract grew heavy with guaranteed money. With the first overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, the Colts selected Andrew Luck, the quarterback from Stanford.
No comparison is perfect. Manning’s neck surgery was more dangerous to his career than Prescott’s ankle projects to be, and Manning was a good eight years older than Prescott will be next offseason. It was easier to move on from him than it will be to move on from Prescott. But those 2011 Colts were so bad, it gave ownership the pick necessary to make that change without losing the fan base or forcing a long rebuild. After that turnover at head coach, general manager, and starting quarterback, the 2012 Colts made the playoffs at 11-5; Luck was a Pro Bowler.
For now, but not for much longer, the Cowboys will masquerade as salvageable. But the trade of Griffen preludes the inevitable: that the Cowboys’ season outlook is bleak, their head coach is rudderless, and their ownership finds the above truths unacceptable. A reset may be required, and all it will take is the whispering temptation of that top-five pick to force a hard conversation behind closed doors: do we want to be the idiots who had a chance at Fields and passed?
The sport’s riskiest gambit, and accordingly most powerful launchpad, awaits the Cowboys’ unprecedented 2021 offseason.