Dallas Cowboys officials met with Todd France, quarterback Dak Prescott's agent, last week in Indianapolis while the NFL combine was taking place. It was the first meeting between the two sides since last September. Dallas reportedly made an offer in the $33 million per year neighborhood last year before talks ceased. Other key elements of the offer, such as contract length, cash flow, and full guarantees, aren't known. It is believed the offer contained between $100 million and $105 million of guarantees.

The Cowboys would prefer to sign Prescott to a new contract before the March 12th deadline for teams to name franchise and transition players. Absent a new deal, the Cowboys reportedly intend to use an exclusive franchise tag on Prescott. Once given the designation, the Cowboys would have until 4 p.m ET on July 15th to sign Prescott to a new deal. If an agreement cannot be reached by this date, Dallas would be prohibited from signing Prescott to a multi-year contract until the 2020 regular season ends. 

In order to get a deal done sooner rather than later, the Cowboys may have to deviate from some of their contract conventions.

Cowboys' preferred contract length vs. high-end QB deals

The Cowboys are accustomed to doing lucrative deals where players sign for at least five new years. Offensive linemen Travis Frederick, Zack Martin and Tyron Smith signed six-year, six-year and eight-year contract extensions (new years), respectively. Offensive tackle La'el Collins and linebacker Jaylon Smith were given five-year and six-year extensions last preseason. Running back Ezekiel Elliott received a six-year extension shortly before the regular season started to end his lengthy holdout. The last big quarterback deal the Cowboys did was Tony Romo in 2013. Romo's extension was for six years. Since there was time remaining on these deals when signed, the shortest duration for any of the contracts is six years. 

The recent trend is high-end quarterback deals have been shorter than what Dallas would prefer. In 2018, the quarterback market started making a dramatic jump when Jimmy Garoppolo signed a five-year deal to remain with the 49ers. Kirk Cousins got the first lucrative fully guaranteed veteran contract with the three-year deal he received from the Vikings. Matt Ryan became the NFL's first $30 million per year player on his five-year extension with the Falcons. Finally, Aaron Rodgers replaced Ryan as the league's highest-paid player when he signed a four-year extension with the Packers.

Russell Wilson got the ball rolling last year. His four-year extension with the Seahawks averaging $35 million per year became the NFL's new salary benchmark. The Steelers gave Ben Roethlisberger a two-year extension averaging $34 million per year making him the NFL's second-highest-paid player. Jared Goff and Carson Wentz, the first two picks in the 2016 NFL draft, signed four-year extensions averaging $33.5 million per year and $32 million per year respectively with the Rams and Eagles. The average length for these eight quarterback deals is 3.875 new years.

Length of contract may be a bigger sticking point than money in the Prescott negotiations especially in light of a potential new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA). Conventional wisdom suggests that there will be the simple majority needed for approval.

The NFL will focus on new television and broadcast contracts if labor peace is achieved. There should be a substantial increase in the rights fees for NFL games with the eventual addition of a 17th regular season game and two more teams being added to the playoffs. The NFLPA anticipates there will be significant salary cap growth once a 17th game is added sometime between 2021 and 2023. 

How the exclusive franchise tag works

It's hard to imagine Prescott's agent would give a lengthy contract serious consideration with a changing economic landscape on the horizon. A franchise tag seems inevitable unless Dallas is willing to be flexible with the length of Prescott's contract. Quarterbacks are typically given the exclusive version of the franchise tag.

Prescott would receive a one year offer from the Cowboys that is the greater of the average of the top five quarterback salaries once the restricted free agent signing period of the 2020 league year has ended on April 17th or 120 percent of his prior year's salary under the exclusive designation. For franchise tag purposes, salary means a player's salary cap number, excluding workout bonuses and most other performance bonuses. The non-exclusive number, which projects to $27.067 million with a $200 million 2020 salary cap, would be used initially as a placeholder and adjusted upwards if the exclusive calculation dictates once restricted free agency ends. Prescott would be prohibited from soliciting offer sheets from other teams with the exclusive franchise tag.

The 2020 exclusive figure was projecting to $33.229 million before the Falcons, Packers and Lions restructured Ryan, Rodgers and Matthew Stafford's contracts to create 2020 cap room as the end of the 2019 regular season was approaching. It is currently projected to be $31.509 million and is subject to further change. It is being derived from the following quarterbacks.

Player Salary (Modified 2020 Cap Number)

  • Jared Goff:  $36,042,682
  • Ben Roethlisberger: $33,500,000
  • Kirk Cousins:  $31,000,004
  • Russell Wilson: $31,000,000
  • Jimmy Garoppolo: $26,000,000

Implications of the exclusive franchise tag

A practical consequence of a franchise tag is the designation can help shape a player's financial expectations. A second franchise tag in 2021 at a 20 percent increase over Prescott's 2020 franchise number would be just under $38 million. A third and final franchise tag in 2022 with a 44 percent increase over the 2021 figure would be pretty steep. It would be a little less than $54.5 million.

Although a player hasn't been designated three times since the three franchise tag limitation was implemented in the 2006 CBA, this fact may not stop France from using the prospect of Prescott being franchised multiple times as justification for seeking a deal averaging significantly more than Wilson's $35 million per year especially if Dallas is insistent on a lengthy deal. Prescott would make just over $123.75 million with three straight franchise tags.

A lot of unsigned franchise and transition players skip voluntary and mandatory team offseason activities while they aren't under contract to try to pressure the team into meeting their financial demands. A designated player can't participate in offseason workouts anyway without signing a player contract or a participation agreement for the tendered amount protecting him in case of an injury.

Participation agreements are rarely signed.

Franchise and transition players without an NFL player contract can't be fined for missing the mandatory June minicamp or training camp. Their attendance isn't required because of the absence of a signed contract. Unsigned players aren't withholding services they are contractually obligated to perform. It remains to be seen whether Prescott would adopt this approach.

There also wouldn't be much incentive for Prescott to quickly sign a long term deal. France could wait to see whether there's a resolution with 2018 NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes, who is eligible to sign an extension with the Chiefs, before the July 15 deadline for franchise players to sign multi-year contracts unless Dallas was willing to meet his price. Mahomes is potentially the NFL's first $40 million per year player. Doing Prescott after a Mahomes contract is in the market place would probably force the Cowboys to pay Prescott more than it would without the existence of his new deal.

Three-year deal considerations

Dallas is going to need to recognize that leverage has shifted in Prescott's favor after he successfully incurred the risk of injury and poor performance while playing out his rookie contract. A short-term deal wouldn't be ideal for Dallas but may be better than the potential alternatives of more protracted negotiations or Prescott eventually deciding to play the franchise tag game as Cousins did with the Redskins. Cousins embracing the franchise tag during the 2016 and 2017 seasons led to him getting a groundbreaking three-year, $84 million fully guaranteed contract (worth a maximum of $90 million through incentives), which at the time made him the league's highest-paid player, in 2018 free agency.

France could decide to push for a three-year deal because of the leverage factor along with the franchise tag dynamics and other previously mentioned considerations. For a three-year deal to be a feasible concept, a new CBA would need to be approved by the players so that some of the unique salary cap rules in the final year of the current CBA, such as the 30 percent rule limiting annual increases in contracts, wouldn't be applicable.

France would likely have to be willing to concede that Prescott wouldn't become the league's highest-paid player on a three-year deal. The average yearly salary of the five highest-paid quarterbacks, which is approximately $33.5 million, might be an appropriate ballpark. The Cowboys would be receiving over a $20 million discount in cash compared to going year-to-year with three franchise tags. It wouldn't make sense either from the Cowboys' standpoint unless they are getting a break on the 2020 and 2021 salary cap numbers relative to the franchise tags for these years ($31.509 million and $37,810,800). Prescott's two-year cash flow would also need to be less than the $69.3 million he would stand to make from being franchise tagged in consecutive years.

The most player-friendly three year deals structurally signed by non-quarterbacks in recent years (wide receiver DeSean Jackson: Buccaneers, defensive back Kareem Jackson: Broncos, offensive guard T.J. Lang: Lions and wide receiver Sammy Watkins: Chiefs), typically have between 35 percent and 40 percent of the total cash in the first year. Upwards to 70 percent of the deal's cash is through the second year. 

Between 60 percent and 70 percent of these deals were guaranteed. Essentially, the first two years were fully guaranteed at signing. Cousins had to hit the open market in order to get a fully guaranteed contract. France insisting on one would likely be a bridge too far. A substantial part of the third year or 2022 compensation becoming fully guaranteed in 2021 wouldn't be an unreasonable demand considering Prescott is a quarterback.

Final thoughts

There probably aren't a lot of scenarios where France would accept a deal longer than four years. I'm not sure what type of premium Dallas could offer France so Prescott wouldn't have an expiring contract as a 30-year-old at the latest. Offering to include a clause where Prescott couldn't be designated as a franchise or transition player when his contract was up after the 2024 season might be something for Dallas to consider proposing.

If representing Prescott, I would insist on a three-year deal for as long as reasonably practicable. At that point, I would attempt to characterize a willingness to consider "the right" four-year deal as a monumental concession where becoming the league's highest player (Wilson: $35 million per year) with records for overall guarantees (Goff: $110,042,682) and the amount fully guaranteed at signing (Ryan: $94.5 million) would be requirements. Without Dallas willing to do these things, I would advise Prescott to wait for Mahomes to dramatically change the quarterback market and start playing the franchise tag game if necessary.