Agent's Take: Here are the Cowboys' options with Dak Prescott as his rookie deal nears end
Dallas is potentially facing a dilemma, as signing the 2016 fourth-round QB to an extension may be easier said than done
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones reaffirmed his faith in Dak Prescott on Tuesday during a radio appearance with 105.3 The Fan. "I want him in the short term and the long term," he said. Jones previously announced his intention to give the quarterback a new deal hours after a home loss to the Titans on Monday Night Football, which dropped the Cowboys' record to 3-5.
Prescott's four-year rookie contract will expire after the 2019 season. He is scheduled to make approximately $2.05 million in 2019 thanks to earning the performance escalator available to third through seventh round picks in the final year of rookie contracts.
Signing the 2016 fourth-round pick to a contract extension may be a lot easier said than done. Nobody is going to confuse Prescott with the game's top young passers, such as Patrick Mahomes and Carson Wentz. One of the biggest criticisms about Prescott is he misses too many throws because of his inconsistent accuracy as a passer. Nonetheless, only Tom Brady, who is arguably the greatest football player of all-time, has more than Prescott's 32 regular-season wins since he entered the NFL in 2016. His 14 game-winning drives are the most in league history during a quarterback's first three NFL seasons. The Cowboys have won the NFC East twice in the three years with Prescott at quarterback.
The QB market
There has been tremendous growth in quarterback salaries since Prescott was drafted. Ten quarterbacks were on multi-year contracts averaging at least $20 million per year at that time. There are currently 16. The $25 million per year quarterback didn't exist until Derek Carr signed a five-year, $125.025 million extension with the Raiders in June 2017. The $30-million-per-year barrier was hit this offseason when Matt Ryan received a five-year, $150 million extension from the Falcons. Ryan's deal contains NFL records of $100 million in overall guarantees and $94.5 million fully guaranteed at signing. Aaron Rodgers supplanted Ryan as the NFL's highest-paid player in the preseason with a four-year extension from the Packers averaging $33.5 million per year.
There are 20 quarterbacks who are either clear-cut starters or took the most snaps for their respective teams this season on veteran contracts. The following chart summarizes their deals, broken down into four different salary tiers: the five-highest paid quarterbacks, the sixth through 10th highest-paid, the 11th through 15th highest-paid and the bottom five.
|Veteran QB salary tiers||Contract guarantees||Fully guaranteed at signing||Avg. salary||Contract length|
Nos. 1-5 averages
Nos. 6-10 averages
Nos. 11-15 averages
Nos. 16-20 averages
Among the four veteran starting quarterbacks making less than $20 million is Andy Dalton. He brings up the rear at $16 million per year on the six-year extension he signed with the Bengals in 2014. The deal has $18 million of base salary escalators tied to Dalton's playtime and Cincinnati's playoff performance that made the maximum value to $114 million. Dalton has yet to earn any of the salary escalators.
The different Daks
Prescott's game hasn't had the same type of growth as the quarterback salaries since being named the 2016 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year after ending Tony Romo's nearly decade-long stranglehold on the Cowboys starting quarterback job, while Romo was sidelined several weeks recovering from a back injury. As a rookie, Prescott had the NFL's fourth-best completion rate at 67.8 percent and ranked third in league with a 104.9 passer rating. He threw 23 touchdown passes and just four interceptions. The Cowboys secured home-field advantage in the NFC through the 2016 season playoffs by winning 13 games.
Prescott had an underwhelming sophomore campaign which carried over into this season. He struggled in 2017 while All-Pro running back Ezekiel Elliott missed six games serving a suspension under the NFL's personal conduct policy.
The Cowboys didn't do Prescott any favors by going with a wide-receiver-by-committee approach to start the season. Prescott lacked the weapons in the passing game most other quarterbacks have, with tight end Jason Witten's retirement and wide receiver Dez Bryant's release during the offseason.
This prompted Dallas to give its 2019 first-round pick (27th overall) to the Raiders for wide receiver Amari Cooper seven games into the season as the late October trading deadline approached. Cooper quickly made an impact while getting acclimated to a new offense. Prescott became a more effective quarterback with a legitimate receiving threat. The difference is illustrated in the following chart containing Prescott's statistical performance during the first and second half of the season.
Prescott had the NFL's fourth-best completion percentage over the second half of the season. He also ranked in the top 10 in pass attempts (7th), passing yards (8th) and passer rating (7th). The Cowboys tied the Colts for the NFL's best record in the second half of the season.
Prescott's statistical improvement could be encouraging to Jones, although he isn't a quarterback who has demonstrated he can consistently win games with his arm when necessary. Throwing for 387 yards and a career-high four touchdown passes in a meaningless regular-season finale, a come-from-behind 36-35 victory over the Giants (without key members of the offensive line and Elliott since the game didn't have any playoff implications for Dallas) was a positive step in this regard.
It shouldn't be necessary for the Cowboys to break the bank with Prescott at this point, although five impressive starts were all the 49ers needed to give quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo a five-year, $137.5 million contract last February, which briefly made him the NFL's highest-paid-player at $27.5 million per year. Garoppolo's contract has $74.1 million in guarantees, of which $48.7 million was fully guaranteed at signing.
Jones has an uncanny knack for making gratuitous comments that could potentially cost him money. Inexplicably, Jones proclaimed prior to a mid-November game against the Falcons that he wouldn't consider trading Prescott for two first-round picks, even if the top spot in the 2019 NFL draft was included. Dallas doesn't have a 2019 first-round pick because of the Cooper trade.
Comments like this are music to an agent's ears. CAA Sports' Todd France, who is Prescott's agent, will likely attempt to use Jones' statement against the Cowboys when discussing a new contract. France has developed a reputation for driving a hard bargain in negotiations. He also represents Rams All-Pro defensive lineman Aaron Donald and Chargers pass rusher Joey Bosa. Donald and Bosa have engaged in lengthy holdouts when their respective contract negotiations reached an impasse.
Jones handed France a simple argument on a silver platter with the first-round picks proclamation. France has justification to insist that the cost of designating Prescott as a franchise player in 2020 is the appropriate starting point for negotiations because two first-round picks is the compensation when a player on a non-exclusive franchise tag signs an offer sheet with another team that isn't matched. The 2020 non-exclusive quarterback number projects to somewhere between $27 million and $27.5 million, with the six- to eight-percent rate of growth in the salary cap from recent years expected to continue. The NFL's preliminary projections put the 2019 salary cap between $187 million and $191.1 million, which would be an increase in the 5.5 percent to 7.8 percent range.
A second franchise tag in 2021 at a CBA mandated 20-percent increase over the 2020 franchise number would be upwards to $33 million. Considering Prescott's scheduled 2019 salary will be slightly over $2 million, a $62 million cash flow in the first three years (2019 through 2021) may be an important data point to France in a long-term deal.
Another approach France could take is that Tony Romo's 2013 extension adjusted to a 2019 salary cap environment should be a barometer for Prescott's deal, since he took Romo's job away from him. Romo signed a signed a six-year, $108 million extension that made him the NFL's fourth-highest-paid player when the salary cap was $123 million. The deal had $55 million in guarantees where $40 million was fully guaranteed at signing.
This type of thinking would be ignoring that Romo was far more accomplished than Prescott is now when he signed his 2013 deal. With the 2019 salary cap projected to be right around $190 million, an equivalent deal would average a little more than $27.775 million per year. It would have approximately $85 million in guarantees and slightly over $61.75 million fully guaranteed at signing.
Prescott, when asked about his next contract during the offseason, indicated he was willing to be flexible if it allowed the Cowboys to keep other core players. Signing Cooper, who is under contract in 2019 for $13.924 million thanks to Oakland exercising its option for a fifth year last April, to a new deal reportedly is an offseason priority. Two-time Pro Bowl defensive end Demarcus Lawrence has an expiring contract. He is expected to receive a franchise tag for a second-straight year, this time at $20,571,600, if a long-term deal can't be worked out before the designation period ends on March 5.
It's hard to imagine France accepting a deal in the same neighborhood of Blake Bortles' unless specifically directed to do so by Prescott. Bortles, who was effective in 2017 essentially operating as a game manager, signed a two-year, $34.497 million extension (worth up to another $12.5 million through salary escalators and incentives) containing $26.5 million fully guaranteed with the Jaguars early in the offseason. He was scheduled make $19.053 million in 2018 on a fifth-year option prior to the new deal. The base value of Bortles' three-year contract is $54 million, where he can make as much as $66.5 million.
Prescott not having made any significant NFL money might still cut in Jones' favor even though a Bortles-type contract probably isn't a realistic possibility. His career earnings from his NFL contract are just over $2 million.
The patience Jones has exercised with Lawrence probably should apply to Prescott unless he is willing to give the Cowboys some sort of financial break. Rather than signing Lawrence to a long-term contract after a breakout 2017 campaign in which he was selected to the Pro Bowl for the first time while tying for second in the NFL with 14.5 sacks, Jones was more comfortable with him playing this season under a $17.143 million franchise tag. Since Lawrence demonstrated he is the "war daddy" pass rusher Jones has been looking after releasing future Hall of Famer DeMarcus Ware in 2014, it is going to cost significantly more to sign him long-term this year.
Jones doesn't seem inclined to wait, although the 2019 season could be used to evaluate whether Prescott is actually the long-term solution at quarterback since he could be franchised in 2020, if necessary. Just like in Lawrence's case, waiting would be more costly provided Prescott proves to be a potential franchise quarterback while building upon his performance during the second half of this season. The additional money would be well spent because it would come with more certainty about stability at quarterback.
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