With the Dallas Cowboys season now in the books, and ending in disappointing fashion, all eyes turn to Dak Prescott. The two sides can officially reignite contract talks for what will be the third time in as many offseasons, with the goal of avoiding the use of a second franchise tag that will lop off $37.7 million in 2021 salary cap space. That would buy the Cowboys until July 15 to get a long-term deal done, yes, but it would make it very difficult to maneuver in free agency and could force them into uncomfortable decisions on incumbent roster personnel -- whomever that might be.
Instead, the Cowboys would love to agree to terms before the franchise tag deadline, but they also want a better idea of what the salary cap will be, already having a floor set at $175 million but potentially moving quite a bit higher due to incoming revenue from renegotiated TV contracts and gambling. There are a lot of moving parts to the negotiations, but what remains static is the commitment of both the Joneses and Prescott to finally jump the financial broom.
Owner Jerry Jones again hammered home that point on Tuesday, while also admitting the value of Prescott couldn't be higher.
"I don't know how you could have any more leverage," Jones told 105.3FM the Fan. "Dak has absolutely been ... a picture postcard so to speak, but his evolving into an NFL quarterback has been nothing short of perfect picture. He has great ability in my mind to win games. He's talented.
"He certainly has experience. And, so, he has all the things as substantiated by what we've offered Dak. You wouldn't be offering Dak what's being offered in the past if you not thought he was very special. The issue is how do you come together and that's no stranger to me. I've been doing it my whole life."
Getting it together will involve working to finally see eye-to-eye on the length of a new deal, with the Cowboys standing firm on wanting five years while Prescott sits on four -- wanting a chance to re-enter the market once the cap expectedly explodes in the next 2-3 years. The team has a reason for doing all they can to lock Prescott in for a longer period of time versus a shorter one, as Jones so readily explains.
"The planning," he said. "You guys are well aware that we have a certain amount -- period -- that can be paid to players every year. It's a very competitive thing, and it has the longer the term, the more flexibility you got in any number that you have in a contract. The planning ahead, looking ahead, seeing what you can spend, what you can give on any other free agent. Your overall planning, it's like the amount of time you have left on your car payment or your house payment or anything else.
"You got three years left. You got one remaining. You got 10 years left, you usually have less payment."
Money has been squirreled away for Prescott at several points during the 2020 season, from restructures to releases (e.g., Gerald McCoy, post-injury) to put the team in position to combat what could be a lower salary cap while still retaining Prescott in one way or another. And while the signing of Andy Dalton was initially viewed by some outside of the organization as a leverage grab by the Cowboys or a plot to upend Prescott in 2021, neither was ever the case, with Prescott's season-ending injury having actually deepened his value to the club while Dalton feels he's done enough to warrant being a starter in the NFL.
While that's arguable, considering his play in Week 17 and at other points in the year, it's how he feels and that puts him out of the Cowboys plans if he's insistent on being in someone's driver's seat -- and he is.
"Andy stepped in and I thought did a great job," team exec Stephen Jones told 105.3FM the Fan. "But at the end of the day, and Andy knows this, this is Dak's football team. We're obviously very committed to getting Dak signed. We'd love to have Andy back, but he also understands what the situation here that it is Dak Prescott's football team."
The bottom line is the Joneses are in lockstep with keeping Prescott around for the long term, an assurance they provided offensive coordinator Kellen Moore to help grease the wheels for a three-year extension -- sources tell CBS Sports -- that keeps him "building something special" in Dallas and not at Boise State.
"[Securing Prescott is] certainly at the top," said the VP of Player Personnel. "Certainly right there at the top in terms of contracts, obviously."
All of this being said, it's expected the Cowboys will continue to try and deploy what little leverage they do have in talks, which is the salary cap itself. The usual framing of "the more we pay X, the less we have to pay Y" will be repeated at nearly every turn in hopes of both convincing Prescott to yield financially and as a means of using media sound bytes to drive fans and analysts into applying phantom pressure to the 27-year-old. In reality, however, both the Cowboys and Todd France -- Prescott's agent -- know the cap and the manipulation thereof is much more nuanced than is usually understood by the casual fan.
In reality, if the Cowboys (or any NFL team, as has continually been evidenced year after year) wants to find the money, they can and still win games. And considering how mostly golden Dallas has been at winning the NFL draft, along with the likely installation of a 17th game in 2021 that further aids the cap cause, the simplistic stance of pointing at current cap figures and walking away doesn't hold water.
But, hey, it's all they have in this round of talks.
"One of the things we're going to have to see where we are and will affect everybody," said Stephen Jones. "It will affect all 32. It will affect our team. It's just what the consequence the virus have had on our cap situation going forward and where is that salary cap going to be. What kind of cap are we going to manage into?
"So, all of those things will play a role in terms of players that we keep that are under contract, what potentially we can sign. Obviously, Dak being at the top of that list. And then going from there."
The front office knows there are holes in the cap argument though, specifically the aforementioned draft angle. The Cowboys will pick 10th-overall in April, and it won't be used on a quarterback for a long list of reasons, giving them an inside track into inexpensively throwing top talent at their defensive rebuild and, subsequently, freeing up money to make sure they don't again fall into the abyss of the post-Aikman, pre-Romo years.
"[Fortunately] we got a great draft -- number of draft picks ahead of us," said Jones. "Unfortunately, because of the season we had, it will certainly have us picking higher than we anticipated. So, that should help."
So will the deal of DeShaun Watson, a four-year, $156 million deal with $110.7 million in guarantees signed in 2020 that might've been the final piece to framing what Prescott's contract could/will look like. And, that alongside how the 2020 season went, there aren't anymore questions to be answered when it comes to Prescott's future, with the exception of three: When? For how long? For how much?
Jerry Jones already has egg on his face from two previous whiffs in these talks, and he's not interested in wiping off more yolk.
"I got here putting things together, and [we've] got to get it together."