A franchise quarterback playing under his rookie contract is the NFL's most precious commodity. He's a one-man solution to the two biggest problems facing every team: how to acquire a franchise quarterback (he's already here!) and how to build around him (he's on a cheap deal, so we can pay other guys!)
Teams with good young quarterbacks often fast-track their Super Bowl timetables to strike before that rookie contract expires and the bill for quality quarterbacking comes due. That's why the Eagles were so daring in their trades and signings last year (and remain aggressive this offseason) and the Rams are assembling a Suicide Squad on defense. Affordable, effective young quarterbacks like Carson Wentz and Jared Goff provide a fleeting opportunity that the Eagles enjoyed last year, the Rams want to exploit this year and the Seahawks are fondly looking back upon.
And then there are the Cowboys.
Remember them? America's Team? The smartest guys in the room, in Jerry Jones' humble opinion? The former unpredictable mavericks of free agency? We haven't heard much from them lately.
The Cowboys have Dak Prescott under contract for two more years at base salaries well below $1 million. They also have a roster full of question marks. Yet they've approached free agency like there was a power outage at team headquarters and nobody gassed up the backup generators.
The Cowboys did not sign any noteworthy free agents through the first week of the new league year, though they met with Jaguars receiver and injury-prone B-lister Allen Hurns on Wednesday, according to ESPN's Josina Anderson. Meanwhile, they lost starting middle linebacker Anthony Hitchens to the Chiefs, longtime starting cornerback Orlando Scandrick to Washington and a smattering of veteran role players to other teams.
The Cowboys finally added Joe Thomas -- the Packers backup linebacker, not the legendary Browns tackle -- on Tuesday night. And they did trade for fullback Jamize Olawale, which isn't a bad move. But if a soon-to-be 29-year old with 631 career scrimmage yards and a special teamer are your biggest acquisition during the first week of free agency, you didn't do much in that first week.
The other NFC contenders are either locked in an arms race or, in the Seahawks' case, entering a full-fledged rebuild. The Cowboys, who are two seasons removed from winning 13 games and are fresh off of a 9-7 campaign that was less of a debacle than you may remember, are just spinning their wheels.
Why? Dallas is both paying for sins of the past and living in the past.
The Cowboys currently have just $1.3 million in cap space. That isn't even enough to sign a rookie class. As they court Hurns and entertain pipe dreams of getting Ndamukong Suh to play for pride and glory, the Cowboys first need to make more money-saving moves before they can tackle their routine springtime chores.
Where did all of the money go?
Dead money eats up nearly $15 million of the Cowboys' cap space, including $8.9 million of leftover balloon payments on the Tony Romo mortgage. Earlier in the decade, the Cowboys used Romo's contract like a revolving-debt credit card. Whenever Jones was tight against the cap, he would convert Romo's salary into a prorated signing bonus and kick the financial consequences further down the road.
In the second season since his retirement, Romo still costs the Cowboys as much as a typical journeyman backup, about 13 times as much cap space as Prescott and more than it would have cost them to land, say, Tyrann Mathieu.
While they reenacted scenes from The Big Short with Romo, the Cowboys were also signing key players like Dez Bryant and Jason Witten to lease-to-buy contracts with huge bonuses.
Bryant's 2015 whopper of a contract included a $20 million signing bonus. Even if the Cowboys cut him tomorrow, they still would be on the hook for $8 million for the All-Pro-caliber services he rendered in 2014. They'll instead likely spend $16.5 million on Bryant and hope he's more than a glorified possession receiver.
Veteran tight end Jason Witten also signed bonus-heavy contracts earlier in the 2010s (like Bryant) and allowed the Cowboys to fiddle with the details so they could afford other bonus-heavy contracts (like Romo). Witten then signed an incredibly team-friendly deal last year with no bonuses or guaranteed money, so his $6.95 million cap number can be eradicated from the books at any time.
Unfortunately, the Cowboys never drafted a Witten replacement, instead opting to spend two years noodling with basketball project Rico Gathers as their tight end of the future. So while Witten has been rolling to a slow stop since 2012, cutting a popular Hall of Famer and leader who purposely took a pay cut to scoop up a damaged-goods free agent like Hurns would be both bad optics and bad team-building. Which is not to say that it cannot still happen.
Franchise-tagged pass-rusher Tank Lawrence and the offensive line Big Three of Tyron Smith, Zach Martin and Travis Frederick eat up most of Dallas' remaining cap space. The Cowboys spend more money on their offensive line ($47.3 million in 2018 cap space) than any other NFL team. That's fine—the Cowboys line is awesome—but they need to get some return on that investment before both Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott expect to get paid as much as the guys who block for them.
The Cowboys painted themselves into a salary-cap corner with a mix of bad financial planning and indecision/sentimentality. They could solve the fiscal part of the problem by biting the bullet on Bryant and Witten while extending Lawrence, but it would leave them thin at the skill positions in a picked-over free-agent market. And they still need to find wide receivers and edge-rushers in a draft class that's thin at both positions.
The Cowboys can hope Prescott takes a big leap forward and all boats rise with him. But that's what they hoped last year, and it backfired when the league caught up to Prescott, Elliott missed six games due to a suspension and Smith's injury caused a leak in the once-impenetrable line. Prescott needs upgrades around him and on defense, just as Wentz got in Philly and Goff is getting in Los Angeles.
The Cowboys' plan for 2018 is clearly to improve from within. The team has drafted some slow-cooker prospects in recent years. Linebacker Jaylon Smith, now two years removed from his career-threatening injury at Notre Dame, may be ready to fill a void at linebacker. Edge-rusher Taco Charlton started to play well late in an otherwise forgettable rookie season. The Cowboys practically drafted an entire secondary last year, and most of those youngsters looked good in limited work. Heck, maybe Gathers really can become the next Antonio Gates.
Building slowly through the draft is wise. Except when it wipes out one of the few precious years a team has left before its next round of pricey, critical quarterback decisions.
The Cowboys would love to keep up with the big spenders and daring traders at the top of the standings, but they are too saddled with old debts to do it. That may just cost them the best opportunity any team could hope for.
All salary-cap figures according to OverTheCap.com.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. He is also a co-author of Football Outsiders Almanac and teaches a football analytics course for Sports Management Worldwide. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.