The Jury Should Remain out on Dak Prescott, Potential $34M Contract

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistJune 17, 2019

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott (4) prepares to pass during drills at the team's NFL football training facility in Frisco, Texas, Tuesday, June 11, 2019. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez
Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

It might not be ideal for the purpose of contract negotiations, but Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has made it clear of late that he's all in on quarterback Dak Prescott. 

Jones told Michael Irvin on The Rich Eisen Show that he was "sold" on the 25-year-old signal-caller, and Jones said earlier this offseason that he'd pick Prescott over any quarterback in the 2019 draft. 

But because of the "next man up" dynamics associated with quarterback contracts of late, Prescott is likely to command an astronomically valuable deal when or before his rookie contract expires in 2020. 

In fact, Clarence E. Hill Jr. of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported last week that Prescott's agent, Todd France, has "broached a deal in the range of $34 million annually."

Richard W. Rodriguez/Associated Press

In terms of average salary, that'd make Prescott one of the three or four highest-paid players in NFL history. But there are plenty of reasons to wonder if he's worth that to a team that will soon also have to make decisions on key players Ezekiel Elliott, Amari Cooper, Jaylon Smith and Byron Jones, and is already on the hook for Demarcus Lawrence ($21 million per year), Zack Martin ($14 million), Tyron Smith ($12.2 million) and Travis Frederick ($9.4 million). 

The latter three names on that list are blue-chip offensive linemen, and the two offensive players who will soon be looking for new deals are Prescott's top two weapons. And their presence as Prescott's supporting cast is precisely why it's fair to wonder just how good the 2016 fourth-round pick really is. 

Prescott performed remarkably well throughout his 2016 Offensive Rookie of the Year campaign, but he was also a surprise starter who sneaked up on opposing defenses. Most importantly, he was surrounded by Elliott, Cooper predecessor Dez Bryant, Martin, Smith and Frederick, all of whom were Pro Bowlers that season. 

Prescott lost the element of surprise as a sophomore. He also lost Elliott to a six-game midseason suspension, and Smith dealt with injuries at left tackle. And sure enough, the Mississippi State product came back to earth with a sub-median passer rating of 86.6. 

His numbers plummeted across the board in 2017. And while they rebounded a tad despite the absence of Frederick in 2018, Prescott still hasn't been able to live up to the hype he generated as the highest-rated rookie passer in NFL history

The question—particularly as Frederick returns to health after missing a season with Guillain-Barre syndrome—is whether any decent young quarterback can experience success in the Dallas offense. And if Prescott is only decent, might the Cowboys be better off pursuing someone who could be more than decent at a lower cost?

Prescott was a fourth-round pick for a reason. And while he's overcome predraft concerns about his footwork, his accuracy and his overall technique, he's also made a living playing it safe as a passer. He's thrown just 25 interceptions in 48 career regular-season starts, but he hasn't topped the 23 touchdown passes he tossed as a rookie. 

In taking a stance in favor of a blockbuster new deal for Prescott, Pro Football Focus contributor and former NFL quarterback Bruce Gradkowski made one particular point in a video Friday that could actually work against Dak. 

"Dak Prescott just has to do his job," Gradkowski said, "distribute the football to those weapons around you, hand it off to that beast behind you [and] let that running game get going."

Is a player in that role worth nearly 20 percent of your team's payroll? 

It's at least worth a closer examination, and it's something the Cowboys would be smart to wait on. Because investing in Prescott will inevitably make it harder to invest in Cooper, Elliott, Smith and Jones. And we just don't know what Prescott will bring to the table with less support on either side (or both sides) of the ball. 

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 12: Dak Prescott #4 and Ezekiel Elliott #21 of the Dallas Cowboys react after a Prescott touchdown late in the fourth quarter against the Los Angeles Rams in the NFC Divisional Playoff game at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Jan
Harry How/Getty Images

We do know that when Elliott was suspended in 2017, Prescott threw more interceptions (seven) than touchdowns (five) and ranked 26th among qualified quarterbacks in passer rating.

And we know that before Cooper arrived midway through the 2019 season, Prescott had just eight touchdown passes in seven games and was just the 24th-highest-rated qualified passer.

It's possible Prescott needs Elliott, Cooper, Martin, Smith and Frederick more than Elliott, Cooper, Martin, Smith and Frederick need Prescott. And the Cowboys should at least force Dak to deal in the final year of his rookie contract. 

Will the price increase if he excels in 2019? Absolutely, but then at least you can be more sure you're buying a franchise quarterback. And the franchise tag is there for a reason anyway. 

It's difficult to continue to maintain a top-quality roster when you're sacrificing $25 million-plus per year in salary-cap space for one man.

When the Seattle Seahawks went to back-to-back Super Bowls earlier this decade, Russell Wilson made a combined $1.2 million. Wilson gets paid big bucks now, but his supporting cast has deteriorated as a result.

When the Green Bay Packers won their last championship in 2010, Aaron Rodgers made $6.5 million. He hit the jackpot in 2013, and the Packers have since been less deep and less competitive. 

And the Baltimore Ravens haven't been the same since making Joe Flacco the highest-paid player in football in 2013, whereas Flacco earned just $6.8 million when the Ravens won the Super Bowl in 2012. 

That 2017 Philadelphia Eagles Super Bowl team paid Carson Wentz and Nick Foles $5.7 million combined. Jared Goff's cap hit for the 2018 NFC champion Los Angeles Rams was just $7.6 million. 

Tom Brady made less than $10 million in each of the New England Patriots' first three Super Bowl seasons and $15 million or less in their last two, and you could argue that Brady's far-below-market salary is the primary reason New England remains competitive. 

But it doesn't sound as though Prescott and his agent are willing to pull a Brady. 

"I think the team knows how to pay what's deserved," Prescott told USA Today's Jori Epstein earlier this offseason, "and pay those other people at the same time what's deserved without being frugal."

Per Spotrac, before Wilson, Ben Roethlisberger and Wentz signed new deals this offseason, six quarterbacks—Rodgers, Matt Ryan, Kirk Cousins, Jimmy Garoppolo, Matthew Stafford and Derek Carr—were making $25 million per season on three-plus-year contracts.

All six missed the playoffs in 2018, and Wilson, Roethlisberger and Wentz didn't win playoff games as starting quarterbacks last year either. 

These are just cautionary tales the Cowboys should consider, and they should also be aware that Prescott's success is part of a trend that might make him easier to replace than ever. 

PHILADELPHIA, PA - JANUARY 1: Carson Wentz #11 of the Philadelphia Eagles hugs Dak Prescott #4 of the Dallas Cowboys after the game at Lincoln Financial Field on January 1, 2017 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Eagles defeated the Cowboys 27-13. (Photo
Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Forty-four percent of the league's starting quarterbacks were drafted in the last five years, but that number could increase to as high as 56 percent if Josh Rosen, Kyler Murray, Daniel Jones and Dwayne Haskins eventually win starting jobs on their respective rosters. 

And don't be surprised if that happens, because the success rate with first-round quarterbacks has skyrocketed in recent years. 

Nine of the 11 signal-callers drafted in the first round between 2016 and 2018 have already become or are clearly becoming franchise quarterbacks. The 10th is Rosen, and the only certain bust is Paxton Lynch. 

It's possible that's a fluke and that the draft will eventually start giving us more Lynches, Jake Lockers, Blaine Gabberts, Christian Ponders, Tim Tebows, Mark Sanchezes, Josh Freemans, JaMarcus Russells, Brady Quinns, Vince Youngs and Matt Leinarts.

But it's also possible the college game is grooming quarterbacks better than ever and that the growing similarities between college offenses and NFL offenses have eased that transition.

What all of this means is the Cowboys owe it to themselves to let Dak Prescott prove it for at least one more season. 


Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.