Dak Prescott—Not Ezekiel Elliott—Must Be the Cowboys' No. 1 Priority

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterAugust 8, 2019

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott, left, looks in the direction of running back Ezekiel Elliott (21) during the first half of an NFL football game against the Philadelphia Eagles, Sunday, Nov. 11, 2018, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
Matt Slocum/Associated Press

Running backs don't matter, but quarterbacks do. That's why the Dallas Cowboys should forget about Ezekiel Elliott and focus on Dak Prescott.

OK, "running backs don't matter" may be fun to shout in a football argument, but that's overstating and oversimplifying things a bit. Let's try again.

Quarterbacks matter much, much more than running backs, and they are both much harder to find and more expensive to keep. And that's why the Cowboys should be focused on signing Prescott to a new contract, not on the Elliott holdout drama. 

Every moment Jerry and Stephen Jones spend working on the Elliott contract is a moment that's not spent working on the Prescott contract. As long as Prescott doesn't have a contract, the Cowboys cannot be certain how best to structure an Amari Cooper contract. And the longer the Zeke, Dak and Amari contract issues linger, the more likely it becomes that other young players will find themselves with their own lingering contract issues, which could cause long-term problems for the Cowboys. 

Clarence E. Hill Jr. of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported Monday that the Cowboys have offers on the table for Prescott, Elliott and Cooper. It's a very unusual situation: one team, three simultaneous massive deals for high-profile players and no sense that anyone is budging. It's like Texas Hold 'em, to use a groaner of a cliche, and the Cowboys must play their hand very carefully.

Good for Jerrah and Son for multitasking and trying to get three deals done at once. But there's a huge difference between making an offer and finalizing a deal, especially when, as Hill reports, all three offers involve top-five-at-their-position money, not highest-paid-at-the-position money. The key for the Cowboys is to remember their priorities: first the quarterback, then everyone else. 

Elliott's holdout is one of the NFL's top stories right now. He reportedly wants to be the highest-paid running back in the NFL. Per Hill, the Cowboys' offer falls somewhere below Todd Gurley's contract and closer to Le'Veon Bell's $13.1 million for four years. With two years left on his contract, Elliott lacks the leverage to stage a Bell-caliber year-long holdout, but his absence from camp has made him a top priority.

Prescott, on the other hand, is in the final season of a contract that will pay him just $2 million—considerably less than Elliott, who is scheduled to make $3.9 million this year and $9.1 million in 2020. Free agency, or at least a Kirk Cousins-style game of Franchise Tag Chicken, looms for Prescott if the Cowboys cannot get a deal done.

We can quibble about Prescott's merits as a franchise quarterback, but he's the only franchise quarterback the Cowboys have. They have the option of playing running backs-don't-matter Moneyball with Zeke; they have no choice but to pay Prescott.

Starting quarterbacks like Dak Prescott, who go 32-16 in their first three seasons as a starter while capably handling the responsibility of being the face of a franchise, are a rare commodity in the NFL.
Starting quarterbacks like Dak Prescott, who go 32-16 in their first three seasons as a starter while capably handling the responsibility of being the face of a franchise, are a rare commodity in the NFL.Michael Owen Baker/Associated Press

Meanwhile, there's also a decision to be made on Cooper, who is in the final year of his contract, too. His importance to the Cowboys shouldn't be trivialized: Prescott looked like Blaine Gabbert without Cooper last year and Russell Wilson with him. Not only is wide receiver a more critical position than running back, but Cooper is also less likely than Zeke to make Jerrah breathlessly refresh TMZ.com in the offseason.

The Cowboys currently have more than $23 million in cap space for this season and nearly $75 million in cap space for next season. They can fit Prescott, Elliott and Cooper under the cap, but it will be snug. As long as all the money is sitting in unsigned offers on tables, however, they cannot be certain just how much they have to spend, and on whom.

Also, the Cowboys are costing themselves money by waiting.

"We're damn sure not going to become a market-setter," Stephen Jones told KTCK radio in Dallas last week. Prudent as the Cowboys may think that is, that policy just lets other teams set the market. 

The Eagles set the young quarterback market with Wentz's reported $128 million deal. The Saints just set the young receivers market with Michael Thomas' reported $96.3 million deal, and Julio Jones could push receiver salaries even higher.

If Jerrah and Son wait too long to get a Prescott deal done, the Rams could extend Jared Goff in the interim, which, in turn, may raise the salary ceiling for Prescott.

Elliott's price, on the other hand, probably won't go up. The Chargers are more likely to move to Anchorage than cave and give a market-setting deal to Melvin Gordon III. Still, the fact Elliott set the agenda for the contract extensions shows the Cowboys are still reacting instead of acting.

The whole situation has left the team in a negotiating bind.

"When we save money, whether it's with Dak, whether it's with Zeke, whether it's with Amari, it's not saving Jerry and I a dollar," Stephen Jones said in that same radio interview. "It's just money that's going to another player.''

Speaking of other players, "The Cap is Fake" has become almost as popular a football debate slogan as "Running Backs Don't Matter," and it's also an overstatement and oversimplification. If a team spends too much on three players, there won't be much left for the fourth, fifth or 53rd.

Byron Jones is a Pro Bowl cornerback in the final year of his rookie contract who may find that out soon. He'd be a top-priority extension for most teams. In Dallas, he's the guy hoping they don't run out of dough before he gets to the counter. If the Cowboys hope to extend Jones and other young standouts, they must align the Dak-Zeke-Amari contracts just so. It's also possible that plan is forced to detour if Jalen Ramsey resets the young cornerback market, which could happen at any moment.

Cornerback Byron Jones' asking price may increase dramatically if a player like Jalen Ramsey of the Jaguars signs a lucrative new deal before Dallas gets around to negotiating with Jones.
Cornerback Byron Jones' asking price may increase dramatically if a player like Jalen Ramsey of the Jaguars signs a lucrative new deal before Dallas gets around to negotiating with Jones.Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

Time is money, and everything is in limbo while the Cowboys try to juggle three contractual chainsaws.

There is no easy solution to all of this. But here's a suggested itinerary:

  • Forget the "top five" talk and offer Prescott the Carson Wentz contract, plus one dollar. It doesn't matter which quarterback is better (it's Wentz): The guy who gets paid last is the guy who gets paid most, and every player, agent and owner knows it. Once that deal is done, it will be easier to proceed.   
  • Extend Jones before Ramsey blasts cornerback contracts into orbit. It's not a sexy move, but it locks up a core defender and creates a little budget clarity with minimal drama.
  • Wait and see on Cooper, who has run hot and cold throughout his career, rather than handing him Michael Thomas money. The franchise tag is available if things get dicey.
  • Call Elliott's bluff and tell him that he can either play this year under his current contract or enjoy Cabo, because the franchise simply has other priorities.

The Cowboys have taken a different approach with their table full of offers. That could still work out fine for them, so long as they remember the quarterback is the one guy who really matters.

All cap and contract figures courtesy OverTheCap.com.     

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.