Dak Prescott is worth every penny he can squeeze out of the Dallas Cowboys, and the 26-year-old quarterback doesn’t need to sign a long-term deal to achieve this goal.
More often than not, organizations hold all of the leverage in negotiations. But that's not true in Prescott's case. The 2016 fourth-round pick exceeded expectations every year, while the Cowboys front office dragged its feet and didn't earnestly enter long-term negotiations until it was too late.
Now, Prescott doesn't have to do anything other than play under the franchise tag and continue to take advantage of the system during subsequent seasons to maximize his value.
Last season's second-leading passer holds Lebron James-like leverage. OK, that may be a tad much. But the two-time Pro Bowler certainly is in a similar or better position than Kirk Cousins was when the Minnesota Vikings quarterback worked under a series of one-year deals before signing a fully guaranteed free-agent contract.
Before going any further, a simple truth must be mentioned: The quarterback market operates differently than any other position group. Being the highest-paid under center doesn't necessarily hinge on overall performance. An individual's value at the game's most important position is built upon timing and circumstances.
For example, Joe Flacco was never the game's best quarterback. However, he became a free agent at the right time after earning Super Bowl XLVII MVP honors. He turned the best stretch of his career into a then-record $120.6 million contract. He never again played to the level that commanded such a high salary.
Today's quarterback market is often based on one simple question: Who's next?
The Seattle Seahawks' Russell Wilson, Pittsburgh Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger and Los Angeles Rams' Jared Goff signed extensions last year, and they're ranked—in that order—as the top three quarterbacks in average annual salary (along with the Green Bay Packers' Aaron Rodgers, who signed his deal in 2018).
Prescott isn't just next; he's deserving of a market-setting deal, and he's positioned himself well to do so for multiple years.
During an interview on 105.3 The Fan's K&C Masterpiece, NBC Sports' Chris Simms stated Prescott already turned down $35 million annually with the intention of maxing out at $45 million-plus in the final year of any potential long-term deal. Both NFL Network's Ian Rapoport and ESPN's Adam Schefter refuted the report.
"Dak is the quarterback of our franchise now, and for many years to come," Cowboys Executive Vice President Stephen Jones said earlier this month on 105.3 The Fan (via ESPN's Ed Werder). "We've gotta get his contract—we've gotta get over that hurdle. But we'll do it, it'll ultimately get done."
The idea of negotiating through the media is interesting, especially if the Cowboys can establish an argument that swings some of the leverage in their favor, like having the public turn on Prescott for bristling at what looks like a more-than-generous offer even if it's not true.
According to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram's Clarence E. Hill Jr., the last Cowboys offer was for $34-35 million annually.
But the possibility of Dallas regaining any leverage in these negotiations seems unlikely since the exclusive franchise tag remains in play. Dak will not eclipse $35 million during the 2020 campaign if he does sign the current offer sheet before the July 15 deadline. However, he'll still have the highest salary-cap value of any quarterback at $31.4 million, according to Over The Cap.
It's beyond that point where the real leverage begins.
Four quarterbacks will have cap hits of more than $36 million during the 2021 and '22 campaigns. Each year, two of those will exceed $40 million.
More importantly, the league's economics will change thanks to the new collective bargaining agreement.
Prescott doesn't have to do anything other than sign back-to-back franchise tags to make $69.1 million over the next two seasons since a player tagged consecutively receives a 20 percent increase over the previous year's tag number.
"I believe the franchise tag can be your friend," Cousins said during an ESPN interview. "I don't think it's something to be disappointed with. I think it enables you to be well-compensated, and deservedly so, for the upcoming season. And then I always say the cream will rise to the top. If you're good enough, the cream's gonna rise to the top, and you're gonna get compensated the way you want to."
Cousins capitalized on the franchise tag to the fullest. Instead of treating it like a burden, he maximized his final years with the Washington Redskins before signing a fully guaranteed three-year, $84 million contract with the Vikings.
The Cowboys quarterback should strongly consider the possibility of pursuing the same pathway. In 2022, Cousins will have the league's highest cap hit ($45 million) and cash spent ($35 million). Prescott will eclipse the latter—which is the more important number because it represents actual cash flow from the organization to the player—if he adopts the suggested approach.
The idea of pushing into the $40 million annual range isn't silly at all considering how the market will continue to grow based on current team accounting and increasing expenditures during a new league setup.
With the new CBA in place, the players' share of the NFL's overall revenue will increase from the previously established 47 percent this year to 48 percent in 2021 with the possibility that number could grow to 48.5 percent "through a media kicker which applies in any season the league plays 17 games."
Initially, the league's lower-paid players will receive the greatest benefit since the NFL's minimum salary will rise. Eventually, a higher overall revenue percentage with the added benefit of an ever-expanding salary cap (though the current pandemic could cause short-term stagnation) will definitely help star players stake their claim to an even bigger piece of the pie.
So, the possibility of Prescott signing a deal worth around $35 million annually might look like a bargain in retrospect once Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson extension negotiations start in earnest.
With the new CBA completed, NFL owners also have an opportunity to renew television negotiations since those rights end after the 2022 campaign. The economics of the league could change drastically between now and then. The idea that Prescott would settle for a specific number instead of utilizing the leverage he currently has to fully reenter the market once the league's financial landscape changes would be poor business practices.
After all, it's just business. This common sports phrase doesn't just apply to organizations. Players have the opportunity to take advantage of their situations as well.
The Cowboys didn't get anything done with their franchise signal-caller when the window opened to renegotiate his contract after the 2018 campaign. Instead, Dallas' front office concentrated on signing DeMarcus Lawrence, Jaylon Smith, Ezekiel Elliott and La'el Collins to contract extensions.
Now, Prescott can play out the next two seasons on the franchise tag, if he wants to do so, and then consider all of his options during the 2022 offseason after making nearly $70 million in that span.
The Cowboys, meanwhile, can't do much of anything if they're dead set on keeping their starting quarterback, because it's entirely up to Prescott whether he wants to sign a long-term deal or game the system to the fullest extent.
Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @brentsobleski.