Don't Be Surprised If Dak Prescott and the Dallas Cowboys Part Ways

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistJanuary 27, 2021

Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, right, stands behind quarterback Dak Prescott (4) as player warm up before an NFL preseason football game against the San Francisco 49ers in Santa Clara, Calif., Saturday, Aug. 10, 2019. (AP Photo/Josie Lepe)
Josie Lepe/Associated Press

Speculation regarding the 2021 NFL quarterback carousel has focused mainly on Deshaun Watson, Matthew Stafford, Jimmy Garoppolo and even Aaron Rodgers, but all of those guys remain under contract.

Meanwhile, a two-time Pro Bowl quarterback in his prime has a contract set to expire in seven weeks' time, and few consider Dak Prescott as a potential player on the open market. That might have to do with the fact that the Dallas Cowboys insist they're committed to keeping him on the roster.

But since when has that been enough to settle a personnel-related NFL matter? Talk is talk, and organizations in this business frequently profess their love for players before trading them or letting them walk and then offering fans and the media platitudes.

If the Cowboys were truly convinced it was Prescott or bust on a long-term basis, they would have struck a deal with the highest-rated passer in team history last offseason. Instead, they played hardball and handcuffed themselves financially with Prescott's $31.4 million franchise tag.

Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

The lack of flexibility associated with a long-term contract for Prescott probably cost them the ability to improve on defense or even retain key players like cornerback Byron Jones or edge defender Robert Quinn. Instead, apparently because Prescott wanted a four-year deal and Dallas preferred a five-year deal, the Cowboys entered 2020 with holes they could have plugged had they budged.

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Prescott now has even more leverage. He's coming off a serious ankle injury but was the league's most prolific passer before getting hurt, and NFL Network's Ian Rapoport reported this month the 27-year-old has been making great progress in his recovery.

Meanwhile, another tag would cost the Cowboys $37.7 million. That could be a financial death sentence for a team projected by Spotrac to enter the offseason with just $17.8 million in salary-cap space without accounting for Prescott and fellow in-house free agents Chidobe Awuzie, Tyrone Crawford, Jourdan Lewis, Aldon Smith and Xavier Woods.

The Cowboys had a bottom-10 defense in terms of DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) at Football Outsiders in 2020. To get back into the Super Bowl picture with Prescott, they'll likely need to improve on that side of the ball while having better injury luck on offense. But if Prescott counts $37.7 against the cap, that would practically be impossible.

They could alternatively make sacrifices on offense, but that would only hinder Prescott's supporting cast. Besides, there's almost no relief associated with getting out of lucrative contracts possessed by Amari Cooper, Ezekiel Elliott, Tyron Smith, Zack Martin and La'el Collins. Dallas is married to that core, and management will likely have to rework several of those deals to make room for Prescott and/or several of those key in-house free agents.

That is unless Dallas and Prescott come to terms on a long-term contract that gives the team the ability to push the larger cap hits into 2022 and beyond, when expected new television contracts should cause the salary cap to skyrocket in what we all hope is a post-pandemic world.

Again, Prescott knows that. And it's clear based on last year's negotiations that he isn't going to offer the Cowboys a discount. He and his agent will compare any offers received between now and the start of free agency to what they believe they can get on the open market, and the Cowboys might not be able to compete with cap-rich counterparts like the Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, New York Jets and New England Patriots in that environment.

So the tag might be prohibitive, and a long-term deal might require Dallas to concede more than it seemed to be willing to last year.

Behind door No. 3? A divorce.

That scenario might still be unlikely, but it's rather logical considering the state of the Dallas roster, the dynamics associated with last year's highly publicized negotiations and the financial climate in which the Cowboys find themselves.

David Berding/Associated Press

Remember, the Cowboys don't have a conventional general manager. The organization is tethered to one man's whims. If owner Jerry Jones decides to pay Prescott, it's a done deal. But Jones could just as easily wake up one morning between now and March 17 and decide he's tired of the tug-of-war and let Prescott test free agency.

The potential presence of Stafford on that market might help, as could the fact that Rodgers, Garoppolo, Watson or Derek Carr could conceivably become available for the right trade price. And the Cowboys have the No. 10 overall pick in April's draft, which could be useful in trade talks with a team like the Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers, San Francisco 49ers, Houston Texans or Las Vegas Raiders but could also be used on a highly touted and inexpensive incoming quarterback like Trey Lance from North Dakota State or Zach Wilson from BYU.

Eventually, somebody will decide that keeping a quarterback around well beyond the expiration of his rookie contract isn't worth the damage to the payroll and will instead attempt to reinforce the rest of the roster in support of a cheap rookie.

The Cowboys are positioned perfectly to go out on that limb.

Don't be shocked if they become discouraged by talks with Prescott and do exactly that.

      

Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012. Follow him on Twitter: @Brad_Gagnon.