Perhaps Cowboys receiver CeeDee Lamb said it best.
“It’s no secret we want Dak back,” Lamb told USA TODAY Sports in February.
The Cowboys have insisted they want Dak Prescott to be their quarterback as well. Prescott has insisted he wants to be a Cowboy for life. And yet, a long-term deal remains unsettled.
“I trust that the guys in the front office are definitely going to make the right decisions,” Lamb continued. “I hope he’s coming back in 2021 and for the long haul.”
It’s that detail – not whether Prescott will be the Cowboys’ quarterback in 2021, but whether he will maintain the gig after 2021 – that elicits much more uncertainty. How did negotiations reach this point, and why have they seeped into a third offseason?
Here are five things to know about where Prescott and the Cowboys stand ahead of Tuesday’s franchise tag designation deadline:
This week’s timeline
The Cowboys and Prescott were eligible to begin renegotiating a long-term deal after Dallas’ Jan. 3 season finale. Now, 4 p.m. ET Tuesday marks the deadline for NFL teams to designate franchise or transition tags. Placing a tag on Prescott guarantees the Cowboys hold Prescott’s contractual rights for the 2021 season.
The two sides would have until July 15 to negotiate a long-term deal. Otherwise, signing the tender would guarantee Prescott a one-year salary of $37.68 million. This number stems from the fact that Prescott was already tagged in 2020, to the tune of $31.4 million. NFL policy mandates a second franchise tag cost at least 120% of the player’s previous salary.
How could playing out another tag benefit Prescott? How could it hurt?
A tag would guarantee Prescott a salary currently greater than the average annual compensation on contracts of every quarterback except for Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson. A successful sixth pro campaign would position Prescott for a lucrative 2022 deal, whether with the Cowboys or another team. The NFL’s renewed TV contracts, as well as the advent of legalized sports gambling, are expected to balloon the league’s salary cap – and thus teams’ financial ability to compensate players – in the coming years.
The drawback: Prescott would hold no long-term security if he floundered in 2021 or suffered another injury. He risked that security and bet on himself with expiring contracts the last two seasons. Statistically, he improved and thrived. But in Week 5 of the 2020 season, he suffered a season-ending compound fracture and dislocation of his ankle that required multiple surgeries. Prescott is on schedule to recover fully before the season. Would he prefer to chase max long-term value or opt to ensure the Cowboys are committed to him beyond 2021?
How could playing out another tag benefit Cowboys? How could it hurt?
The Cowboys have publicly maintained they believe Prescott is their franchise quarterback. They are expected to tag him this week if no deal is reached. Waiting to pull the trigger allows the front office more time to clarify the projected salary cap impact from COVID and more time to assess Prescott’s recovery from ankle surgeries. If a deal isn’t reached by July, and the Cowboys flounder again in 2021, the team could choose to move forward without a cap hit like the Eagles recently bore in trading away Carson Wentz. But that’s not what the team has indicated it wants.
If the Cowboys want Prescott to run their future, as they’ve publicly expressed, the price is unlikely to go down before July 15. Rather, if quarterbacks eligible to negotiate reach long-term extensions (think: Baker Mayfield, Lamar Jackson, Josh Allen) and cash in, the market value for quarterbacks may increase as it has each year since Prescott and the Cowboys began this discussion in February 2019.
In addition to Prescott’s price rising, failing to secure a long-term deal before free agency opens in March means all of Prescott’s $37.68 million tag price would be scheduled to count toward the Cowboys’ 2021 cap hit. For a team whose 2020 performance revealed gaping roster holes, particularly on defense, failing to reduce Prescott’s cap hit would drastically hamper any free-agency activity.
Are negotiations contentious?
Publicly, no. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones’ praise of Prescott has ranged from likening him to a son to describing his evolution as “nothing short of a perfect picture” in January. Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones insisted in January that the front office was “very committed” to finalizing a deal with Prescott.
“This is Dak Prescott’s football team,” Stephen Jones added then. Prescott hasn’t spoken with media since his Oct. 11 injury. But when tight end Blake Jarwin posted a picture with Prescott to Instagram on Feb. 12, Jarwin asked Prescott: “Wanna run it back in a few months?”
Prescott shared the post with a resounding affirmation: “That’s the only way I see it.”
What will it take to get this done?
Jerry Jones likes to reiterate that deadlines make deals. Stars have created ultimatums in recent years to force the Joneses’ hands. Defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence delayed shoulder surgery (and thus his recovery timeline before the season) until the Cowboys signed him, and RB Ezekiel Elliott skipped the entire 2019 training camp until he became the highest-paid running back in NFL history five days before the season opener.
The closest the Cowboys and Prescott’s representation came to settling matters was arguably when the 2019 season was kicking off and Jones insisted a deal with his quarterback was “imminent.” Then talks fell through, Prescott opposed risking a distraction to negotiate in-season, and 2020 conversations never truly gained steam.
Each side must likely compromise to strike a deal. Prescott’s camp maintained last year it wanted a deal no longer than four years to hasten Prescott’s return to the bargaining table. The Cowboys wanted no fewer than five to maximize their cap flexibility. Could a longer deal with a higher percentage guaranteed compel both parties?
Would the Cowboys be willing to risk that after Prescott’s injury before quarterback market value further soars? A shorter deal for less money is unlikely to solve either side’s top concern. For a team invested more heavily in offense than defense, a stable quarterback is crucial to winning now.
The last Cowboys quarterback to win a Super Bowl (or three), Troy Aikman, said Dallas should act.
“I think anyone who’s ever spent any time around Dak walks away going wow, this guy’s really impressive,” the Hall of Famer told USA TODAY Sports in February. “I’ve not been around anyone who’s spent time with Dak or watched him that didn’t feel like, ‘This guy is a franchise quarterback.’ And they’re hard to find.
“I really thought a deal would have gotten done last year. I was surprised. I think when two people want the same thing, deals get done. So I was surprised it didn’t. But I’m in the same camp this year.
“I would be really surprised if they don’t reach an agreement.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein.