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NFL: Dak Prescott likely picked the wrong year to pull a leverage play on Jerry Jones and the Cowboys

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QB Dak Prescott enjoyed his finest statistical year with the Cowboys in 2019 (4,902 yards passing, 33 total TDs) ... but it still didn't propel Dallas to the NFC playoffs.

Here’s a simple, yet cold-hearted solution for Dallas Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones, regarding his currently fruitless quest to sign Dak Prescott to a long-term contract.

Invest a first-round pick in a quarterback, come April.

Problem solved.

The above statement isn’t drenched in sarcasm. It’s actually a smart leverage play for Jones, who apparently has strong reservations about paying Prescott an average salary north of $40 million per year — despite Prescott’s rock-solid career record (40-24 as a starter) and top-notch numbers from the 2019 campaign (4,902 yards passing, 33 total TDs).

Should Jones be lampooned for being so reluctant about a homegrown asset who has far exceeded the expectations of a typical fourth-round draft pick?

Absolutely. By all accounts, Prescott has been a model citizen, high-level performer and effective leader with a flagship franchise.

(The Chunky Soup people love him, too.)

Should Cowboys fans be worried about a future that might not involve Prescott beyond the 2020 season?

Not necessarily.

A LITTLE HISTORY LESSON

The Cowboys have had two linchpin quarterbacks since the 2006 season (Tony Romo, Prescott), and neither came at a draft price higher than Round 4.

There’s a lot of luck supporting the above statement.

Romo was an undrafted commodity out of Eastern Illinois in 2004, and had benefited from Drew Bledsode floundering during his final NFL campaign (2006 with Dallas) — thus making it easier for Jones and head coach Bill Parcells to endorse the midseason change at quarterback.

What’s more, it’s amazing that Broncos head coach/executive decision-maker Mike Shanahan — a fellow Eastern Illinois alum — didn’t secure the draft rights to Romo in 2004, instead opting for Colorado State QB Bradlee Van Pelt (250th pick) … the same Van Pelt who would attempt eight career NFL passes.

Even if Romo would have been viewed as a project in the early years, it’s still weird Shanahan didn’t feel compelled to spend the last of 10 draft picks from that year on a known prospect (school-wise).

Twelve years later (2016 draft), Prescott fell into the Cowboys’ lap at pick 135, despite three quarterback-needy franchises (Bears, Browns, Cardinals) possessing fourth-round selections immediately ahead of Dallas.

The Cowboys have certainly reaped the benefits of having cost-effective quarterbacking salaries for the large chunk of this 14-year cycle (Romo eventually got paid big bucks); and Jones and Co. have likely gotten used to the art of building deep and potentially dynamic rosters, without devoting market-setting monies to starting quarterbacks.

This isn’t even a new way of thinking for Jones, either.

Remember how Jones once infamously stated that 500 head coaches could win big with the Cowboys’ roster of the early-to-mid 1990s — a not-so-subtle jab at head coach Jimmy Johnson’s public plea for a higher salary?

Bottom line: Yes, Jones puts up a big, stubborn wall when it comes to controlling salaries of certain players and coaches; but his track record of building viable rosters also supports the notion of taking a hard-line stance with Prescott.

Especially when Tom Brady, Philip Rivers, Ryan Tannehill, Teddy Bridgewater and Jameis Winston are all slated to hit unrestricted free agency next week.

PERCENTAGE PLAY

For his rookie campaign of 2016, Prescott had a base salary of $450,000, thus accounting for less than 1 percent of the Cowboys’ salary cap ($155.27 million).

And for 2019, the final season of his entry-level NFL contract, Prescott’s base salary of $2,025,000 represented just 1.06 percent of the Cowboys’ overall cap.

Given these crazy-low figures, along with the quarterback’s uber-consistent play after four years as the Dallas starter, it’s easy to understand Prescott’s lack of enthusiasm toward accepting a so-called hometown discount with his next contract.

Spotrac.com, one of the gold-standard Web sites for tracking and analzying salaries for the four major sports (NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL), has Prescott slotted for a five-year, $165 million extension sometime this summer, with guaranteed monies exceeding the $100 million range.

On paper, an average annual value of $33.012 million would place Prescott fifth in quarterback salaries, trailing only Russell Wilson (Seahawks), Ben Roethlisberger (Steelers), Jared Goff (Rams) and Aaron Rodgers (Packers).

To most observers, this would be a win-win deal for both parties, since Prescott has adjusted well to playing with tailback Ezekiel Elliott (three NFL rushing titles from 2016-18) … and yet, has only claimed one postseason victory in three tries.

However, if the reports of Prescott’s representation seeking $40 million per year are reasonably accurate, that might be a little too rich for the Cowboys, even though they’re the highest-valued franchise in American team sports — at $5.5 billion.

And therein lies the crux of the matter:

It’s comical to see Jones publicly discuss the difficulties of ‘writing out big checks’ to star players, from Prescott … all the way back to Deion Sanders in 1995 (five years, $35 million, with a then-record signing bonus of $12 million).

On a personal net worth level, Jones might have the GDP cachet of small, but productive European countries; and in a salary-cap-free world, hypothetically speaking, Jones could easily afford Prescott’s demands of $40 million per year, while having plenty left over for in-house free-agent gems, such as receiver Amari Cooper and cornerback Byron Jones.

However, with the built-in constrictions of the salary cap, even creative accounting practices might have trouble justifying a cluster of star players (Prescott, Elliott, Cooper, Tyron Smith, Zack Martin, DeMarcus Lawrence, Travis Frederick) consuming cumulative cap hits of roughly $100 million … and still being flexible enough for championship contention.

LEVERAGE, SCHMEVERAGE

I’m not an NFL player agent, nor do I play one on TV.

But from my perspective, it’s difficult to comprehend Prescott’s max-out leverage here, in terms of expecting the Cowboys to acquiesce to the reported demands of $40 million per year.

a) The Cowboys have enough cap room (ranked 5th in the NFL) to slap the ‘franchise’ tag on Prescott on/before March 12 (one year, $26.895 million) and still pursue a top-level quarterback, via free agency; and after that, Dallas could release Dak from the tag obligation in late March, soon after all free-agency money dried up with other teams.

b) Even if Prescott reached the open market at the same time of Brady, Tannehill, Rivers, etc. … do you really think other clubs would offer anything close to $35 million per season (over five years)?

c) From a TV-endorsements perspective, there’s no substitute for being the leader of the Cowboys during prosperous times. Even if Prescott went to big markets like Los Angeles, Chicago or New England, he’d still have difficulty improving upon his current portfolio of corporate champions.

d) Surely, the Cowboys won’t repeat the sins of the Washington Redskins from a few years ago.

During the 2015 campaign, the Redskins failed to go all-out in signing Kirk Cousins to a long-term extension, even on the heels of 4,166 yards passing, 29 touchdowns (11 INTs) and a sterling completion rate of 69.8 percent.

(Curiously, the Redskins had the great foresight to draft Kirk Cousins in the same class as the more heralded Robert Griffin III … but didn’t have enough faith to broker the long-term deal.)

This invariably led to a showdown of wills between the two parties, with the Redskins threatening to use the ‘franchise’ tag on Cousins heading into 2016 … and Cousins happily calling team officials on their bluff.

The end result: Cousins produced back-to-back seasons of 4,000 yards passing for 2017-18 (and 57 combined TD passes), while collecting fully guaranteed franchise-tag salaries of $19.95 million (2017) and $23.94 million (2018).

And the following winter, Cousins bolted the Redskins’ palace of incompetency for the Vikings, inking a fully guaranteed pact of three years and $84 million.

With this history lesson fresh on the minds of everyone in Cowboys Nation, why would Jerry Jones possibly give that kind of leverage to Prescott … if it were eminently avoidable?

JACOB EASON, ANYONE?

With the 17th overall pick in the draft, the Cowboys most likely won’t have a shot at landing LSU’s Joe Burrow, Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa or Oregon’s Justin Herbert — the consensus top three QBs of the 2020 class — minus surrendering a boatload of draft choices for doing so.

However, second-tier performers like Washington’s Jacob Eason, Utah State’s Jordan Love and Georgia’s Jake Fromm will likely be there for the taking at 17; and before you poo-poo their non-elite status, here’s a list of prominent NFL quarterbacks taken after the 16th pick in the last decade:

**Lamar Jackson (2019 NFL MVP … the last of five Round 1 QBs from 2018)

**The aforementioned Dak Prescott

**Derek Carr (Round 2 in 2014 … might have been the 2016 NFL MVP, if not for a late-season injury)

**Jimmy Garoppolo (Round 2 in 2014 … led Niners to a Super Bowl berth)

**Russell Wilson (Round 3 in 2012 … six-time Pro Bowler and future Super Bowl champion)

**Nick Foles (Round 3 in 2012 … future Super Bowl champion)

**Andy Dalton (Round 2 in 2011 … shepherded the Bengals to four playoff berths)

**Colin Kaepernick (Round 2 in 2011 … led 49ers to Super Bowl berth in second season)

Speaking of Eason, have you seen this kid’s bazooka for an arm … and feather-soft touch on deep balls?

These traits alone should motivate Jones and Co. to consider drafting Eason at No. 17 overall, assuming Prescott doesn’t have a long-term contract in place by late April.

At the very least, Eason’s presence would mimimize Prescott’s leverage with holding out, or demanding market-altering money at the quarterback slot.

And for those arguing the Cowboys would be better served drafting a non-quarterback at 17, believing the club’s on the precipice of championship contention, here’s one retort:

Would you seriously doubt Jerry Jones’ capacity for building up the Cowboys’ roster over the next five years, in a scenario where the starting quarterback made less than $6 million for the vast majority of that time?

No need to answer here. History’s already on Jerrah’s side.

About The Managing Editor

Jay Clemons remains the only sports writer on the planet to capture Cynposis Media’s national award for Sports Blog Of The Year (beating out NBA.com, MLB.com, PGATour.com, The Players’ Tribune in 2015), along with the Fantasy Sports Writers Association’s pre-eminent award for Best Writer (2008). Through the years, Mr. Clemons has been a key figure with numerous blue-chip sports/media brands, namely the Detroit Lions, Sports Illustrated, FOX Sports, Bleacher Report and the NBC/Universal family. With Sports Illustrated (2006-11), Clemons served a triple role with SI.com‘s heralded football coverage—editing Peter King’s famed ‘Monday Morning Quarterback’ column, penning award-winning pieces for NFL and then writing/narrating scripted videos within the NFL and baseball realms. In 2013, Clemons’ first year with the company, FOX Sports South enjoyed a monumental increase of approximately 34 million Web hits in a 12-month cycle—merely posting 11 million hits the previous year. 

Then, over a two-month span in 2014, FOX Sports South amassed 19.5 million Web hits—a 60-day record for any FOX affiliate. And in 2015, Clemons claimed the aforementioned Cynopsis Media award on FOX Sports’ behalf, the company’s only national writing award during that period. Clemons, a graduate of Michigan State University  and Wayne State University, has been an on-camera Web-TV host for Sports Illustrated, Bleacher Report and FOX Sports. In 2015, he also became the first-ever sports journalism professor at Kennesaw State University in suburban Atlanta.

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