Mailbag: What Are the Expectations For the Cowboys After Signing Dak Prescott?

What's next for Dallas after getting their quarterback signed long-term? Plus, a Justin Fields comparison, likely Patriots cuts, the wide receiver market and how long Russell Wilson will stay in Seattle.
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Cuts are coming, free agency is, too, and you had questions. I have some answers …

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From Tom Marshall (@aredzonauk): Are the Cowboys getting too much credit for the Dak Prescott deal?

I don’t know that they’re getting that much credit, Tom. I think most people I’ve heard have had it right—they easily could’ve saved themselves the aggravation and a lot of money by going in early and doing the deal in 2019 or the spring of 2020. My understanding is that last year a Russell Wilson–type deal (four years, $140 million) would’ve gotten it done. But Dallas wouldn’t budge on years (they wanted at least five), so they wound up costing themselves about $20 million over the life of the agreement as a result (and gave on the fifth year).

Now, in the Cowboys’ defense, I do think we saw something last year that we hadn’t previously—and that was, before Prescott’s injury, his ability to carry a team. A big part of paying a guy at that level is feeling like he can maintain his level of play with less around him, since he’s going to take up a massive piece of the cap. So getting to see it, with the offensive line torn apart with injuries, Ezekiel Elliott slumping and the defense a train wreck early last fall was significant for the team.

And that brought us to the last few weeks. Prescott had a historic level of leverage, with a $37.68 million tag coming and a price exceeding $54 million looming if he were to be tagged a third time in 2022. Add that up, and you get a two-year average that tops $46 million, and Prescott knew that by sitting still he’d either get that, or to be a free agent a year from now at 28 years old.

In the end the Cowboys gave on years and gave on guarantees to keep the average per year a lot more manageable. Prescott is getting $40 million per, lands the four-year deal he wanted and an unprecedented guarantee. He’s assured $95 million the minute he signs the deal, and another $31 million is guaranteed for injury, and vests as fully guaranteed next March. So he’ll either get the $95 million for a single year or $126 million, no matter what.

If Prescott’s back to his preinjury form, and sustains that over the course of the deal, this one truly is a win for everyone, and the sides will be back at table doing another contract in early 2024.

From Sweetbriar Vintage (@SBVintFurn): What are expectations for the Cowboys now that Dak has signed his extension? Thanks, Jason

Thanks, Jason. Any discussion here has to start with the salary cap. With the $182.5 million cap, the Cowboys have around $22 million under the cap with which to work. Prescott’s 2021 cap number under his new contract? $22.2 million. So after the Prescott deal they are right up against it, and that’s actually a better spot than they would’ve been in with the $37.68 million franchise tag, which was a piece of the quarterback’s leverage in getting a deal done early.

So the first question would be what they’ll do to create breathing room for draft picks, and other inevitable expenses in 2021. They could cut underperforming linebacker Jaylon Smith, but that would only help as a post–June 1 cut—he’s due $7.2 million this year and would have $15.8 million in dead cap to work through. That’d mean he’d cost $8.6 million more to not have around as a conventional cut and would only save $3 million as a post–June 1 cut (and cost $13.8 million on the 2022 cap in the process).

Tyron Smith, the seven-time Pro Bowler, is another name I’ve heard. But his contract is leveraged, too (though not nearly as much as Smith’s), and would the Cowboys really want to create a hole at left tackle? Zack Martin and Amari Cooper are among the guys with contracts that, at least on the surface, look ripe to be restructured, so that’s one place I’d think Dallas could find answers.

Put all that together, and I’d say that Dallas is very likely going to be quiet during the veteran acquisition period, content to let the Prescott contract stand as the team’s one headline move. And with a full complement of their own picks, starting with the 10th pick, and likely comp picks (maybe a three for Byron Jones, a four for Robert Quinn and a five for Randall Cobb), they can attack needs in the secondary, and work on getting younger on the offensive line, at the end of April.

Despite all the cap problems here, Dallas remains plenty talented. That’s, in fact, part of how they got in that financial hole in the first place.

From Not who you think I am (@DonRidenour): Do you have the same confidence in Fields as you had in Haskins last year?

Don, I don’t know if Justin Fields will become a roaring success in the NFL the same as I didn’t know whether Dwayne Haskins would become one. Here’s what I do know—they’re very different people, and very different athletes. In a few ways …

• Maturity questions dogged Haskins at Ohio State, through the draft process and manifested in the NFL. You won’t find the same questions on Fields, who was way more mature and much quieter. Fields largely eschewed the spotlight attended to being a quarterback at that school and earned respect with his play, becoming a captain as a junior.

• There were also questions on how Haskins would stand in against a rush, and take hits in the pros. No one’s going to question Fields’s toughness or competitiveness. In those two areas, Fields was considered elite among those at OSU. You can ask Clemson about it.

• And finally, Fields is a much better athlete than Haskins was coming out. The expectation of the Ohio State people is that he’ll run in the 4.4s, and he’s plenty capable of sub-4.45 at his pro day, which would put him in rarified air among QBs. (The last QB to run 4.4 at the combine was Robert Griffin III in 2012.) By comparison, last year, Jalen Hurts ran 4.59, and Justin Herbert ran 4.68. And Fields, by the way, plays at between 225 and 230 pounds.

• On the flip side, he’s not as evolved a passer as Haskins was, and got himself in trouble last year against Indiana and Northwestern by trying to be Superman in situations that didn’t call for it. Most say he’d be better off going somewhere he could sit for a year (Atlanta?), and learn more football, which he’s capable of doing; and, as a guy who’s always been a superior athlete, learn how to work and, moreover, lean on that work in games.

So that’s sort of where I’m at on him: Fields is plenty worthy of a top-five pick and I think in a lot of ways his case mirrors Herbert’s last year, where a quarterback’s been in the spotlight for so long that we tend to overanalyze him. The bottom line is Fields, like Herbert, has a ton of things you can’t teach, and that includes not just his physical ability but his toughness and competitiveness. And I think when you get him, he’ll be a willing and capable learner, like Herbert has been.

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From MrTMoney1993 (@MrTMoney1993): Who would be better fit in Carolina: Bud Dupree or Haason Reddick?

Mr. T Money, we’ve seen Panthers coach Matt Rhule’s propensity for getting players he shares a background with over his 13 short months as an NFL coach—he coached Robby Anderson, PJ Walker, Colin Thompson and Sam Franklin at Temple, Bravvion Roy at Baylor, and had two others from each school on Carolina’s practice squad in 2020. And as I’m sure you know, Reddick is another former Temple Owl.

Now, do I think Rhule and the Panthers go where Reddick is headed financially? I’m less sure of that, because he’ll probably get north of $12 million per year, after his 12-sack season, and Carolina figures to be less than $20 million under the cap when factoring Taylor Moton’s franchise tag in. But I’m not ruling it out, either.

From DANIEL (@FRONCZAK68): WTF are the Bears doing with Allen Robinson and their QB situation? Most likely scenario?

Hey, Daniel. I think you’d have to tell me how likely it is that Russell Wilson is actually, truly available for me to answer that. I know Seattle is listening to offers. I know that relationship is strained to the point where it seems unlikely to those involved that Wilson will sign another contract in Seattle. (He’s got three years left on his current deal.)

What I don’t know is if the Seahawks have the stomach to move on from Wilson with a coach who’s turning 70 this year, and a roster that won 12 games last year, even though they have the contractual flexibility to Band-Aid the problem for another year or two.

But if he’s available? Yes, I think the Bears will be involved, and it’ll be interesting to see how creatively they could put something together that would appeal to Seattle, and also how willing ownership is to allow the current brass, led by GM Ryan Pace and coach Matt Nagy, to trade away future assets to do something aimed very much on the here and now. I personally think Wilson would be worth the freight as an organizational decision, regardless of who might or might not be in charge next year.

Also, my belief is that Wilson likes the Bears because of the sort of platform a historic franchise located in the nation’s third-largest market would give him.

As for Allen Robinson, the writing was on the wall for this one. If you’re planning a big swing at quarterback—and the team being patient with Nick Foles as a placeholder is a good indication Chicago is sizing up such a swing—it makes no sense to let one of the league’s best receivers, who’s still just 27, walk. Especially when the price tag, $18 million, is very reasonable, and getting it right at quarterback might change his feelings on staying.

From BradyForcesJetsFansToCry (@Pats_1988): Bill Belichick calls you and says, Mr. Breer, make a decision on Gilmore, Edelman and Cannon. Then tell me who we should sign with the $60 mil cap space or more if you cut/trade one of the three names above. And you are responsible for Day 1 and 2 of the draft. Best regards from Austria.

Brady! Always good to hear from the motherland. I think there’s a decent chance all three will be gone, but I’d put those guys in separate categories.

• Stephon Gilmore, to me, will be gone if the Patriots can find someone to flip them maybe a third-round pick and something else. The trouble is that it’s likely another team will only do that if they can extend him, and you might be hesitant to do it since he’s coming back from a pretty serious injury. So this is a big “we’ll see.”

• Julian Edelman’s fate might ride on who’s playing quarterback—stylistically, he was always a great fit for the Tom Brady Patriots, but would’ve been less so for other quarterbacks. And the Patriots have always tailored their receivers to their QBs (Brandin Cooks, for example, was acquired for Jimmy Garoppolo; Damiere Byrd for Cam Newton). So at 34, with the injuries, and his number ($4 million), the Pats may want to figure out QB before deciding on a guy who’ll one day be in the team’s Hall of Fame.

• Marcus Cannon’s making $6.35 million this year, and isn’t assured of being a starter after the acquisition of Trent Brown. It’d shock no one if New England asks him to take a pay cut, or releases him.

From Jeremy Friedrichs (@FriedrichsJk): Do you think we’ll ever see an NFL player intentionally take less money on a contract as a social experiment? As a way to encourage other players not to think about having to get every last dollar?

Jeremy, I’m not sure what that would accomplish as a social experiment. Obviously, there’s functional value to the idea of it, though, and the Buccaneers are becoming the example of it that the Patriots had been forever. If Tom Brady’s making $40 million or $45 million in 2021, as a quarterback coming off a seventh Super Bowl win would be warranted to, then I’m not sure you can take on the $16 million-or-so lump sum that Chris Godwin’s tag will entail, and maybe you wind up losing a Rob Gronkowski or Ndamukong Suh.

I’m not suggesting anyone take less than they’re worth, and Brady’s personal circumstances definitely give him more flexibility than others, but there’s no denying the benefit that’s felt across the organization. And you’re right that this approach by a quarterback can at least encourage others to do the same.

But I also know the NFL too well to ever advocate for a player doing that. The reality is a team’s loyalty to a player, to the point where they’d keep him employed at a given rate, is tied directly to his usefulness to that team. So no player should be compelled to cut his team breaks when he knows he’s a bad knee injury away from that team backing out of its commitment to him.

So I’d applaud guys who can, like Brady, to do things at their own cost to help their team win at a high level, while never blaming anyone who’s going to maximize his value in the short window he has to do that as a pro football player. Remember, they may be millionaires, but the guys on the other side of the table are billionaires, with a capital B.

From Shedrick Carter (@shedrickcarter2): Why are so many teams waiting for the last minute to get under the cap? I know that they are waiting on the final cap numbers but we know that it’s between $180-185 million. Some teams are over by 15 to 20 mill and need more than the 5 million difference

Shedrick, a $5 million difference is actually pretty significant—and can be the difference between, say, restructuring a handful of guys or just waving the white flag and cutting one or two. So I’d say the teams that are in a tight cap position (and as we detailed on Monday, there are nine still over what was then expected to be a $183 million cap, and all nine by more than a few bucks) are probably using the uncertainty in trying to negotiate for expensive players to take a little bit less money to stay.

You’ve seen some teams do solids for respected vets, of course. The Vikings did that for Kyle Rudolph, the Texans for J.J. Watt—allowing those guys to get a jump on what could be a very difficult market. But in most cases, teams don’t have any motivation to get rid of good players until they absolutely know that they have to. And without a salary cap in place, we weren’t not there yet.

One place you can find a clue on who’ll be cut, though, is seeing whose names are coming up in trade talks. Safety/corner Lamarcus Joyner, cut by the Raiders this week, is a good example of that.

From Matt Tesorero (@MattTesorero): If top three guys get tagged who will Washington look to at WR?

Matt, we now know the score here—Tampa Bay’s Chris Godwin and Chicago’s Allen Robinson are off the market, and Detroit’s Kenny Golladay is headed for the market. And I do think in a lot of ways the bigger-bodied Golladay would be an interesting fit to play opposite Terry McLaurin in Washington. (The one thing about Golladay that has to be taken into account, while we’re here, is that since he doesn’t separate like some other receivers, he’ll fit better with some quarterbacks than others, and we’re not sure who Washington’s will be.)

The other name I’d give you, and my loyal readers have been down this road with me before, is Curtis Samuel. The Swiss Army knife of a skill player played for Ron Rivera and Scott Turner in Carolina, and he really fits what Turner has looked for in skill players—the type of guy with positional flexibility to play all over the formation. In fact, in the same way Antonio Gibson is a back who can play receiver, Samuel’s a wideout who can play tailback.

Also, fun fact: Samuel and McLaurin were in the same recruiting class at Ohio State.

From Rocky Lum (@RockyLum): Could Russell Wilson and Pete Carroll reach some kind of detente and give Russell more input in the running of the offense?

Rocky, I don’t think that’s the problem. Wilson and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer won a battle to open the offense up early in the year. And even after that was scuttled, which created some issues, the Seahawks included Wilson in the search to replace Schottenheimer, and Wilson signed off on bringing Shane Waldron in from the Rams.

The issue here, for Wilson, remains the long-term vision for the franchise, and his place in it, and the state of the offensive line in front of him. The issue for the Seahawks is the constant drama, and how after they checked that first box, Wilson created even more by going public on the two unchecked boxes.

There’s just a lot here, and there has been for a long time. The question’s going to be whether the Seahawks are finally fed up with it, and how determined Wilson is to find a place that’s more willing to facilitate his vision and give him a bigger platform than Seattle has. I personally think he’s probably signed his last contract with the team. And I reserve the right to change my mind if circumstances change here. But as it stands now, it feels like the clock is ticking on his time as a Seahawk.

From Adam Wells (@DCHamSandwich): What’s your expectation on the timing of a Darnold deal?

Hi, Adam. I actually started working on where Sam Darnold’s trade value would be back in the fall, when it looked like the Jets would wind up with Trevor Lawrence, and I actually think the answer I got back then probably holds true now—maybe a little more than the Cardinals got for Josh Rosen in 2019. Arizona, after drafting Kyler Murray first overall that April, wound up flipping Rosen for a (late) two and a five.

And yes, Darnold’s been a better player, and remains a better prospect than Rosen. But Rosen was also just one year into his rookie deal at the time, had three cheap years on it left and we didn’t know then what we know now about how his NFL career would play out. As we said Monday eight teams have inquired with the Jets, and my guess would be the return winds up right around there—maybe a second-rounder and something else.