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Cowboys Dak Backup: Dalton Vs. Gilbert Vs. NFL Draft?

Is Andy Dalton talking about the Cowboys in the past tense? Maybe not yet. But as free agency opens up this month, Dalton needs to decide on his future. And Dallas needs to decide on its philosophy.

FRISCO - We often say that the backup QB in the NFL is "the 12th starter'' on offense. It worked out that way for the Dallas Cowboys, Dak Prescott and Andy Dalton in 2020.

How will it work out in 2021?

“Absolutely,” Dalton said, recently expressing his view on his ability to remain an NFL starter. “I feel like I can play, and I feel like I can help a team win. Hopefully, with the film that I put out this year, people see that and value me in that way. I obviously feel like I still got a lot of good football left, and we’ll see how it all plays out.”

Dalton is a free agent. Under contract in Dallas are backups Garrett Gilbert (who impressed in his brief opportunity), Cooper Rush and Ben DiNucci (who did not impress in his brief opportunity).

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The No. 1 Dallas Cowboys quarterback is the No. 1 issue. But who might have to sub for starter Dak Prescott in 2021 is an issue, too.

And Dalton, the decade-long veteran first-team in Cincinnati who came home to join the Cowboys this year in part over COVID concerns and his family, might be "The Decider.''

We know the Cowboys would like to have Dalton back, especially if there is a way to create a financial repeat of last season's one-year, $3 million base deal. But it was Dalton's plan to use 2020 as a springboard back to the top.

It's possible - even as Denver, Washington and other NFL teams are known to be considering him - that his plan won't quite work.

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Part of the decision on Dallas' part will be philosophical. In different eras over the last 30 years, the Cowboys have utilized different philosophies at backup QB. Most often, it seems the idea of making sure there is quality there - Steve Beuerlein, Rodney Peete, Bernie Kosar, Wade Wilson, Randall Cunningham, and later Brad Johnson, Jon Kitna and Kyle Orton  - has been preferred. 

Gilbert has not established that he's in that category. Dalton has. Maybe in the game of QB Musical Chairs, Dalton leaves but another veteran arrives in Dallas. Colt McCoy? Tyrod Taylor? C.J. Beathard? How about if Washington ex Alex Smith (who has an old Mike McCarthy connection) finds a dry market and is willing to back up Dak?

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Or ... maybe Dallas uses this NFL Draft, realizing either a) Dak isn't long for Dallas, so an heir must be found or b) a dart-throw at a late-round QB is viewed as always worth it. (Texas' Sam Ehlinger? SMU's Shane Buechele?) 

“There’s a lot to be decided this offseason,” Dalton said. “This is my first time being a free agent when the new league year starts, so I’ll go through the process of everything and weigh all of my options and see what I got.

"I’ve really enjoyed my time in Dallas. Just a good chance to play back at home where I’ve had a lot of family and friends that are able to come to games.''

Does that sound like Andy Dalton talking in the past tense? Maybe not yet. But as free agency opens up this month, Dalton needs to decide on his future. And Dallas needs to decide on its philosophy.

READ MORE: Are Cowboys 'Ride-Or-Die' With Dak?