If Dak Leaves Cowboys - Free Agent Replacements?
Suppose we live in a world where Dak Prescott is no longer the quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys. It’s the spring of 2021. And Ben DiNucci and Clayton Thorson are the only Cowboys quarterbacks under contract.
Queasy yet? It could happen. As I explained in my first “Life without Dak” piece, nothing with Prescott is guaranteed after the 2020 season, and while the best option remains getting Prescott under a long-term deal, the Cowboys have to explore ALL of the options in case the relationship goes completely south.
So Part 1 was about whether the Cowboys had the ammo to promote from within in a world without Dak. Part 2 is about whether the Cowboys could find a capable replacement in free agency.
In my first piece I noted that Andy Dalton, the current No. 2 on the roster, is still an option in 2021, even though he’s not under contract. That makes Dalton a free-agent option. And I outlined the pros and cons here.
But what about the rest of the landscape? There’s only one name that really gets the mind going.
The former NFL MVP is on a one-year contract in New England that will pay him less than $2 million in 2020 (Prescott will make more than $30 million this season, so wrap your brain around that for a bit). The Panthers didn’t want Newton after nine seasons. Newton won 68 games, led the Panthers to four playoff appearances and Super Bowl 50. Up until last season — when he played only two games due to injury — he was extremely durable, missing no more than two games per season. He threw for more than 29,000 yards and 182 touchdown passes. He also rushed for nearly 4,806 yards and scored 58 touchdowns.
I’m very interested to see what the Patriots do with him this season. Bill Belichick and his staff have a tendency to fit their system around their quarterbacks, and not try to force the system on them. It may not seem that way, as Tom Brady was at the controls of that offense for a long time. But, if you watch the maturation of that offense, you’ll see the adjustments were made for Brady and not the other way around. Plus, these guys made Matt Cassel look like a boss. You remember him, right?
Newton’s arm, while erratic, can make that offense more vertical than it has been the past few years. Newton also has a lower completion percentage than Brady, career-wise. Newton completed 59.6 percent of his passes in Carolina. Brady completed 63.8 percent of his passes in New England.
I think the chances are good that if Newton wins the starting job in New England — and, frankly, he should — that he could have the kind of bounce-back season that puts him in position for a bigger, long-term contract in 2021. He might interest the Patriots long-term. But he would certainly interest other NFL teams, too, in that scenario. And, if Prescott isn’t coming back to Dallas, a rejuvenated Newton might interest the Cowboys, too.
For the record I’m not sure why you would go after Newton when you have Prescott. Aside from the youth (Prescott is four years younger than Newton), Prescott has a better completion percentage than BOTH Newton and Brady (65.8 percent). That doesn’t mean that Prescott is going to lead the Cowboys to a Super Bowl anytime soon. But that difference of more than five percent makes a difference over the course of a full season. Plus, Prescott’s touchdown-to-interception ratio (2.69) is a full point better than Newton’s (1.68). And, Prescott throws an interception every 57.5 pass attempts, while Newton throws one every 36.8 pass attempts. If I’m the Cowboys, Prescott appears to be a better option long-term.
Plus, you have to look at the REST of the potential free-agent options (subject to change, of course):
Philip Rivers: Nearing 40 and might just retire after 2020.
Mitch Trubisky: Former No. 2 overall pick who might not even beat out Nick Foles for the starting job in Chicago this year. The fact that the Bears turned down the chance to exercise his fifth-year option is a significant red flag.
Jacoby Brissett: A less dynamic Newton or Prescott, if we’re being honest.
Ryan Fitzpatrick: See Rivers, Philip.
Tyrod Taylor: See Brissett, Jacoby.
Jameis Winston: See Brissett, Jacoby - though he might learn some things in New Orleans.
Colin Kaepernick: He hasn't taken a snap since 2016. There is no way of knowing how much rust there is on his arm. Right now he's actually older (32) than Newton. Kaepernick was, roughly, as accurate a quarterback as Newton. But you can't rule him for one reason — he's a name everyone knows, and you know how Jerry Jones loves those 'names.' If the Cowboys saw him as an option in 2021, it would likely be on a one-year, incentive-based deal.
You get the idea. Right now, based on what we expect to see in free agency in 2021, Newton is probably the only long-term, multi-year contract answer out there. He’s probably the only player that could take the Cowboys offense and keep it at the level needed in order to be a playoff contender (this, of course, doesn’t take into account that we haven’t seen the new offense head coach Mike McCarthy is installing). There are some cheap options out there, but they would be one-year stopgaps and would mean the Cowboys either feel their young options, DiNucci or Thorson, are developing toward being starters, or that they see an option in the 2021 NFL Draft that needs a year to mature.
And that’s where the next piece will take us — is there a viable option to replace Prescott, long-term, in the 2021 NFL Draft?