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If Dak Leaves Cowboys - Are there 2021 NFL trade options?

What If Dak Prescott Is Really Done (Eventually) With the Dallas Cowboys? 2021 NFL trade options? Part 4 of A Series

When you think about a 2021 without Dak Prescott at quarterback, we’ve explored the idea of the Dallas Cowboys replacing him by promoting from within (that was Part 1), by signing someone in free agency (that was Part 2) and by taking a future replacement in the 2021 NFL Draft (that was Part 3).

But there is one other way the Cowboys could address the opening. Could the Cowboys find a replacement by executing a trade?

To figure out whether that’s a possibility, I first had to do some research. I had to look at every team’s roster (as of July 27) and figure out which quarterbacks made the most sense. To qualify for this exercise the quarterback had to be under contract through past 2021 (it makes little sense for the Cowboys to trade for a player that won’t be under contract beyond 2021). The hard part of the process was trying to create two categories. I wanted to create a category for younger quarterbacks that could have upside and could be had for less in trade. But they were not easy to identify. Some are set to be free agents in 2021. Some, frankly, don’t have the track record to expect them to be successful with a mature Cowboys offense.

In fact, I’m not sure the “young with upside” category matters here. If the Cowboys have to make a move via trade, owner and general manager Jerry Jones will be looking for a veteran hand to run the offense, one that could capitalize on the tools in this offense and try and get the Cowboys to a Super Bowl. A young, cheap quarterback with upside doesn’t fit that bill.

So, my list skewed toward veteran quarterbacks with multiple years left on their contracts. That also means the Cowboys will have to pay more to get them, whether it be current players or draft picks. The list begins with a quarterback that has a connection to new head coach Mike McCarthy.

Aaron Rodgers

Rodgers has passed for nearly 50,000 yards in his career, despite sitting for three seasons behind Brett Favre. Rodgers had some of his best seasons with McCarthy as his head coach, including a run to a Super Bowl title at AT&T Stadium. And he’s not too pleased with the fact that the Packers drafted his potential replacement, Jordan Love, in the first round in April. In fact, Rodgers said this week that he knows his time with Green Bay is ticking down and that he drowned his sorrows after Love’s selection with tequila, as he told The Ringer’s Kyle Brandt on his “10 Questions” podcast.

The irony is rich, as Rodgers was in that situation the year he came out of college and was drafted in the first round to eventually replace Favre. But the Packers have always been smart about having a succession plan at that position, and taking Love is no different and no less calculated. 

The Packers don’t have to trade Rodgers any time soon, but keeping him carries a huge price tag. He has three years left on his deal after 2020, and the base salary is pretty heavy for a 37-year-old quarterback — $14.7 million in 2021, and then $25 million each in 2022 and 2023. The contract is written in a way in which there is no guaranteed money for the final three seasons. But in 2021, if Green Bay keeps Rodgers, that triggers a $6.8 million roster bonus. Combine that with the $14.3 million cap hit as a result of the original contract and renegotiations and Rodgers’ cap hit in 2021 will be $36 million. 

It’s hard to see the Packers carrying that cost, especially with the deal going through 2023. It’s also hard to see the Cowboys assuming that cost — unless they and Prescott have parted ways and the Cowboys want to cut off potential suitors if the Packers cut Rodgers.

I can see the Packers trading Rodgers, but it won’t be a cheap trade, especially if Rodgers goes out and has his usual season statistically and the Packers make the playoffs again (and, in that scenario, I would argue, ‘Why trade him?’). 

But that’s also the reason you explore making the deal at that time. 

A future Hall-of-Fame starter coming off a fine season would likely be more valuable at that time than at any point in the future. And the Packers, with Love on hand, would probably try to cash in.

What would it cost? I see a first-round pick being part of the bargain, perhaps more selections and even a current veteran player. The Packers won’t make it easy, nor should they. So why would you do it if you’re the Cowboys? You’d have to be worried that Rodgers hits the open market and gets picked up. You’d have to be worried that there’s no comparable player on the open market or in the draft. And you’d have to be certain that reuniting Rodgers and McCarthy would lead to greatness.

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So let’s address the elephant in the room. Just how much DID Rodgers and McCarthy dislike each other? The Bleacher Report article, written by Tyler Dunne, was scathing. Players and team personnel said that Rodgers, after all these years, was still unhappy that McCarthy, who was the offensive coordinator in San Francisco when Rodgers left Cal for the 2005 NFL Draft, was passed up by the 49ers for Alex Smith (the Packers picked Rodgers up at No. 24). Others said Rodgers likes to play the blame game when it came to the team’s failures. Meanwhile, some said McCarthy checked out on his team. Most agreed the relationship between the pair was borderline toxic.

So why on earth would the Cowboys re-introduce the pairing in an “oil-meets-water” scenario? Rings, baby, rings.

Jerry wants another.

Mike wants another.

Aaron wants another.

Both of them would have to sign off. It would have to be an ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’ kind of scenario. And the Cowboys would have to pay the price to get him here.

Unlikely? Probably. But if you’re the Cowboys and you no longer have Prescott, you’re looking for the best possible option to get the Cowboys to a Super Bowl. At least Rodgers has done it.

Rodgers isn’t the only option, though. My research led me to other potential trade options, if the Cowboys were so inclined:

Matthew Stafford: He’s nearly as costly an option as Rodgers (a $33 million cap hit in 2021 for starters), but he’s signed for one less year (his current deal has a void year in 2023) and he’s a little younger (32 years old in 2020). Stafford is certainly a prolific offensive player and a Dallas local, so it wouldn’t be such a bad thing to bring him back home, right? Like Rodgers, the cost would be high.

Teddy Bridgewater: The Panthers just shoveled a bunch of money at Bridgewater to replace Cam Newton (a three-year, $45 million deal), but he still has to fend off Will Grier to take the starting job. Envision a Russell Wilson-Matt Flynn situation. Would the Panthers really want to pay the rest of that deal if Grier wins the job? Bridgewater could be had for a song, trade-wise, but that song would come with a cap hit of $20 million in 2021, but only $5 million in 2022.

Nick Foles: The Bears just signed him to a three-year deal worth just $12 million. He has to beat out Mitch Trubisky for the job first. Next spring, the Bears would have to re-sign Trubisky (they chose not to exercise the fifth-year option on Trubisky) or a replacement. Then the Bears would have to commit to Trubisky, or that replacement, and not Foles. The good news is that Foles would come on the cheap. He would only be a two-year option. But he won’t cost a first-round pick and he’s won a Super Bowl.

Case Keenum: He just signed a three-year deal worth $13 million to back up Baker Mayfield. Assuming Mayfield remains the starter, there would be a lot of value in trading a third- or fourth-round pick to get a player with about $12 million left on his contract after this season.

Alex Smith: The big roll of the dice. He’s been cleared to play, but it’s Dwayne Haskins’ job now. So Smith, 37 years old, is trade bait come next spring. He comes with a hefty price tag — $39 million in base salary in the final two years of his contract. But he would make a potential stop gap option, despite that.

With the exception of Bridgewater, all of the best options are older than 30. I believe the Cowboys will be looking for a veteran that can run the offense and keep them in contention to try and get to a Super Bowl. But in a world where that relationship between Prescott and the Cowboys breaks, I think Jones and the Cowboys might take the big swing and try to get grab Rodgers or Stafford to keep things moving in 2021.

One might argue that keeping Prescott is the better option — and I’ll make that case in my final piece on Sunday.