How Cowboys Will Handle Mike McCarthy’s Contract Year

It’s hard to see how Jerry Jones would make a decision based on the regular season. Plus, big-name players who could be traded, possible teams for Dak Prescott in 2025 and Mike Vrabel’s next move.
Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy addresses the media before practice
Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy addresses the media before practice / Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Your questions and my answers, on their way—appreciate all of the mail this week (even in June!) …

From Bernie Bahrmasel (@BernieBahrmasel): Any chance Dallas extends Mike McCarthy during the season or will the Cowboys wait to see how everything plays out, postseason, etc.?

Bernie, this is a good space for me to share a pretty wild fact I dug out when I was trying to explain the post-Triplets dynasty Dallas Cowboys. Consider these two things …

• Since 2007, the Cowboys are the NFL’s sixth-winningest team, behind only the New England Patriots, Green Bay Packers, Pittsburgh Steelers, New Orleans Saints and Baltimore Ravens, each of whom has won a championship over that 17-season span.

• The Cowboys also carry the fourth-longest conference title game drought in the NFL. Only the Washington Commanders, Miami Dolphins and Detroit Lions have longer ones (Dallas’s last one was after the 1995 season, when the team won its last championship). It’s the fifth-longest if you count the Browns, who moved to Baltimore in ’96 and came back as an expansion team in ’99.

That, to me at least, speaks to a franchise that’s been well-run, has put together really good rosters and has found a way to sustain through multiple groups of players, but may be lacking on the margins, where great teams separate themselves in the postseason.

Which brings me to McCarthy, who on balance has done an excellent job. He’s won 12 games three consecutive years, making him the only coach in franchise history to do so, other than Tom Landry. He’s gotten the most out of Dak Prescott. He hired Dan Quinn, who was a home run addition to captain the defense. Dallas has developed a ton of talent on McCarthy’s watch.

Yet, here we are in his fifth year, and the Cowboys are letting him roll into a contract year, and obviously the franchise’s failure to take the next steps—something that’s not specific to just McCarthy—is why. That’s why it’s difficult for me to see how the Joneses would suddenly reverse course and give McCarthy anything more than a Band-Aid extension based on anything that happens in the regular season.

Why? For the three decades since Jerry Jones yanked the Lombardi Trophy away from Barry Switzer, the regular season has never really been the problem.

From Gregory Smith (@Smitty_G17): Most interesting landing spot for Dak in 2025? I say Raiders.

Greg, that’s an interesting call. I’m just not sure because the Raiders might be retooling over the next few years under new GM Tom Telesco and coach Antonio Pierce. Davante Adams’s contract goes to the stratosphere next year—with numbers exceeding $36 million for both 2025 and ’26. The team has gotten older in some key spots. So I’m not sure this will be the situation that someone like Prescott will look to dive into. I also believe pretty strongly that the Raiders are near the top of the list of teams that would draft a quarterback in April.

So give me the New York Giants as the most interesting spot.

Obviously, you’ve got the intrigue of them being a divisional rival. New York has deep investment in the offensive line. It has a potential star receiver in rookie Malik Nabers. It has the bones of a good defense, as well as a creative offensive coach. To me, the Giants could be a team that surprises people this year and may be a little too good to draft a first-round-worthy quarterback next year, and that’d make Prescott a potential solution if Daniel Jones doesn’t earn his way into starting again for New York in 2025.

From Ronnie (@Tray4o): With the Justin Jefferson extension done, when should we expect the CeeDee Lamb and Ja’Marr Chase extensions?

Ronnie, I don’t think these things will happen overnight, but my guess is both will be done before the season opener.

Dallas, of course, is going to pay a heavy price for not getting Lamb’s deal done before Jefferson got his payday. After last year’s breakthrough, Lamb’s within his rights to ask to get close to Jefferson’s numbers. And, thus, $35 million per year isn’t a wild ask for the first-team All-Pro (who was good enough to make second-team All-Pro in 2022). Based on where they are, I think the Cowboys will eventually have to swallow hard and go there with their star.

As for Chase, he’s so much as said himself that he and his close friend (and fellow LSU Tiger) are in cahoots, and that he planned all along to wait until Jefferson got his contract before signing one of his own. Now, he’s not in a contract year like Jefferson was, but waiting almost never behooves a team, and the Cincinnati Bengals did go to work early on signing Joe Burrow last year. What’s a little tricky about this one is Tee Higgins’s status. My feeling is they’d want that resolved first, maybe with a sweetener to get him to report and play on his franchise tender.

From Jose appreciator (@Brunei131): How long until Vrabel becomes OSU’s coach?

Jose, my sense is that Mike Vrabel’s focus would be on landing another NFL job, rather than going back to the increasingly messy college level. There are few coaches out of work (maybe just one, that being the guy with six rings) who are more qualified than Vrabel, and I think a good year on the staff in Cleveland would set him up to have options next year.

That said, I don’t think Jim Harbaugh intended to go back to the college level when things got awkward with the San Francisco 49ers. A lot of folks thought at the end of the 2014 season, he’d move across the bay to the Raiders, or that the Miami Dolphins would move on from Joe Philbin to land their big fish. But in the end, his alma mater stepped and got aggressive, the old Bear Bryant axiom—Momma called—came into play, and Harbaugh went home. Could a similar scenario, at some point, play out with Vrabel in Columbus? Sure, it could.

But for now, again, I think Vrabel’s focus remains on the NFL, and Ohio State should be really, really good (full disclaimer: it’s my alma mater, too) behind Ryan Day in the fall.

From Bernd Backhaus (@BerndBackhaus): Do you have the impression the Falcons will extend A.J. Terrell? If yes, what timing and contract do you envision?

Yes, Bernd, I do think Atlanta intends to extend Terrell, who’s wholly lived up to his first-round billing of four years ago. As is the case with most of these things, the goal would be to get something done before the season starts. And for Terrell, as would be the case with most players, the idea is probably to get paid before the Falcons go into any full-contact work during training camp in the summer.

As for what he’ll get paid, corner is a weird position right now when it comes to that, in that there haven’t been a lot of blockbuster deals done of late. The two highest-paid corners in football, Green Bay’s Jaire Alexander and Cleveland’s Denzel Ward, were re-signed in May and April of 2022, respectively. Next is Miami’s Jalen Ramsey, who broke the $20 million barrier for the position in September of ’20. Then you have Marlon Humphrey (’20) and Marshon Lattimore (’21) with older deals in the $19 million range.

The market simply hasn’t moved much since Ramsey got his nearly four years ago. L’Jarius Sneed and Jaylon Johnson were franchise tagged and signed to longer deals by the Tennessee Titans and Chicago Bears this offseason, both coming in under $20 million per year.

All of that makes valuing someone like Terrell challenging. My guess is that Atlanta will meet the challenge. But finding a middle ground on this one isn’t easy.

Higgins faces an uncertain future in Cincinnati, given the realities of Joe Burrow’s contract. / Cara Owsley/The Enquirer / USA TODAY

From Lugerini (@Lugerini): Which WR is most likely to get traded this offseason: Lamb, Higgins or Aiyuk, and, if so, to which team?

I’d say Tee Higgins. My guess is that Dallas will re-sign Lamb, and the Niners will find a way to get it done with Brandon Aiyuk, which would lead (either before the season or after it) to the exit of Deebo Samuel. So I’m going with Higgins because I think he’s easily the most likely to be on another team in 2025—with the Bengals focused on locking up Ja’Marr Chase—and the question from there is how that’ll happen.

My feeling is the Bengals are all the way in to win the Super Bowl this year and view having Higgins as giving them the best chance. Which to me means they’d do what they need in order to get him in on the franchise tender for 2024. From there, the question will be whether they’d just let him walk after the season and collect what’ll likely be a ’26 third-round comp pick for him or try to tag and trade him. What complicates that is the possibility that they’d need to give him a no-tag provision to get him to come in on the tag this year.

Also, I think it’s important to be clear here on the fact that the Bengals love Higgins. This isn’t about wanting to offload him. More so, it’s about the realities teams face after doing monster extensions with star quarterbacks. It forces choice. One is Chase vs. Higgins, and Chase, at this point, is simply the better player. Ultimately, that’s what makes Higgins the most likely to move of the three players listed, whether it’s by trade or not.

From Paul G (@PaulGonzalez10): Better team. Miami or Jets.

This is pretty simple: The New York Jets have the better team right now. If healthy, they have the edge at quarterback. The Dolphins have them on skill players, but it’s not like the cupboard is bare there in Florham Park, with Garrett Wilson and Breece Hall on board. The Jets’ line, with Tyron Smith, Morgan Moses, John Simpson and Olu Fashanu added, passed Miami’s this offseason. And with the Dolphins losing Christian Wilkins, Jerome Baker and Xavien Howard this offseason, the Jets’ defense is significantly better.

Now, that doesn’t mean they’ll finish ahead of Miami. The Dolphins’ staff has done a great job of maximizing its talent the past few years. But even there, there’s turnover, with Anthony Weaver taking over for Vic Fangio in running the defense. So I don’t have to hesitate much in answering your question here.

From A L I S S A (@MissAlissaS): Who do you think will start for the Vikings this year between Sam Darnold and J.J. McCarthy and why?

I think Darnold will start because he’s better than you think, and because I know Kevin O’Connell has a detailed, tiered plan to break McCarthy in and get him ready to play.

Now, history tells us that McCarthy will get in the lineup sooner rather than later. But the Vikings do have one thing that traditionally has allowed for a team to take a patient approach, and that’s a team capable of contending. When the Packers redshirted Jordan Love in 2020, they had a contender led by an accomplished veteran quarterback. Ditto for the Chiefs with Patrick Mahomes in ’17 and Titans with Jake Locker in ’11.

And along those lines, I’d implore you to go take a look at the fourth quarter of last year’s Christmas night showdown between the Niners and Ravens. Yes, it was garbage time of a Baltimore blowout. But go back and look at how much faster Darnold looked like he was playing, given the advantage of a Kyle Shanahan scheme and a really good group around him. He’ll have similar edges in Minnesota, which I think will give him the chance to play well and, in turn, give the Vikings the chance to be smart with McCarthy.

I also think O’Connell will be disciplined with all of this.

From Luis Herrera (@luisrha): Over/under on weeks before the media starts the “the NFL went too far with the kickoff rules” discussion?

Luis, it’d be great if we could put a six-week moratorium on complaining about the new kickoff. It’s going to take time to settle, and for teams to game it up and troubleshoot it, so it’s a fair bet that it’ll be a little messy at first.

By November or so, we should have a better handle on what it might look like long term.

From Ruwhs6dbwb (@Phoenix94335920): Most likely trade candidate?

I think someone such as Najee Harris could make sense. If it’s clear early in camp that the Steelers will be riding Jaylen Warren—who’s been impressive—and have some depth behind him, and a team has an injury (or just doesn’t like what it has at the position early in camp), Harris is a logical name to look at, as a talented guy in a contract year.

Albert Breer