The Dallas Cowboys would appear to be one of the most likely teams to contend with the 49ers in the NFC this coming season, and they better do it, because they've backed themselves into a corner with some truly head-scratching decisions that seem likely to shorten their contending window.
Every team wants the best players, but in a salary cap-governed sport, that's simply not possible. The secret to building -- and maintaining -- a contender is getting production from the most key positions without having to pay according value. That's why the draft is so extremely important.
The Cowboys, it would appear, have disregarded that strategy. Last September, they gave running back Ezekiel Elliot a six-year, $90 million contract. Then, back in March, they signed receiver Amari Cooper to a five-year, $100 million contract. And finally, they failed to reach a contract extension with quarterback Dak Prescott at Wednesday's franchise tag deadline, which ultimately will amount to them either paying him more in the long run than they would have now, trading him, or losing him for nothing but a third-round compensatory draft pick.
Not all of the money in those contracts is guaranteed, mind you, but nonetheless it puts Dallas in a precarious financial situation, particularly given the expected drop in league revenue due to the coronavirus pandemic.
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According to Spotrac, the Cowboys enter the 2020 season as the only team in the league that has a top-three cap hit at both the quarterback (first) and running back (third) positions, while Cooper's ranks 16th among all wide receivers. For the 2021 season, however, all three cap hits will surge upward, as Elliot's ($13.7 million) will lead all running backs and Cooper's ($22.0 million) will rank second among all wideouts.
As for what Prescott's 2021 cap hit will be remains up in the air. Since the Cowboys didn't reach an agreement with him prior to Wednesday's deadline, they cannot negotiate another contract with him until the conclusion of the 2020 league year. If they choose to franchise tag him for a second straight offseason, Prescott will make $37.7 million in 2021.
If they sign him to a long-term extension, you can be sure it'll cost them more per season than it would have last week, as he'll be able to negotiate off of any other quarterback contracts signed over that span. Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, for instance, seems likely to sign an extension before Prescott does. And, if Dallas were to apply the franchise tag to Prescott for a third consecutive offseason in 2022, the cap hit would explode to an unreal $54.3 million.
Let's just focus on 2021, though. The Cowboys already have $173 million counting toward the 2021 salary cap, though they'll roll over approximately $10 million in additional cap space from 2020. Let's say they tag Prescott again. Suddenly, they're at nearly $210 million in expenses, which theoretically wouldn't be too hard to fit within the salary cap if it holds steady at $198.7 million. Of course, it's highly unlikely to hold steady.
The salary cap is almost certain to drop significantly due to the loss of league revenue resulting from the coronavirus pandemic. The only question is, by how much?
ESPN's Bill Barnwell laid out how cumbersome Prescott's 2021 cap hit could be depending on how much the salary cap drops. As he explained, if the salary cap were to drop to $150 million, "the $37.7 million the Cowboys would have to pay Prescott next year would feel more like paying him $51.3 million under their current cap situation."
You could argue that Prescott, Elliot and Cooper all are worth what they'll be paid in 2021. But if they're combined cap hits amount to $73.4 million, that's nearly 50 percent of a $150 million salary cap spent on three players. You simply cannot win in the NFL like that. Whatever the 2021 salary cap is, those three will take up a huge chunk of it.
Paying Elliot what they did was questionable, as there's an argument that's a waste of cap space at a position where you could find much cheaper alternatives, but still get similar production. Cooper's deal looks more ridiculous now after Dallas drafted CeeDee Lamb in the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft, as he projects as a true No. 1 receiver. Not reaching an agreement with Prescott now, however, might be the straw that broke the camel's back. It has been reported that the sticking point was that Dallas was unwilling to give him a four-year deal, and if that's the case, they're extremely likely to regret that in the not-too-distant future.
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Assuming Prescott doesn't significantly digress in 2020, he is only going to cost the Cowboys more moving forward. Not to mention, the closer he gets to unrestricted free agency, the more teams will be vying for his services, thereby driving up his price.
The Cowboys should be good in 2020. Great, perhaps. But while their present appears bright, it likely won't be long until they're facing a very dark reality.