CeeDee Lamb

How 49ers could benefit from Cowboys mishandling Dak Prescott contract

How 49ers could benefit from Cowboys mishandling Dak Prescott contract

The Dallas Cowboys would appear to be one of the most likely teams to contend with the 49ers in the NFC this coming season. They better, 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 that's simply not possible in a salary cap-governed sport. The secret to building -- and maintaining -- a contender is getting production from the most key positions without having to pay market 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 Dallas nonetheless is 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.

Prescott's 2021 cap hit, on the other hand, 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 was 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 their 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 they're extremely likely to regret that in the not-too-distant future if that's the case.

[RELATE: What 49ers can learn from Chiefs' deals with Mahomes, Jones]

Assuming Prescott doesn't significantly regress 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.

49ers had Brandon Aiyuk, CeeDee Lamb almost dead even, John Lynch says

49ers had Brandon Aiyuk, CeeDee Lamb almost dead even, John Lynch says

The 49ers faced a tough decision early on in the 2020 NFL Draft, but general manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan aced the test.

With Oklahoma wide receiver CeeDee Lamb and South Carolina defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw both on the board, the 49ers had to decide which option would most benefit their team. The 49ers drafted Kinlaw, with a deciding factor being they had another receiver tied with Lamb atop their board in Brandon Aiyuk, and hoped they might be able to find a way to nab the Arizona State product later in the first round.

Lynch explained to NBC Sports' Peter King how much they loved both receivers.

"He and CeeDee, at the end of the day, we had almost evenly matched," Lynch said  on "The Peter King Podcast.." "It was hard not to take CeeDee because he had so much more production in college and in high school. He was one of the most prolific high school players in Texas history. But Aiyuk is a guy that just the more we watched, the more fond we grew of him."

Lamb was viewed by many analysts as the top wide receiver in a loaded class, with his YAC ability, good hands and elite body control making him an ideal fit for almost any offense. While Lamb might have been the YAC king, Aiyuk was no stranger to forcing missed tackles. The 6-foot receiver averaged 10.9 yards after the catch and has an 81-inch wingspan.

His college coach Herm Edwards invoked jerry Rice when discussing Aiyuk's football speed, and Lynch admitted the 49ers even thought about taking Aiyuk at No. 13 if they couldn't trade down.

"I think it was two days before, I said to Kyle, 'You know what? I know people might raise some eyebrows, but I really don't care. At 13, if we get stuck, and we can't trade out, I'd be perfectly happy taking Aiyuk.' And he said, 'I'm so glad you said that because I feel the same way.'"

The 49ers made the right decision in opting to select Kinlaw over Lamb at No. 14 after their trade down with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. While there's no doubt Lamb would have been a monster in Shanahan's system, the 49ers know football still is won in the trenches. After trading DeForest Buckner to the Indianapolis Colts in the offseason, they needed to plug the massive hole they had in a defensive line that led their charge to Super Bowl LIV.

Adding Kinlaw, a raw, powerful defensive tackle with a sky-high ceiling allows the 49ers to extend their championship window. The combination of Kinlaw, Nick Bosa, Dee Ford and Arik Armstead upfront should wreak havoc on opposing quarterbacks.

Drafting Lamb, or even Aiyuk at No. 13 or 14 after the trade down, would have put the 49ers in a less than ideal position. Missing out on Kinlaw would have forced the 49ers to either reach for a defensive tackle from the next tier at No. 31, or trade down and pick a player who might not be able to contribute as much immediately as Kinlaw is expected to.

The 49ers got lucky that the Philadelphia Eagles passed on Justin Jefferson at No. 21. Philly taking Jalen Reagor meant the Minnesota Vikings could snap up Jefferson and it sent the 49ers scrambling to move from No. 31 to draft Aiyuk before the Green Bay Packers could do so.

In the end, the 49ers were able to add the second-best defensive line prospect in the class and the wide receiver they had at the top of their board in Aiyuk.

[RELATED: Packers picking Aiyuk could lead to Rodgers-Packers divorce]

Aiyuk should thrive in Shanahan's system. Per PFF, Aiyuk ranked 241 out of 241 receiving prospects in average depth of target and still racked up 1,192 yards. Shanahan will be able to get him the ball in space, and Aiyuk can handle the rest.

The 49ers played the draft perfectly and were able to add pieces who can contribute to another Super Bowl run in 2020 and also be long-term franchise building blocks.

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Brandon Aiyuk falling past Eagles made 49ers trade up in 2020 NFL Draft

Brandon Aiyuk falling past Eagles made 49ers trade up in 2020 NFL Draft

The 49ers liked wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk enough to strongly consider drafting him with the first of two first-round selections in last week's NFL draft, but one team needed to pass on the Arizona State product for San Francisco to pick him with its second.

When the Philadelphia Eagles turned heads and selected former TCU receiver Jalen Reagor with the No. 21 overall pick in the first round, the 49ers swung into action.

"We never had any intention of moving up in this draft," general manager John Lynch told NBC Sports' Mike Tirico on Tuesday's "Lunch Talk Live." "It was all about moving back to accrue some more picks. But when Aiyuk fell past Philly, we started scrambling on the phones, saying here's a guy we might have taken at 13 had Kinlaw not been there and some other things. So we moved up and called [the Minnesota Vikings], and were able to get a deal done."

The 49ers moved back from No. 13 to 14 after trading with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who were worried left tackle Tristan Wirfs wouldn't be available at No. 14 due to Joe Staley's then-rumored retirement. San Francisco swapped a seventh-rounder for a fourth, and later traded it along with the No. 31 pick to Minnesota in a package that fetched the No. 25 selection. 

Five receivers already had been selected when the 49ers traded up, with the Vikings using the first-rounder they acquired for Stefon Diggs to select former LSU wideout Justin Jefferson with the No. 22 overall pick. Minnesota might not have been as willing to trade back without a receiver it valued in tow, and Philadelphia passing on Jefferson (and Aiyuk) created a window of opportunity for San Francisco.

Coach Kyle Shanahan admitted that Aiyuk and Oklahoma's CeeDee Lamb were his favorite receivers in the 2020 class, and Aiyuk being off the board would've changed the outlook of the 49ers' draft almost entirely. It's easy to envision Lynch, Shanahan and Co. trading back from No. 31 to get more picks, likely ending the draft with far more than the four players they ultimately selected.

[RELATED: Harbaugh calls Staley one of 'best players in NFL history]

More picks wouldn't have necessarily made their draft better, as Lynch said before the draft that the 49ers' existing depth would pose a significant challenge for a potential glut of incoming rookies. San Francisco opted against quantity and even used a fifth-round pick to acquire seven-time Pro Bowl left tackle Trent Williams.

Whether that approach ultimately produces quality contributors remains to be seen, but the 49ers' maneuvering to draft Aiyuk wouldn't have been possible without the picks ahead of them falling their way.

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