If Dak Prescott doesn't sign an extension, what's next for Cowboys?

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At the very least, we have to admit the Cowboys warned us.

No, they didn’t spell it out into an open microphone, but the road signs coming out of Indianapolis are easy to read. Well before last week’s NFL Combine had concluded, a small army of league analysts and reporters began spreading the word.

Dak Prescott’s long-discussed contract extension may not be coming in 2024 after all.

That’s the unmistakable takeaway from the biggest gossip session of the year. Nothing is ever set in stone. But one week away from the new league year, the Cowboys have intimated plenty — to local outlets and national ones — that they may let Prescott play out the final year of his current contract and deal with the $59 million cap hit that accompanies it.

The news isn’t exactly surprising. At this point, the Cowboys and Prescott have a long history of lengthy negotiations, dating back to two franchise tags and their first major extension. It shouldn’t be shocking after all these years if Prescott is again committed to setting the market and the Cowboys are again hesitant about the price tag.

To take the conundrum a step further, here’s an uncomfortable admission: for the first time in this long saga, I’m not sure I blame them. NFL quarterback salaries continue to boom, and the salary cap just jumped by a record margin. Extending Prescott by the start of the league year could mean paying him more than $60 million per year. Factor that in with the enormous paydays that are soon coming for CeeDee Lamb and Micah Parsons, and I can understand the concern.

Prescott has unfortunately become the NFL’s perfect Rorschach test for quarterback play. On one hand, you can look at his body of work and see one of the league’s 10 best quarterbacks — a player who led the league in touchdowns in 2023, who was named All-Pro and was runner-up for NFL MVP; who has led his team to the playoffs in five of seven healthy seasons and won 64% of his games.

At the same time, he is also the guy whose three consecutive trips to the playoffs have ended with a 1-3 record. The one who went to halftime down 27-7 to Green Bay this past January with a stat line of 12-of-19 for 87 yards, one touchdown and two costly interceptions.

He is a quarterback whose resume suggests he’s capable of winning a Super Bowl and one whose results do not reflect that.

But I digress. The purpose here isn’t to debate whether the Cowboys should extend Prescott.

The more useful question is, what happens if they don’t? Where does this organization go if 2024 is a contract year for its franchise quarterback?

Cowboys going ‘all-in’ translates to not extending Dak Prescott, per report

For starters, Jones has made it clear the Cowboys can weather the financial ramifications. The salary cap’s jump to $255.4 million helped with that, as it moved them closer to cap compliance without having to do any extra work.

Prescott’s deal can still save them money without an extension. By converting his 2024 salary to a signing bonus, the Cowboys could save as much as $18.5 million against the cap with a simple restructure. That, along with a couple of other accounting moves, could give them the money they need to move forward.

The issue is less about cap space and more about long-term vision. If Prescott’s cap hit doesn’t spur a deal, is the deadline or impetus to get one done before the season — or before this contract expires?

For his part, Prescott told reporters Monday he’s confident things will work out.

“Obviously, it helps the team and it’s important for the numbers so I think that is a process,” he said. “Both sides understand that. Everything is great. It will happen.”

His confidence is well-earned, given how much leverage he holds. When he signed his current four-year $160 million contract back in 2021, Prescott successfully negotiated for a no-trade clause and a no-tag clause. If he can’t get a deal he wants in Dallas, the Cowboys can’t do anything to stop him from hitting the open market in 2025.

If he leaves via free agency, the Cowboys would be rewarded with a third-round compensatory pick – which feels like a paltry sum for losing an All-Pro quarterback in the prime of his career. They’d also likely be saddled with a cap hit as large as $55 million as a result of any restructures they do in the present.

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Prescott is also a good enough player, on a good enough team, to make restarting at the position look difficult. Barring some sort of catastrophe, the Cowboys should once again contend for a playoff spot in 2024 — which would likely land them in the back half of the 2025 NFL Draft, far away from next year’s top quarterback prospects. Perhaps Trey Lance is their next lottery ticket. But unless the front office is willing to pick up his expensive fifth-year option (don’t count on it), Lance will also be a free agent in need of re-signing at this time next year.

Where there’s a will, there’s a way. If the Cowboys are hell-bent on having someone else quarterback their team next year, it’ll happen. They can trade up in the draft, they can trade for someone else’s cast-off, as they did with Lance last summer. They could also turn to a more affordable option. Quarterback-needy teams will spend years pointing to Baker Mayfield as proof of the benefits of buying low on a veteran signal-caller.

My question is: aside from losing the baggage of eight years of frustration, are any of those options better than a 31-year-old All-Pro?

If the answer is yes, so be it. Maybe both sides would benefit from a change, or maybe the Cowboys would be a bit more proactive in building around a cheaper quarterback.

If the answer is no, I’m all the more confused. Because regardless of how you feel about Dak Prescott, it’s hard to imagine his asking price will be lower in 12 months. And with no way to prevent him from hitting the open market, it’s unfathomable that he would settle for anything less than top dollar.

Maybe those are simply next year’s problems. That seems to be Jones’ logic, as he suggested last week that he doesn’t fear losing Prescott in the future because he’s worried about right now.

“I don’t fear that. No, I do not,” he said. “Well, because I’ve got my mind on being better than we were last year and that’s where the focus should be.”

Fair enough. There’s plenty of work to do on that end, with the usual roster turnover, his head coach also entering a contract year and several other major negotiations on the horizon. 

When that’s all sorted, though, this Prescott problem will still be there. And no matter what the answer is, it’s getting hard to believe the Cowboys will like it.

David Helman covers the Dallas Cowboys for FOX Sports and hosts the NFL on FOX podcast. He previously spent nine seasons covering the Cowboys for the team’s official website. In 2018, he won a regional Emmy for his role in producing “Dak Prescott: A Family Reunion” about the quarterback’s time at Mississippi State. Follow him on Twitter at @davidhelman_.


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