When Jerry Jones drafted Dak Prescott in the middle of the 2016 draft, he probably wasn’t expecting much more than a Tony Romo insurance plan. Fast forward three years, and you have Prescott at the center of one of the most polarizing debates in the sports world.
With the constantly rising salary cap, it seems like every new quarterback contract immediately becomes the richest. Some are deserving, some not so much. For those who it’s worth it to pay, it doesn’t matter how much money is allocated. A franchise quarterback is the one thing all general managers strive to have, so overpaying is never a worry. On the flip side, paying a middle tier player getting top tier money can destroy a franchise for years.
Guys like Derek Carr, Matthew Stafford, and Kirk Cousins are what most would call “middle tier quarterbacks,” as they are guys that can win a team plenty of games … with the right pieces around them. Quarterbacks like these put the front office in a pickle; they’ve exemplified the ability to be the franchise guy, but they’re clearly not elite-level players.
Obviously, paying one player this much money prevents a team from spending elsewhere, usually leading to a weaker roster. This is the decision Jerry and Stephen Jones must make: Is paying Dak Prescott $30 million worth carrying a lesser roster for the future?
If you want to use wins as an individual quarterback stat, Prescott has done as well as almost anyone. Since Prescott came into the league in 2016, he’s ranked second in wins behind only Tom Brady. Finishing with a winning record in all three seasons as well as two playoff appearances, it’s easy to see why Cowboys fans love their guy so much. They’ve won with him a lot.
None of us really know what it’s like in the locker room, but it’s evident how the team identifies themselves with Prescott. Dallas clearly enjoys having the guy as their leader, and he does aid the team’s chemistry. It really does seem like they have this “one team, one mindset” mentality that’s helped them overachieve a little bit in his tenure.
Lack of Progression
Dak Prescott had one of the more impressive rookie seasons in recent memory back in 2016. There’s a strong argument to be made he was a top 10 quarterback through that season, and he led the team to a 13-3 record and the top seed in the NFC.
From this point forward, the league expected the signal caller to keep on improving. When evaluating some other fantastic rookie campaigns such as those from Russell Wilson or Andrew Luck, these guys tend to keep on going up until solidifying themselves as the best of the best. The Cowboys have yet to see this continued improvement from Dak.
He’s Been an Inefficient Quarterback
Dak Prescott has played worse since his fantastic rookie season. Yes, it was a great season, but there’s some in-depth statistics that really highlight how underwhelming he’s been.
In 2016, Prescott and the Cowboys were fifth in the league in yards per pass play. Then comes the heavy dip, where in 2017 the ranking became 20th, and finishing off last season 24th in yards per dropback (PFF). Prescott has been in an obvious decline in terms of his pass-for-pass efficiency since he first entered took the league by storm.
If Prescott continues to lack passing efficiency, the playoffs will become a thing of the past for Dallas. In 2018, only Baltimore and Dallas made the dance in the bottom half of the league in yards per dropback. On the other side, of the top-12 teams in yards per dropback, nine got to play into January.
The Cowboys were an outlier in the playoffs with how inefficient their passing game was, and they cannot expect to return with these same numbers.
He Needs Others To Elevate His Game
The truly great quarterbacks don’t need a ton of talent around them to lead a successful offense. Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Andrew Luck and others have performed regardless of their surroundings.
Prescott isn’t in the same category as these guys. There’s been a lack of juice in the offense when the other 10 players aren’t at their best, and that has been the biggest issue.
Prescott doesn’t deserve to be knocked for having a great offensive line during his three year career, but when links have been missing, he hasn’t been able to deal with pressure very well. When left tackle Tyron Smith missed two games in 2017, Prescott and the Cowboys offense failed to put up double digit points in each game.
Before Amari Cooper’s arrival in the middle of the 2018 season, there were a lot more people skeptical about Dak’s future with the Cowboys. Once the former Raider came to town, all of Prescott’s numbers turned respectable and Dak returned right back to franchise quarterback status.
Prescott was evidently a more efficient passer with Jason Witten in the lineup, but during Witten’s hiatus this past season the passing offense struggled to remain consistent. All quarterbacks will be better with reliable middle of the field options, but the great ones succeed without them. Now with the departure of Cole Beasley and an old, rusty Witten, we’ll find out how he fares.
And of course, Ezekiel Elliott does take a lot of the pressure off of contract-hungry Prescott. Although there isn’t any evidence that a good running back makes his quarterback better, the pure volume of touches Elliott receives doesn’t force Prescott to throw as much.
Amari Cooper and Ezekiel Elliott
These two names have become synonymous with the Dallas Cowboys offseason talk. While being a relatively intelligent and well-run organization, they’re inevitably going to make these notable mistakes.
They’re going to overpay for Amari Cooper. After struggling mightily in his past few seasons with Oakland, his career immediately seemed rejuvenated once his feet touched down in Dallas. Management is going to see the positive impact that Cooper had on Dak Prescott in the back half of 2018, pay him a ton of money, and disregard the previous stage of his career.
This isn’t to say that paying Cooper is a bad idea; he’s a quality WR1 that will indeed help Dak Prescott’s progression as a player. But overpaying is always a bad idea.
They’re going to overpay for Ezekiel Elliott. They’re going to overpay for a running back so hard and it’s going to be a terrible idea. Having a great running back doesn’t increase a team’s chances of winning much at all, and that will be ignored. Ezekiel Elliott is the face of the franchise that the fanbase loves and he’ll probably bring in a larger sum than Todd Gurley received (which is ironically the Rams’ largest looming salary cap issue).
There is going to be a lot of money towards two-thirds of the new ‘triplets,’ which only intensifies the issue about to be mentioned.
Paying Prescott More Means Losing Others
The most valuable asset a franchise can possess is a great quarterback on a rookie deal. The ability to pay your most important player a minuscule sum of money can help surround that man with a ton of other expensive and premium talent. The NFL’s salary cap is going to be approximately $188 million in 2019. Increasing Dak Prescott’s salary cap hit from $2 million to around $32 million basically leaves Dallas with the exact same team, but with that much less to spend.
Here’s a list of starters for Dallas that combine to cost less than $30 million per year:
Safety Xavier Woods
Safety Jeff Heath
Cornerback Jourdan Lewis
Cornerback Chidobe Awuzie
Guard Connor Williams
Linebacker Jaylon Smith
Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch
Tight End Jason Witten
Wide Receiver Randall Cobb
Wide Receiver Michael Gallup
Defensive Tackle Maliek Collins
Running Back Ezekiel Elliott
You could do this exercise with a plethora of player combinations, but all of these names are big reasons for Dallas’ success over the past three seasons. The majority of these players are on their rookie contracts still, and will be requiring more money in the near future. Obviously if Dallas decides to give Prescott the money he desires, they won’t be able to afford paying all these guys.
Paying Dak Prescott likely means sacrificing a high percentage of the team’s young core. As a result, the Cowboys would have to rebuild in some way or another, and the chances that the team has the same aforementioned drafting success over the forthcoming years is unlikely.
For the team to not falter from these losses, Dak Prescott would have to undoubtably live up to every dollar of his contract and become the elite quarterback he’s been hoping to be.
As Usual, Regression
Winning in the NFL takes a lot of luck; it’s why the best teams don’t always win every game. In the majority of one-score games, the winner generally had a few things go their way somewhere. In fact, a team’s year-to-year record in one-score games is pretty random and volatile, according to PFF. It’s why teams who fared really well in tight games are often regression candidates for the next season.
The Cowboys went 10-4 in one-score games in 2018, which isn’t actually good news for the future. That figure is a lot more likely to fall back to average rather than stay great; it happens with every team. Fans should expect their team to win about half of their one-score games in any given year (obviously variance still occurs, like with 2018 Dallas). If we changed the Cowboys’ record based on this hypothetical, the team would’ve finished an uninspiring 7-9.
This record does a better job projecting what this unit really is in the future.
The Cowboys Should Not Pay Dak Prescott the Money He Wants
If everything goes absolutely right like it did in 2016, Dak Prescott can be a top 10 quarterback, and worth the money he desires. There’s just not a very good chance of that coming true again. With Philadelphia hoping to be at full health again, it’s going to be tough for Jason Garrett’s squad to keep playoff hopes alive.
Although the team took home the division trophy this past season, looking in depth at how they won those games shows more of a middling team. Whether Cowboys fan like it or not, Dak Prescott is an average quarterback who will keep the team within mediocrity for years to come if he destroys Dallas’ salary cap.